ST MIRREN have not had their problems to seek this season, and a run of poor results has heaped the pressure on manager Danny Lennon.
Even so, Hearts boss Gary Locke has admitted to feeling envious of his Paisley counterpart, for the simple reason that nine points still separate the clubs, who meet at Tynecastle tomorrow.
St Mirren’s last visit to Edinburgh two weeks ago was a 2-0 defeat by Hibernian after a performance which was significantly worse than that score suggests. But they played much better in their 1-1 draw at home to Aberdeen on Monday night, and although Saints are still looking for their first win, Locke expects a tough contest.
“I’d still rather be in Danny and St Mirren’s position, because they’re second bottom of the table and nine points ahead of us,” he said yesterday. “But the league is very tight – it might not be long before they start to climb the table.
“Look at Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. At the start of the season he was under all sorts of pressure, but look at him now. So things can turn around very quickly in football. We’re just hoping that we can go on a wee run ourselves.
“A lot of the pressure on Danny has been unfair. I don’t like to talk about it, but Danny won a cup for St Mirren by beating us in the [League Cup] final last season at Hampden. He also kept them in the league, and I don’t know what else Danny could have done. The criticism he’s receiving now is really unfair, but I can only concentrate on Hearts.
“I feel for Danny but, in our position, there’s no room for sympathy. I’m looking to try to catch St Mirren and every other team above us. You could say this is a bigger game than the cup final, given the circumstances. That was a huge game for the club and we were desperate to win it. But, because of the situation we’re in, every game this season is massive.”
Victory tomorrow would take Hearts to minus four and cut St Mirren’s lead over them to six points but Locke is intent on not reading too much into a single game.
Rather than concentrate on the club immediately above his own, he is maintaining his focus on Hearts’ initial target for the season – wiping out the 15-point deficit with which they began the campaign as a punishment for going into administration.
“It’s a big game, but every game has been huge for us this season,” he continued. “Of course it’s important because St Mirren are the team directly above us in the table but every game since the campaign started has been massive because we had such a large deduction to eat into. On Saturday, we’ll prepare for it in the same manner as we have done with the rest and, hopefully, we’ll get a favourable result. Three points would get us closer to zero, which is our main aim right now. I’m not overly concerned with the teams above us at the moment.
“Did I have a date in mind to reach zero? Two or three days into the season would have been nice.
“No, we didn’t set a date, but that was our initial aim and after that we can maybe start looking to catch other teams. We know it will be difficult. I watched St Mirren on Monday night and, when they went a goal ahead against Aberdeen, I could see their confidence coming back. They have some terrific players and will be hard to beat on Saturday. They haven’t had the best of starts, but they still have guys who can hurt you. Steven Thompson is a handful up front and I’ve always liked Paul McGowan who plays just off him – he’s very creative.
“There’s different pressure on both teams. St Mirren are still looking for the first win of the season and we’re trying to get out of minus points. So we both have a big reason to win the game. It should be a cracker, and I’m sure our fans are looking forward to it.”
Midfielder Ryan Stevenson is in contention for a starting place after making his return from injury as a substitute in Hearts’ goalless draw with Dundee United last week. But, as usual, the bulk of the team will consist of the group of under-21 players who have had to grow up very quickly this season. Locke has always had confidence in that young group but admitted he had not entirely anticipated the ease with which they have fitted into the first team.
“The young boys have surprised me a little bit, but I’ve known them a long time. They are all fantastic football players but you never know how a young lad will handle it when thrown into the first team.
“Thankfully, it has helped that they’ve all come through the youth ranks together. They haven’t come into a team and been a stranger. They’ve given us everything, and as a manager that’s all I can ask for.”