BILLY Brown always knew there would be days like the ones being experienced by Hearts at present. He wishes others could see for themselves just what he and manager Gary Locke are dealing with as they seek to keep Hearts in the Premiership while also providing a creditable challenge in the cup competitions.
Hearts fans have been admirably and understandably forgiving of defeats this season. However, the special properties of a derby match mean some present in tonight’s sell out away crowd for the League Cup quarter-final against Hibernian might find it harder to accept a drop in standards against their fiercest rivals.
The tie offers Hearts some brief respite from the league campaign. Although they have been battling a 15-point deduction since the first day of the season, the Tynecastle side’s energetic start raised the prospect that they might be able to put the teams around them under some pressure. However, a recent run of six defeats in their last seven league outings has left Hearts sitting 15 points adrift of 11th place – just as they were on day one.
Events tonight will prove whether a cup derby that has to be settled on the night has come along at the right time. The Easter Road side are one of only two teams Hearts have beaten over 90 minutes this season. A header by Callum Paterson secured victory in August and meant hopes were high in Gorgie.
However, a more brutal reality has now set in while injuries have begun to take their toll. Ryan Stevenson, one of their few experienced players, is struggling to be fit ahead of tonight’s televised clash after hurting his knee in the 2-0 loss to Kilmarnock at the weekend. It is another setback that needs to be overcome, although Brown believes it is no surprise that such hard times on the pitch have arrived. It was as inevitable as the turning back of the clocks.
“I always knew that it would come,” the assistant manager said yesterday. “People at the club knew that, as did those who know the game. It was always going to happen but the players have not lost faith.
“We are on a bad run, but in that period we’ve had one or two things going against us. We scored a winner against Dundee United and didn’t get it. We had a player sent off at Inverness when the ball hit his head. We haven’t had our share of breaks. We are due one and when something goes our way, we will go on and do alright.
“We have to get back to the performances we had earlier in the season. We were always going to dip. It’s not down to a lack of effort or will.
“It is down to a lack of experience, strength and not being able to freshen things up. People don’t realise the things that go on here. In the week before we played Partick Thistle, we had 11 players away on international duty. We prepared for a Friday night game with just five players. People don’t realise that. We haven’t had a lot going for us, but I’m sure that will change.”
Brown is hopeful that tonight’s match can inspire a turnaround in fortunes after Saturday’s disappointing 2-0 defeat by Kilmarnock. It was a match many felt Hearts could not afford to lose as they aim to keep in touch with the sides above them in the league. “As far as I am concerned, this is as big a game as you’ll get – I am not sure you could call it a break from the league,” he said.
“We know the expectations in a game like this even if some of the young lads haven’t been involved in many derby games. Whether that works in our favour, I don’t know.
“We’ll have to play well and better than we did on Saturday, that’s for sure, but I’m sure we will. I’ never played in an Edinburgh derby as a young player so I don’t know how difficult it is but I don’t see these lads playing with any fear.
“I know everyone is saying we’re down and out and we’re relegated already. But that’s football and if anybody didn’t think that was going to happen with the team we started with then they didn’t know the game or look at what was here.
“I knew when it was lovely and sunny in August and the enthusiasm at Tynecastle was high that performances would be good. There was always going to be a lull. But we will come back again – and there is no better place to start than Easter Road.”