After weathering such a period of uncertainty, continuity was the buzzword as Hearts embarked on a new beginning at the start of their Championship season.
Three years on and while the likes of Aberdeen and St Johnstone benefit from a relatively low turnover of personnel and settled nature of their squads – with time-forged bonds, a solid understanding of Scottish football and their team-mates and a willingness to battle for each other likely to reap the rewards of a top-four finish – there is a growing identity crisis at Tynecastle.
Defeat at McDiarmid Park on Wednesday night has left them five points adrift of Saints in the chase for what would be the final European qualifying place, provided Hibernian don’t retain the Scottish Cup. It also stretched the gap between the Hearts supporters and players they cannot relate to and, increasingly, feel short-changed by.
“It is disappointing,” acknowledged Don Cowie on the back of another meek team display. “We all knew before how big a game it was because we could go back above them if we won, so everyone’s disappointed, probably more by the fact that they deserved to win. That’s just where we are right now, a bit vulnerable. Confidence is a bit low and you can see that.
“The only way we can get out of it is to re-group and get together. It’s tough times, but that’s football. It’s not always rosy and it’s up to every one of us to get the heads down and get through it.”
But generating togetherness is tough when the squad is so transient and Cowie believes that lessons can be learned from the teams above them.
“Definitely. We said that after the Aberdeen game, the continuity they’ve got, they’ve probably been together three years as a squad and you see consistent results. On Tuesday night it was ten home wins and that’s not a fluke, it’s not random, it’s because they’re used to each other and again you see this with St Johnstone.
“They know their strengths, they’re together and they play to their strengths and get results. Again it’s a squad that’s been together for a long time, so that’s something we need to learn from probably.”
Although they are now just three points ahead of sixth-placed Partick Thistle, Cowie claims Hearts cannot afford to start worrying about what is happening behind them as they head into tomorrow’s home match against Dundee hoping to get a win that might help them claw back some of the gap between themselves and Tommy Wright’s men.
“You’ve got to believe it’s definitely doable,” added Cowie. “On form right now you would think not, but we’ve got a massive game on Saturday. It’s up to everyone to show that they really want to play, to put our hands up and say we’re ready to fight. The fans deserve better and we need to do more.
“It’s tough. It’s well documented there were a lot of changes in January and it’s not an excuse, that’s just what happened. There’s a few different cultures, who may be used to playing in different environments, so it’s just trying to get everyone together and pulling in the same direction. There’s no bad eggs or anything like that in the dressing room, it’s just confidence is low.
“People will look at the manager and say it’s him, but it’s us players. There’s no point hiding behind the manager. We’ve got seven games to go and a club the size of Hearts needs to be in the top four and we’ve got to do everything we can to try to make that happen.”