TRYING to claw back a 15-point deficit with a young squad is one thing but attempting to do it with the best you can muster from the groundstaff and a handful of senior professionals who are carrying injuries is proving an altogether more challenging headache.
But Hearts manager Gary Locke maintains there is no point in anyone associated with the club feeling sorry for themselves and insists that the fact so many players are willing to try to play through injuries to help the cause shows that there is still plenty of spirit in his depleted squad.
With Mark Ridgers and Jason Holt already absent through injury last weekend, Ryan Stevenson played on with a tight hamstring. It resulted in a tear that will see him ruled out for a number of games and means that another member of the groundstaff will have to be promoted to the first team squad prematurely.
“But we are in the situation we are in because of the way the club has been run the past few years. And I have said all along there’s no point making excuses. We are in administration, we are not allowed to sign any players, we are where we are. The most important thing is we still have a club. We just need to crack on, and we are facing a really difficult game this weekend. It’s one we’re looking forward to but it’s one where we could be doing with a stronger squad.”
While Stevenson will be sidelined, Locke revealed that captain Danny Wilson will play
despite suffering from shin splints. It means there will be three outfield players aged 21 or over, rather than only two.
In times like this, those are the kind of small mercies the Hearts manager is grateful for.
“Danny has a problem with his shins at the moment but it is a manageable problem, which is a relief. It means if we curtail his training he can still play on a Saturday and that is huge for us because it would be a massive blow to have lost him and Stevenson.
“With Danny it’s about managing him. He can still keep fit without training, he can go to the gym, use the bike, the cross trainer. But it means he won’t be able to train every day of the week. The main thing is we get him out there on a Saturday.”
And his willingness to play through he pain is appreciated by his gaffer. “That has been the same with all the players, their commitment to the cause has been second to none.”
It was that commitment that has robbed the side of Stevenson’s input over the coming weeks, though. The player put himself forward for last weekend’s game at Tannadice despite a strained hamstring.
“Ryan is one of these players who always wants to play. And maybe sometimes he doesn’t help himself because he plays with a lot of niggles. Some players, if they have a niggle, just won’t play. But he’s the type who wants to just batter on all the time. He played a couple of games where he was feeling his hamstring a little. But he said he was fine, and I can only go with that. He played last week but you could see in the second-half he wasn’t right. So we took him off and sent him for a scan and, obviously, our worst fears were confirmed.”
With reserve goalkeeper Ridgers only undergoing surgery on his troublesome knee yesterday, and midfielder Holt’s broken metatarsal expected to keep him out until at least the middle of January, it is under standable that Locke described the addition of Stevenson to the injury list as a “huge blow”.
Having appeared to have gain a slight foothold with a win over Aberdeen, followed by a draw with Ross County, the past two weekends have been bruising, with a total of 11 goals conceded against Celtic in the cup and then United in the league.
Two of the top three teams in the country, on Saturday they face the third, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and with more kids packed into his squad than ever, Locke knows the magnitude of the test ahead but has been buoyed by the mental fortitude and attitude of his players in the wake of the past two results.
“I don’t think you take defeats in your stride. It’s been difficult but then you see Celtic at Motherwell last week and even looking at Celtic’s result in Barcelona, these results happen.
“I thought last week was a wee bit harsh on us because up to 80 minutes it was 2-1 and there wasn’t a great deal in the game and then obviously we’ve got to make a couple of changes because we need to get points. We tried to get an equaliser but by doing that we’ve left ourselves a wee bit exposed to the counter-attack and Dundee United have showed this season that going forward they’re some team.
“So it was a wee bit hard on us the scoreline but the boys are showing a lot of character, a lot of confidence and we’ll
just crack on this week, as we
always do, get the team prepared and hopefully we can get three points this weekend.
“It’ll be a tough game but it’s an opportunity for one or two of our even younger players, who have done well in the
under-20s and training, and hopefully they’ll take it.”