Hearts completed a trying week by falling to a 2-0 defeat at Partick Thistle on the back of a terrible cup exit to their Edinburgh rivals. More questions are being asked of the management team, players and Craig Levein. Joel Sked looks at what next for the Tynecastle men
“The relationship of the supporters with the team and the club is what makes a football club, and we’ve caused damage to that.”
Ian Cathro was aware of the repercussions of Wednesday’s dismal derby defeat when he spoke prior to the team’s match with Partick Thistle, only for further damage to be caused by another feeble performance which saw Hearts finish with ten men.
Go back 12 months and to another limp cup exit to their city rivals. It set in motion the eroding of the relationship between fans and manager Robbie Neilson. In the eyes of many he was not forgiven. That is the lasting stain such a derby defeat can leave at Hearts.
The management team are facing an uphill task to make sure that their fate doesn’t go the same way as that of Neilson. Defeats and poor performances, even if they were a one-off, led to questions about his ability and calls for him to be moved on. While any victory or run of games unbeaten acted as breathing space, there was a lingering feeling that criticism was only around the corner.
Even before the Thistle defeat, for many the season was over. That’s how much the Scottish Cup tie against Hibs mattered. Especially when, for the replay, the quarter-final opponents were known. The winners would be heavy favourites to make it to Hampden Park for the semi-final.
Unlike last season the club have a fight on their hands to get back into Europe and make up for this season’s fiasco. Rangers’ defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Friday night gave hearts the opportunity to close the gap to third to two points, an opportunity they never looked liked grasping as soon as Kris Doolan netted after five minutes.
Such is the uncertainty at Ibrox, the Tynecastle side will be given further opportunity, but for many it is a case of holding off the challenge of St Johnstone who are one point further back.
This is the short-term goal. The team simply cannot afford any more weak performances, especially at Tynecastle where the atmosphere has been deteriorating. Minus the two defeats of Rangers it has been a tense and expectant crowd. That will only escalate. The fans won’t forget Wednesday and will make sure the players know their feelings. It requires players with an extra strong mindset and testicular fortitude to play in front of the Gorgie crowd between now and the season end.
By running hard, attacking and winning, the players and management team can slowly, very slowly, win the fans back around. The next two homes games give the team the platform to do so with Ross County and Hamilton Academical coming to Tynecastle. But players will have to expect a severe backlash from an unhappy fan base when the Staggies arrive in EH11 on Wednesday.
By finishing third, above Rangers, it will give the fans constructive evidence that this management team are worth getting behind, while looking ahead to another European sojourn as well as a gleaming new Main Stand.
Talking of the new Main Stand. More seats to fill, more season tickets to sell. There is certain to be a sizeable number of fans thinking twice about automatically renewing despite the upward curve the club have been on since administration. For outsiders it may be strange that two defeats can upset such an ascension, but that it is how much the derby means to Hearts fans.
That is the short term. And, as is the norm in football - among fans, players, owners and management - the short term is often paramount, taking precedence over longer term goals and strategies. However, the benefits of having someone like Craig Levein, his experience, knowledge and contacts, in the director of football role allows for someone to concentrate on the club’s strategy, for someone to look ahead to the summer while the management team focus on trying to win back the fans with what’s left of the season.
This summer is shaping up to be a pivotal moment for Levein. He has come in for flak for the club’s recruitment strategy and the turnover in players. He needs to sit down with the manager now and prepare for ANOTHER recruitment drive. After coming to an agreement on what is required he needs to get to work.
A repeat of last season can’t happen when the likes of Marcus Godinho and Nikolay Todorov were in the squad for European games. When the team was unbalanced and under-prepared. No matter if the club are in Europe or not there will be an early start, as those not on the continent will battle in the group stages of the Betfred Cup.
The aforementioned St Johnstone are the antithesis of the Gorgie club. A stable side who have tweaked their experienced, dependable and largely domestic squad here and there, under the shrewd management of Tommy Wright they continue to rack up impressive feats, finishing in league positions that are above their spending level. They are constantly more than the sum of their parts.
Hearts have used the European and world market well but it may be a case of curtailing the imports of so many from abroad. Neilson often mentioned the cost of recruiting domestically but a better balance may need to be found so that a core of players are au fait with the demands of Scottish football, allowing for other players to embed at a more understandable pace.
The idea of giving players a platform to perform before moving on to a higher level is admirable and a prudent approach. But fans can be left irked when players talk of using the club as a stepping stone. This feeds into a divide between fan in the stand and player on the pitch.
For the last 12 months Hearts fans have been left with more questions than answers. They will hope that answers will be provided from Cathro, Levein et all in the next six months. Starting on Wednesday, in front of what is sure to be an agitated support.