ADAM Eckersley has confessed he will be “putting the boot in” against Celtic on Sunday – but strictly within the limits of the law.
The Hearts full-back has always enjoyed the physical side of football, and expects Celtic to be similarly robust in their approach to the Scottish Cup tie at Tynecastle. But, speaking at his club’s Riccarton training ground yesterday, he contrasted that full-blooded enthusiasm for the fray with Rangers’ attitude in last Saturday’s Championship match.
Steven Smith was sent off in the first half of the game, which Hearts went on to win 2-0, after an over-the-top tackle on Callum Paterson. Kenny Miller was booked for a challenge which led to Kevin McHattie being stretchered off and subsequently ruled out for six weeks, while Kris Boyd was high and late with a tackle on Brad McKay.
Eckersley said he had expected a tough match, but thought Rangers had gone too far. “We were expecting them to come out and power balls into the box – they’ve got some tall players and that’s one of their strengths. They’re a physical team and we were expecting that.
“I don’t blame any team that comes to our stadium and puts the boot in. I thoroughly enjoy that physical part of the game. I think every team should come and do that, be physical. I think our team is strong enough to deal with that. It wouldn’t surprise me if Celtic came to do the same thing. We’ll be ready for it.
“I’m quite physical myself and that’s part of the game I enjoy. I’ll definitely be putting the boot in on Sunday. Whether they don’t, I will be.”
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Asked to define what he meant by “putting the boot in”, the Englishman contrasted a legitimate hard-but-fair attitude with Rangers’ approach, and said it appeared as if Ally McCoist’s side had deliberately tried to hurt the Hearts players. “I’m talking about me enjoying the physical part, but I like to think my tackles and our tackles are fair tackles. Some of their feet were a good half a foot up in the air and the studs were up. It’s just wrong.
“If you want to come out and try and hurt us… I think that’s what they looked like they wanted to do, but we came out 2-0 on top. It shows our strength.”
Eckersley has competed with McHattie for the left-back jersey since the start of the season, and although he will now have a clear run because of the latter’s knee injury, he thinks that continued competition would be better for himself and for the club as a whole. “I feel for Kevin,” he said. “It’s a long, long season and it’s going to be difficult for me now to stay fit.
“He’s out for six weeks, so there’s a bit of pressure on me to keep going. We need the squad and we need two players in every position to be flying. It’s very disappointing for him and it puts a bit of pressure on me.
“The manager said when I came that he wanted competition for every position and I think that’s a very healthy thing in football. At my last club in Denmark I didn’t really have that – I was playing most games apart from last year when I had a broken ankle.
“I think that’s an important thing. It’s good to have that and it keeps you performing every week in training and in games. It makes you become a better player and it’s something I welcome. I think the club have done well to bring in cover in every position. That’s vital to have a good season because you need to get the depth to get promotion and do well in the cups as well. Everyone has to play their part.”
Having only joined Hearts in the summer, Eckersley was unaware that Celtic went to Tynecastle at the same stage of the cup last season and won 7-0. But, while not knowing the precise circumstances of that match, the nadir of Gary Locke’s tenure as head coach, the defender said he was sure the team would give a better account of themselves this time.
“Hopefully that won’t be repeated on Sunday,” he said. “I think we’re better organised – I didn’t know the team from last year, but I think we’re better organised. We’re full of confidence and I think we can take that into Sunday.
“These are the games you enjoy – but not putting one in my own net like I did last time [in the League Cup against Celtic]. Celtic have some good players, some big, physically strong players, and they have a game tonight, so hopefully that will play a part with some tired legs.”
If Hearts get the better of Celtic they will fancy their chances against anyone, but Eckersley refused to get ahead of himself and start dreaming about a league-and-cup double. “I think it’s a tall ask right now. Our priority is promotion and anything on top of that is a bonus.”
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