IN THE short term, the outlook for Hearts is ominous. Fourteen points adrift at the bottom of the table as they prepare to visit St Mirren tomorrow, the Tynecastle side look more and more likely with every passing game to be relegated.
The 4-0 home defeat by Kilmarnock on Boxing Day was just the latest compelling piece of evidence to support that gloomy prognosis.
But, according to Kevin McHattie, after a steadily worsening 2013, they can look forward to the New Year with some genuine optimism. The left-back knows that may not be immediately apparent on the field of play, but he is convinced that the Foundation of Hearts can complete their takeover of the club and provide a more secure financial environment.
“In some ways, yes,” McHattie said when asked if he would be glad to see the back of 2013. “But with everything the club has been through, and all the fans sticking by us, it’s been a great year in that way. On the pitch, it’s obviously been disappointing for us, but we’ll try to change that in 2014.
“Hopefully we come out of administration and have a brighter future. Hope that starts on Sunday.
“Hearts is a massive family club. The supporters have always been there for us, so we’ll try our best to pay them back for that.
“We’ve just got to do what we can. Just work hard – that’s all we can do, really. Look forward to the next game and hope for the best.”
While such determined optimism is commendable, and perhaps the only attitude McHattie and his team-mates can realistically take, it is hard to know which game, if any, Hearts should look forward to with any genuine hope. After a run which included two games against Celtic and others with Inverness Caley Thistle and Dundee United, the festive fixture list looked like being a more plausible source of points.
The Kilmarnock and St Mirren matches are followed by two more against clubs from the lower half of the Premiership, Hibernian and Partick Thistle. If Hearts were ever to close the gap on Ross County, surely they would start to do so during this run.
But that loss to Kilmarnock has confirmed the reality that, in the games that matter most, Hearts have been found wanting. They have drawn once with Ross County and Thistle, but have also lost in Dingwall, at home to St Mirren, and now both home and away to Kilmarnock.
Perhaps the only small source of encouragement is the fact that, even now, Hearts would not be bottom of the table but for their 15-point deduction. But Ross County, no matter how poor they have been so far, at least have the option of strengthening their squad next month – an option that Hearts do not have.
Nonetheless, McHattie remains defiant. “If [relegation] does happen, we’ll look to bounce back as soon as we can, which I’m sure we could if the worst comes to the worst,” he said. “But I’m positive we’ll be able to grind this out.
“We’ve just got to stick by each other and believe in everyone’s capabilities. Hopefully we’ll be able to do it. Every team in this league is capable of beating every other one, so we’ve just got to look forward to next week and hopefully produce the goods.
“We’ve been together for that long a time. We’ve been through everything together, so we just stick by each other and hope for the best in every game. We’ve just got to keep working hard.
“We just look to the next game. Every game’s like a cup final to us. We just need to hope we start getting points on the board. That will be good for the club and just obviously look forward to the next game.
“We’ve got the younger ones coming through as well, and we can help them with our experience of what we’ve been through. Having played together helps with how we play. We need to show that on the pitch, but it definitely does help.”
Unfortunately from McHattie’s point of view, Hearts did not show that togetherness on the pitch two days ago, playing more disjointedly than in almost any other game this season, possibly even including their 7-0 Scottish Cup defeat by Celtic at the start of the month. Without two key players in Ryan Stevenson and Jason Holt, both of whom are injured, they struggled to put coherent moves together, and too often moves ended with aimless chips into the box.
Manager Gary Locke put that performance down to the proverbial “bad day at the office”, but the fact is the Hearts office has become home to too many bad days. As McHattie suggested, the longer-term outlook may well be positive, provided the Foundation can buy the 50 per cent share in the club held by former parent company Ubig. But in the short term the picture is bleak, and a visit to an in-form St Mirren looks unlikely to provide much seasonal cheer.