GARY Locke is sure that tomorrow’s match against Celtic will be the toughest test of the season so far for his young side, and is particularly wary of Scott Brown, a player he believes to be one of the best midfielders in Britain.
The Hearts manager insisted yesterday that his team would take the same approach to the Tynecastle match against the Champions as they do every other game – going out to win – but accepted that the Celtic
captain is currently in top form for both club and country.
“For me he’s one of the best players in Britain,” Locke said. “When you look at the England game – up against the quality of players he was up against, I thought he ran the show.
“I think he’s a fantastic player. I played against him when he was younger but now I think you can see, with going into games injury-free, he’s a top, top player and certainly someone that we’ll need to be wary of.”
Locke is well aware that Brown will be far from the only opponent to pose his team problems, and suggested that Celtic had sufficient quality that even their second string would more than hold its own in the Scottish Premiership. “If you look at the strength in depth at Celtic, they’d probably be up there. There’s no doubt about it.
“If they make a couple of changes it’s not as if their team will be depleted by any manner of means. They’ve signed a lot of top-quality players.
“But, when you’ve got Champions League football, cup football, league football, you need a big squad. We’re in a different situation from Celtic in as much as we’re absolutely delighted that we’re still here, whereas their aspirations are a bit different to ours. They’ve got a strong squad, but they’ll need it,
because they’ve got a lot of games coming up.”
Hearts’ last league game, a 2-0 loss in Inverness, brought a three-match unbeaten run to an end and Jamie Hamill was wrongly sent off for denying Caley Thistle a goalscoring opportunity. Hamill will be available tomorrow after having his red card overturned on appeal, and should be back in midfield rather than defence, as Kevin McHattie and captain Danny Wilson will return to the back four after missing that game
because of suspension.
The players who turned out for Scotland at age-group level all reported back for duty in one piece, so Locke has a full squad with the exception of midfielder Ryan Stevenson, who is making a good recovery from the injury picked up in last month’s Edinburgh derby. “They’re all fit and healthy, which is the most important thing,” Locke said
of his Scotland under-21 contingent. “The good thing was they played Thursday night, so they managed to get a couple of days off. I felt it was important they got a bit of a rest. They all came back and they’ve trained well this week.
“We approach it the same as we have done every game. We’re going into the game to try and win it. We know how difficult it’s going to be, because we’re up against the Champions and a team full of international stars.
“But it’s a game that everybody is looking forward to. I don’t think there’s any pressure on the team, because I doubt there’s anybody outwith the people at Hearts that expects us to do anything in the game. So the boys are looking forward to it, as I am, and hopefully we can put in a good performance.”
Hearts have not beaten Celtic in the league since October 2011, and have conceded 14 goals and scored one in the last four meetings between the sides. Having conceded four goals on the last two occasions they faced Neil Lennon’s team, some supporters will be fearing the worst.
When asked if a heavy defeat would be demoralising to his side the Hearts manager said: “No, I don’t think so. And certainly we’re not going into the game thinking we’re going to get a heavy defeat. I’d obviously have to answer that question if it ever happened, but certainly the way we’ve played so far this season, especially at Tynecastle, I don’t foresee that happening.
“We’re going into the game fully confident and looking
forward to it. If we can play the way we did against Aberdeen and Hibs at Tynecastle, we’ll give ourselves a chance.
“It’ll be our toughest test, no doubt. You’re playing the Champions. But it’s a challenge that I’m pretty sure the young
players are looking forward to.
“The position we’re in, it’s important we try and go on a little run. We had a disappointing
result up at Inverness, but it wasn’t the end of the world, and we’ve got to look forward again. It will be a full house again, and a great atmosphere.”
Celtic dropped points last season in the league before and after Uefa Champions League group stage fixtures but the Hearts manager is sure that things will be different this campaign. “Yeah, they did that, but Neil said he certainly doesn’t want that to happen this year. At a club like Celtic the demands on you to win every game are huge, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be coming to Tynecastle looking to try to win.”