Stuart Bathgate: Unity in adversity at Hearts shows what might have been
THE obvious benefit to Paulo Sergio from Hearts’ convincing 3-0 win over Aberdeen on Saturday was that it finally ensured his club of a place in the top six.
But it could have another positive consequence for the manager – not to mention his squad – if it finally kills off the notion that the Tynecastle team only play well when they have not been paid.
This argument began back in December as little more than a joke; a quirky observation when, after weeks in the doldrums, Hearts kicked off their most convincing run of results this season. But since the turn of the year it has become a more serious and sustained assertion.
After three months of uncertainty, the squad’s salaries were paid more or less on time in January, just as their form dipped. They remained unconvincing on the park throughout much of February, when they got their wages on the scheduled date. Then last month, just before the Edinburgh derby, they were told that the money would not be there on time – but they beat Hibs, and won the Scottish Cup replay at St Mirren three days later.
So there is a correlation there, all right. But that’s not the same as a cause. And the reality is that, far from being produced by the delay in payments, Hearts’ best form has come about in spite of it.
Sergio has made it plain that the wages issue has been one of several hindrances that he could not have foreseen when he agreed to take over from Jim Jefferies just after the start of the season. The Portuguese manager has appeared increasingly frustrated each time it has been suggested to him at a press conference that his players do better when they have not been paid, and the last time the issue was raised he had a curt response.
You should think twice before airing that notion, he replied to his questioner. It might give your own boss ideas.
There may have been ways in which Sergio has been slow to adapt to some of the demands of the Scottish game, but he is an intelligent and experienced coach who is well aware of the factors which are generally required to make a team tick. He is convinced that one of those factors is stability, and he has been genuinely frustrated that he and his players have not had enough of that this season.
He therefore believes he is on firm ground when he argues that no-one can justly expect Hearts to finish third or fourth this season, and that in the circumstances a top-six finish is a decent achievement. There is an element of special pleading in that argument – his contract is up for renewal and, whether he stays or goes, he wants his work with Hearts to be seen in the best possible light. But that does not make it invalid, and nor does it mean that the manager will be satisfied with sixth, now that minimum has been guaranteed.
When people take issue with Sergio and suggest that Hearts play better when they have not been paid, they conveniently ignore one compelling piece of evidence: that decline in form late in 2011 which followed the revelation of the money problem, and owner Vladimir Romanov’s declaration that the club was up for sale.
Notwithstanding a couple of results which showed the new manager was having some teething troubles, Hearts had settled into a decent run of results, and had been playing some pleasing stuff, by mid-October. They had won the first derby of the season and beaten Celtic at home, to mention two of their more significant victories, and the only thing which seemed to be holding them back was the lack of a real goal threat.
Then the salaries were withheld, and the rot set in. Home defeats by Rangers and Kilmarnock were followed by draws at St Mirren and Tannadice. A win at home to Caley Thistle was a false dawn, and defeats by St Johnstone and Celtic ensued.
That last match was the turning point, and from then they won five and drew one of their next six matches. But that unbeaten run began on 17 December, fully two months after the wages problem began. It was accomplished because the players found some unity in adversity and were able to overcome their problems, not because the lack of a pay cheque somehow inspired them.
The high point of that run was the 2-0 win over Motherwell on Christmas Eve, a thoroughly merited victory which showed that, at their best, Hearts are the most able team in the country outwith the Old Firm. That high point must also be a continued source of irritation for Sergio, because it demonstrates to him what could have been achieved in his first – and perhaps last – season at Tynecastle if he had had a level playing field on which to work.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 18 June 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 10 mph
Wind direction: South
Temperature: 10 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West