AFTER a run of games in which they played three of the top four teams in the league, Hearts now face a more promising set of festive fixtures.
Starting today at home to Kilmarnock, the Tynecastle team’s next four matches see them play opponents ranked seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth.
St Mirren are next for Gary Locke’s team on Sunday, then comes the Edinburgh derby a week today, followed by a visit from Partick Thistle on Sunday, 5 January. Hearts will not be favourites to win any of them, but they can at least realistically tell themselves that they have a better chance than they did against Celtic, Dundee United and Inverness.
That is the positive aspect of the fixture list as it stands. The negative is that if they fail to come out of this quartet of games with a decent haul of points, their already slight hopes of escaping relegation will have all but vanished. Still 14 points behind second-bottom Ross County, they need to take a substantial chunk out of that deficit soon if they are to put any sort of pressure on the Dingwall club.
“It is a big period for us over the next three or four games,” midfielder Callum Tapping accepts. “Every game is massive for us, but with Kilmarnock, St Mirren and Partick Thistle coming up they are important, and hopefully matches where we can pick up points. It is a big period, but the next five or six weeks will be important, especially if we start picking up points and catching up – then we’ll give ourselves a real chance.
“Over the last three games we’ve done okay. We lost 4-1 to Dundee United, but that didn’t reflect how we played – I thought we did well but just didn’t have a cutting edge.
“Inverness was the same, and the only difference was Billy McKay’s finishing. Then we went to Celtic Park and did very well against world-class opposition.
“You should never be happy getting beat, but there was a real improvement from the 7-0 a couple of weeks ago,” he continued, referring to the Scottish Cup defeat by the holders at the start of this month. “There was a massive difference.
“The boys have taken a lot of confidence from the performance even though we got beat. We will take positives from it and move on.
“Celtic are a world-class team, and have shown playing the likes of Barcelona and AC Milan that Celtic Park is a hard place to go, but I felt the boys did well. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the result we wanted, but we can take the positives from it into the coming games. We’re getting closer and closer to where we want to be.”
One problem for the vast majority of the current Hearts squad is that they are simply not used to losing games week after week. For the graduates from the under-20 team, of whom Tapping is one, this has been one more issue to deal with.
“A lot of boys that have come through have played in the same under-19 and 20 teams. We did well together and this is the first time the boys have experienced things when we haven’t been winning.
“It is hard, especially when we’re not winning. It becomes hard mentally. The boys have stepped up and have gradually got used to the situation we’re in. The boys have grown up quickly. It is different, but we’ve stuck together and we’ll try and turn things around.
“The situation we’re in, we can’t allow our confidence to be knocked because we need to keep going every week. It’s going to be hard, but it is a great experience and we have to cherish it.
“You have to motivate yourself. We look at the situation we’re in and we know we have to up things even more. At the moment, we’re confident in our own abilities and we should then step up from there.
“As soon as we hit zero or plus points then that can only be a positive. That would be a massive confidence-booster.”
Victory today would put Hearts on to zero, at last wiping out the 15-point deduction with which they began the season as a penalty for going into administration. After taking seven points from their first four matches, they had hoped to get to that stage far earlier in the season, but then came a bad spell that included defeats by Kilmarnock and St Mirren, the two clubs who were then closest to them at the bottom of the table.
This time round, they cannot afford any such slip-ups. Two wins should be their minimal target over the next 11 days, though even then they will still be at least eight points adrift.