REARRANGING the St Mirren fixture for Wednesday would suggest that Hearts have accepted their league fate and have switched priorities to the League Cup instead.
Despite squeezing the fixture in to allow Ryan Stevenson to play out his suspension ahead of the semi-final meeting with Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Sunday, it’s a claim denied by both the manager Gary Locke and right-back Jordan McGhee.
They insist that every game is important and as such Locke acknowledges that playing the Paisley side so close to the last-four clash is a risk. “We’re not in a position to rest anybody so we’ll be playing the strongest team possible,” the manager said. “We’re keeping everything crossed that we don’t get any injuries or suspensions. It is a gamble but it’s a gamble we’re prepared to take because if we are to give ourselves a chance in the semi-final, we’ll need our strongest team possible. We’ve taken this game with the knowledge that Ryan will be available [for the semi]. We got an unkind draw in the Scottish Cup with Celtic and we were on the end of a bad result [Hearts lost 7-0]. In this competition we’ve managed to get to the semi-final which is a magnificent achievement in itself considering the team is so young. With everything that everyone at the football club has had to go through this season, it’s great to have something to take your mind off the league for a while and it’s something to look forward to.
“I felt the last couple of performances have been good. I don’t want to speak too soon but hopefully we’re maybe turning the corner a wee bit. I’ve certainly been pleased with the way they came back at the weekend [against St Johnstone], pleased with the way we played against Motherwell. If we play like that we’ll give ourselves a better chance of getting victories in the league and the cup.”
Turning that corner has been difficult due to a catalogue of individual lapses on the pitch, from players and match officials.
But McGhee, 17, says that has been a crucial part of the learning process, albeit a painful one. He was one of those tortured by Celtic in that Scottish Cup mauling and then conceded four goals at Tannadice six days later. He spent the next few months on the sidelines.
“There were a few games I was rested for a few weeks back, before the Hibs game, and it did me the world of good. I could have a wee rest, recharge my batteries and get my confidence back but I was still disappointed to be dropped and not play in the games. The manager made sure to tell me he was just giving me a rest because I’m a young boy coming into the first team and he knows what that is like because the gaffer himself played when he was 17.”
Despite his age and relative inexperience, he was the subject of interest from Juventus earlier in the season, earning him the temporary nickname of “The Old Lady’” The speculation has died down, as has the ribbing but, allied to the fact he has already been capped at under-21 level for Scotland, that interest from Italy highlights his potential.
But like many in this season’s young Hearts team, he remains a work in progress. Returning to the fold for the New Year derby against Hibs, it was his rash challenge on Lewis Stevenson that led to a penalty and cost the Tynecastle side a share of the points.
“It was hard to sleep that night. I was gutted after that, not just for me but for the lads as well,” McGhee admitted. Even now he feels hard done by, insisting there was no deliberate intention to fell the Hibs player.
“I was trying to usher the ball out and he kind of pushed me and the way I fell, my legs came up and from where the ref was, it looked as if I have touched him but it’s just the way he went down, but these things happen.
“I got a few texts off the boys, from Ryan Stevenson and guys like that, all saying keep my head up and that it’s all about how you bounce back. They told me to try to concentrate on the next game and that helped a lot. It was very helpful to hear from the senior players in there.
“Worst moment so far. Definitely. My goal against Aberdeen was the high. It’s all highs and lows, that’s football. We need to be behind each other as much as possible and, when mistakes happen, we have to try to learn from them and try not to let them happen again.”