HAVING left the disappointment of defeat by St Mirren in their last match firmly behind them, Hearts can regard the resumption of the league programme tomorrow as a fresh start.
Despite the run before the international break in which they took just one point from five games, they remain on course to overcome the 15-point deficit with which they began the season. With less than a quarter of the league programme played, they have got rid of one-third of the gap to the second-bottom team and now stand just ten points behind Kilmarnock, whom they visit next Saturday.
Before that, they have another tough away game, at Fir Park tomorrow. After giving his small squad a minor break, Gary Locke is confident they will regain their best form.
“It’s important that we gave some of the boys a couple of extra days off, like Kevin McHattie who has played every minute of every game so far,” the Hearts manager said. “It was a great chance to give some of the lads a little breather. The boys have returned to training and are looking sharp.
“This was never going to be easy and we have a really difficult season ahead. We’ve played well in every game apart from the St Mirren match.
“It’s important not to dwell on anything this season, and that includes setbacks. We certainly didn’t dwell on things when we won a couple of matches and we were going well. We haven’t thought about the St Mirren match – we just want to keep moving forward.
“I know we can play better than we did against St Mirren, and that’s a pleasing aspect. The St Mirren game was a reality check for us and this is a difficult league at the best of times when you have 25, 30 players to choose from. Any team is going to suffer good and bad spells in a season.
“We’ve had a tricky period of late and our performances have merited more points than we’ve got. However, it’s important that we don’t feel sorry for ourselves and just keep playing the way we have been, and I’m confident that we’ll turn it around.”
With more than half his usual starting line-up under 21, Locke knows that maintaining a positive team spirit in such an inexperienced group is one of the most vital tasks for himself and assistant manager Billy Brown. Especially after results such as that 2-0 loss to St Mirren, who up until then had been without a win this season, the risk of demoralisation was clear. But the manager is convinced that keeping the mood light-hearted, and ensuring the players enjoy themselves in training, is the key to success in that respect.
“I’m always positive when I come into the club and I take the positives from every performance. We try to keep the mood in the camp light every day, and one thing Billy and myself pride ourselves on is that we want the boys to enjoy coming in to take the pressure off them. There’s always pressure when you play for such a big club, and the boys have been great.”
The fact that Hearts remain in administration, and the uncertainty that results, is one obvious source of pressure. But a bankruptcy hearing into the club’s parent company Ubig later this month should bring resolution one step closer, and Locke is as optimistic about the club’s off-field future as he is about its prospects on the field of play.
“We are moving in the right direction off the park in regards to stuff that is happening in Lithuania,” he said. “Hopefully that can sort itself out, then we can have a decent finish to the season.”
Third-in-the-table Motherwell will be a stern test, with former Hearts striker John Sutton representing one of the most obvious threats.
The Englishman, who is in his second spell at Fir Park, never quite hit it off at Tynecastle under Paulo Sergio or John McGlynn. Locke esteems Sutton highly, but said he had no regrets about letting the player go as it was in the best interests of the club.
“John Sutton is doing great at Motherwell – he’s a fantastic lad and I enjoyed working with him at Hearts. John is playing with a lot of confidence, as is the whole Motherwell side. We don’t have to be wary of one player as the team are playing well just now.
“Hearts will need to be on their toes if we are to take anything from the game. John doesn’t have a point to prove to anybody – we all know that he’s a good player. His track record speaks for itself and when he was at the club he scored goals. I was only the manager for a short spell when John was here and he played under me. I think he would say that he enjoyed his time here when I was boss, because he played.
“Any player would tell you the same if you asked him. They just want to play football on a Saturday and in midweek. John is the one that got away, especially as you see him now, and he has banged in goals for Motherwell this season. Last season, John was in and out of the side, but we always try to get the best out of every player when they are here.
“He’s certainly a player that could have done a job here, but the most important thing was that Hearts survived and we’re still here. If that meant that a lot of players like John moved on then so be it, because the club’s survival was of paramount importance.”