HEARTS know that they let an opportunity slip through their fingers when they allowed Hibernian a route back into last weekend’s Scottish Cup tie.
With 10 minutes to go and with a two-goal advantage goalkeeper Neil Alexander had been looking at adding to his run of clean sheets. But with late interventions from Jason Cummings and Paul Hanlon, the Gorgie side were reminded that they should take nothing for granted as Hibs secured a replay.
“We stopped doing what we did in the first half, which was our fault. We knew whoever got that third goal was going to be massive – and it proved to be costly for us. But we’ll learn our lesson – you learn the hard way sometimes. Hopefully we can put it right on Tuesday.
“Did some of us think the job was done? Possibly, yes. Perhaps we thought at half time that the game was won and we’ll just see it out. That was the wrong way to approach it and we should have been much better in the second half. Hibs were the better team in the second half and deserved to get back into the game and probably deserved the draw. But it’s especially poor given how well we have defended in the league this season. But we are still in the draw, so that is the positive.”
Hearts now head to Easter Road on Tuesday for the fifth-round replay, with a home quarter-final against holders Inverness Caledonian Thistle the prize on offer for the winners. Alexander, who has had preliminary talks with the club about extending his player-coach role beyond the end of his current contract this summer, expects a more focused performance as they seek to get the better of their capital rivals. He knows that is what the fans, who have doled out some criticism in the past week, demand and he accepts that the playing and coaching staff have stoked those expectations but he says that everyone has to remain grounded and united, claiming that life under head coach Robbie Neilson is an ongoing education.
“Those high standards from the fans are a credit to how well we have done and what a great job the manager has done in the last 18 months. The fans want us to get better and better and that is normal, but we can’t get carried away. There is a long way to go this season and we have a lot of learning to do.
“When you give up a two-goal lead you are going to face criticism, regardless of whether it is Hibs or anyone else. We are as disappointed as anyone. But that’s football and it’s the nature of playing at a club the size of Hearts, the expectations are huge. Because of where we are in the league and how well we have done this season and last, the expectations are through the roof. But we need to accept that and put things right on Tuesday.
“It makes it difficult, it puts a lot of pressure on the team, especially the young lads. Some of us can handle it, some can find it difficult to play in those conditions.”
For all that things have been going well, with the Championship title and promotion followed up by a bright start to their Premiership campaign, there have been hurdles. Blooding the youngsters and getting the right blend of youth and experience has often been hindered by injuries and suspensions. The defence has suffered as much as any department, with various combinations deployed in front of Alexander. He says he just needs to get on with it but claims that the strength in depth in the squad means he has faith in whoever fills the berths.
Despite the shuffling of the pack, Alexander is happy with his form has managed to get through four of the last five games without conceding, the only blip being the derby. But while Cummings was the catalyst for Hibs’ comeback, Alexander isn’t convinced there wasn’t a modicum of fortune involved in his goal.
“I don’t think he has meant to put it exactly there,” said the keeper. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great header from the boy and he has taken it well – but it could have gone anywhere, hit the post or bar or gone over – but it’s looped right in the top corner.”
But with a second chance to get the job done, he is hopeful that there can still be a grand climax to the season for Hearts, with the chance of silverware as well as European football. Third in the Premiership, with some points to spare, it is a position Alexander would have accepted at the start of the campaign.
“I’m enjoying my football and being here and being part of what we are building here and what Robbie is doing. It’s a great learning curve for me on both sides, the playing and coaching, so it’s all good. But, at the start of the season, if someone had guaranteed European football then we would have bit your arm off. If we stay there, it will count as a tremendous season and it would be a big incentive for me to stay and hopefully it will attract more quality players to the club.”