HE CAN’T be accused of kicking a team when they are down, since Hearts were yesterday still enjoying a stay of execution in their fight to stay in the Premiership.
However, former Hearts and Hibernian midfielder Michael Stewart believes Hearts could have done more in their effort to avoid relegation, an inevitable outcome temporarily staved off with victory over their city rivals on Sunday.
The Tynecastle side face their latest relegation D-day against Aberdeen tomorrow evening following a difficult season brightened a little by three victories in four games against their fiercest rivals. Sunday’s 2-0 win over Hibs – which followed three straight defeats – possibly underlined Stewart’s point although he also accepted that Edinburgh derbies must be treated in isolation due to the special emotions involved.
Stewart grew up a Hearts supporter but played for Hibs as well as the Tynecastle side in a career that started at Manchester United. He is adamant that Hearts have underperformed during a league campaign in which they have won only six times – including twice against Hibs and twice against Aberdeen. “I think, if things had been slightly different, they could have avoided relegation,” said Stewart, who said there is “no doubt” Hearts have talented players.
He singled out goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, skipper Danny Wilson and Kevin McHattie at left-back. Stewart described McHattie as a “top defender, an attacking full-back”, one who could have been coached to learn more “positional sense”. Stewart added: “They did have the basis there to put a strong defence in place and once you do that you have a foundation to try and win games and compete.
“I think they [the coaching staff] could have got more out of them this season,” he added. “It was a huge task, no doubt about it. Throughout the season I have been fairly critical in that defensively they have given away far too many goals on a regular basis – it’s the same mistakes and same issues and I just think these kind of issues can be ironed out on the training pitch. I don’t think it was.”
Stewart described Hearts’ home form as “abysmal” and complained they were undone too many times at Tynecastle. “Everyone knows that when Tynecastle is rocking like it was on Sunday it is very difficult for away teams to get results,” he said. He admits that manager Gary Locke was faced with a “thankless task”. However, Stewart refused to deviate from a view expressed several times on radio and television, in his role as a pundit for BBC Scotland, that Hearts have been tactically deficient at times.
“It’s very difficult to try to qualify how well Gary has done,” admitted Stewart. “It’s been a thankless task, absolutely no doubt about that. But I don’t subscribe to the notion that everything should be just put to one side and said: ‘it’s been impossible’. It’s been difficult. But I look at things from an analytical perspective and I do believe that there are things that have happened through the course of this season that could have been done better.”
Stewart specified one area where he thinks Hearts erred – and that was the focus placed from the start on the 15-point penalty. He understands why it was a persistent theme for the media to explore. But he felt the Hearts coaching staff were guilty of keeping the issue high on the agenda. He would have gone to the other extreme and pinned up league tables around Tynecastle and the Riccarton training complex showing where Hearts would have been without the points deduction. Of course, if this was done today it would still show Hearts as bottom. “It’s a talking point for all of us, it’s inevitable,” he said of the deduction. “But from the management and players’ point of view, I would have just obliterated it, forgotten about it completely. I’m talking about little things that maybe make a big difference.
“I would have had league tables plastered around the changing rooms at Tynecastle without the minus 15 points. You can take them off at the end of the season.”
He is unsure how Hearts should prepare for next season. Locke’s position has long been considered an uncertain one given the change in ownership that is planned for, although even this remains in the balance. BDO, the club’s administrators, still await approval for the Company Voluntary Arrangement, by which control of the club can pass to the Foundation of Hearts, whose takeover bid is being funded by Edinburgh businesswoman Ann Budge.
Asked whether Locke might remain in situ for “sentimental reasons”, Stewart responded by saying: “Sentiment doesn’t go very far in football.” He added: “Ann Budge is the only person that’s going to know whether she’d want to do that or not. Whether sentiment comes into it or it’s plain hard business, I don’t know, I’ve never met the woman. As we speak right now, she’s not in control of the club either.”
According to Stewart, Hibs’ pitiful showing can be traced to a “mental blockage” when it comes to derbies. Neither side deserve to earn plaudits for the standard of football produced by such fixtures. Stewart watched the match while at an airport in Geneva. He felt no itch to be involved, despite looking like he could still contribute in the midfield for either team.
“I enjoy what I am doing now,” he said. “I have just got a young family now as well so I have plenty of time to spend with them.” What he described as “niggling injuries” hampered his plan to join Hull City at the start of last season and at just 33, he has now come to terms with being an ex-footballer.
After Hull, he had chances to join clubs “at the bottom end of the Championship,” and he was reluctant. “Money would not have been as good as it was, although it was still good money,” Stewart explained. “But I would have been away from Edinburgh, which is where I am comfortable and where I want to be. I made the decision that I wanted to be in Edinburgh – that’s where my life was. And I set about looking at other things to do really. I am quite happy with the decisions I have made.”
• Michael Stewart was speaking at Linlithgow Academy to publicise TSB’s support for the Scottish Schools’ Football Association.