JUST days after putting in one of their best performances of the season to deny Hibs the pleasure of relegating them, Hearts have to fight for their Premiership lives again tonight.
Lifting themselves physically and mentally again so soon will be hard enough, but this time they are up against opponents whose morale is altogether better than that of their Edinburgh rivals.
Aberdeen have already lost home and away to Hearts this season, at Tynecastle back in August then, more surprisingly, at Pittodrie in November. But the League Cup winners are in a far stronger state now than they were back then, and, with second place in the table still to fight for, have no reason to show clemency.
Although Hearts have been all but down for some time now, only a defeat tonight will spell a definitive end to their fight against the drop. A draw would leave them no further room for leeway in their remaining games, as they would then be 18 points behind second-bottom St Mirren with six games to go, but it would at least delay the inevitable for another three days, when they visit tenth-placed Partick Thistle.
Even so, Gary Locke sees no point in approaching the game cautiously. They will go for the win as they did against Hibs on Sunday.
“We’ve tried to do that every game this season,” the Hearts manager said yesterday. “It’s been very, very difficult, but we’ve shown over the course of the season that a lot of the players are improving, and, hopefully, that will stand them in good stead for their future careers.
“Sunday was a great result for us, but it was only three points. But it was really pleasing for our supporters, because they’ve put up with a lot this year.”
Finding the same level of performance as they did against Hibs will be difficult for Hearts this evening, but they will take encouragement from the fact that victory on Sunday was no fluke. Earlier in the season, there was an element of fortune about some of their better results, and a feeling that pluck or luck or both had played a part. Against Hibs, they were simply the better team.
Under pressure for long spells in the second half as Hibs tried to fight back from a goal down, Locke’s team defended resolutely, with goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald having one of his quietest days of the season. Up front, Hearts showed a sharpness they were lacking earlier in the campaign, with goalscorers Dale Carrick and Billy King, as well as others, such as Sam Nicholson and Ryan Stevenson, proving too incisive for a leaden-footed Hibs back four.
“You’ve got to realise that the team’s young, and one of the things that comes with experience is you get consistent performances,” Locke said when asked if he had been frustrated that performances such as Sunday’s had not come about more often earlier in the season. “When you’re playing young lads, you do get indifferent performances at times. The fact that the squad is so young, getting a bit of consistency has been a struggle this year. But I think they’re improving, and, looking to the future, if you could add one or two experienced players, I’d think you’d have a really good side.
“There’s obviously a lot of negatives this season, but there’s a lot of positives as well. That’s what I’d rather talk about. The young players have improved. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
The way the season turned out, with Hearts unable to make reinforcements in the January transfer window because of their signing embargo, relegation may have been all but inevitable from the start. But certainly, once the team did get up and running again, they were all but down.
If the players did begin to show some confidence again more recently, perhaps in part that was because they had nothing to lose, knowing they were already doomed. And if there was a time before that when they played as if with the world on their shoulders, that was understandable. Nobody wants to be relegated, and it is virtually impossible to avoid feeling downhearted for a time once relegation becomes inevitable.
“It hit us hard, because, at the start of the season, we wanted to try and stay in the league,” Locke added. “But, looking at the big picture, the biggest battle we’ve faced is being here. Whatever happens on the pitch, we’ve got to make sure that the football club is still here.”