Even in normal circumstances, a weekend without football can seem like a particularly long and dreary prospect. This is especially so after losing a cup semi-final on penalties having surrendered a lead against nine men in the dying seconds of normal time. The normal advice is to get on with things as quickly as possible.
However, Hearts were left frustrated by the timing of a fixture-free weekend. Rather than run the risk of players wallowing in self-recrimination as they milled around their Riccarton base, manager Gary Locke handed them some time off and took a much-needed break himself. Locke decided against watching the entire game again although he has since reviewed the way Inverness Caledonian Thistle, two of whose players had already been red-carded, were allowed to score their equaliser.
“A catalogue of errors,” he concluded. There is perhaps no better way to exorcise the memories than by beating the same opponents on their own patch tomorrow afternoon.
The manner in which Hearts allowed Inverness to secure a foothold back in the tie was doubly frustrating because it undid a lot of the good work accomplished in the league matches leading up to the Easter Road clash. And the ensuing near-fortnight break due to Hearts’ early elimination from the Scottish Cup means that this momentum built up in the league has been firmly lost. At the same time, desolation at the way their cup-final ambitions were nixed threatened to take a grip within the young squad.
“Having such a long break possibly made it worse,” Locke conceded yesterday. “Coming off a result like that, it is great to just get back on the pitch again.”
Hearts have been denied the opportunity to work out their frustrations in a competitive clash. However, Locke accepts that the break gave the players the chance to “get away from the place”. The manager also availed himself of the opportunity to take some time out with his wife. “I went away with Lynsey for a couple of days because it was such a hard one to take.”
Locke agreed with his assistant Billy Brown’s assertion that it was the toughest result of his career to accept. “It was really difficult personally and for the club as a whole,” he said, with reference to the fact that missing out on the final has deprived Hearts of valuable income. “It was sore and I tried to switch off for a couple of days, but that was very difficult. You don’t have a choice though – you come back and you go at it again.”
Having dusted themselves down, and dealt with the disappointment, what do Hearts see ahead of them? It is only another meeting with Inverness. At this stage, with Locke’s team 17 points adrift of second-bottom Partick Thistle, the identity of their opponents is not really important. All that matters is that they win. That late goal conceded against Inverness dented confidence built up by successive victories over Ross County and St Mirren, as well as the creditable draw against St Johnstone.
Locke calculates that Hearts need to win “at least” seven of their remaining 13 fixtures in order to retain hope of avoiding relegation. There is some succour to be taken from the cup defeat to Inverness. For the first time this season, he believes Hearts avoided being bullied by their opponents, against whom they had lost 2-0 in both their league clashes. “The cup was the first time we have given Inverness a game,” he said. “If you look at the gap between ourselves and the teams above us, it is huge,” Locke pointed out. “We need three points rather than one if we are to have any chance to staying up.”
One reason for optimism is that Inverness have to date fared more poorly at home than away under John Hughes. They have earned only one point from a possible 12 so far at the Caledonian Stadium. By contrast, they have lost only once in seven trips elsewhere under Hughes.
With Callum Paterson suspended and fellow striker David Smith having sustained a hairline fracture in his knee, even more will be expected of Paul McCallum, who was signed on loan from West Ham United prior to the cup semi-final. The striker did not make the most auspicious of starts when missing a good chance to put Hearts ahead in extra-time and then failing to score his side’s first penalty in the shoot-out.
“I think he has benefited from getting to know the boys and we’ve managed to get him a couple of under-20 games,” said the manager. “We’ve been delighted with him. He’s very humble despite coming from a big club like West Ham and he really appreciates the fact he will get an opportunity to play in the first team.
“He was down,” added Locke, when asked about the player’s state of mind following a trying debut. “When it comes to penalties, it is down to the boys who are confident about taking one and obviously he was very confident. It was unfortunate for him but I thought when he came on in the game he did well.
“He was first to volunteer to take a penalty and that is something you look for in a striker – someone who wants to score goals and has the confidence to take a penalty.”
As Locke spoke, Rudi Skacel ambled past. The Scottish Professional Football League’s decision to turn down Hearts’ request to add the Czech to the squad was frustrating for the club, but Locke believes the player can still play a part as he continues to work on his fitness. He is still certainly welcome to train with the players, even if he cannot make an on-pitch contribution. “Obviously, I was desperate to bring him in but we can’t, so he is training here for the foreseeable future,” said Locke.
“If you ask any of the young boys here, his presence being in and around the place has given them a lift. They can pick up so much by training with boys like Rudi – the positions he picks up, his finishing and all those kinds of things.”