ONCE more unto the breach. For the third time in seven days, Hearts go into a game knowing that, if they lose, they are down.
The difference this time, compared to their two previous matches against Hibernian and Aberdeen, is that they can win and still be relegated.
The two points dropped on Wednesday against Aberdeen represented the last possible leeway available to Hearts. Starting this afternoon against Partick Thistle – who are now safe from automatic relegation as a result of that 1-1 draw – Gary Locke’s team need to take maximum points from their remaining six games, and rely on St Mirren taking no points at all from theirs.
Realistically, there is next to no prospect of that happening, especially as the Paisley team, two points behind Thistle in 11th place, still have their own survival to play for. At least the virtual hopelessness of their position means the pressure is off Hearts, and Locke hopes his team will play with the same positive spirit they displayed both against Aberdeen and in the Edinburgh derby three days earlier, when they beat Hibs.
“We can only take care of what we do,” Locke said yesterday. “All I’m worried about is our game. I think we can play with a bit of freedom. I’ve been really pleased with how we’ve played over the last couple of games, but this is another difficult game. We haven’t beaten Partick this season, so we know how tough it will be, but hopefully the boys can take their current form into the game and we can pick up another three points.”
Midfielder David Smith agreed that Hearts could do no more this afternoon than play for the win and hope St Mirren felt the pressure enough to lose to Motherwell. “We’ve got nothing to lose again at Firhill so hopefully we just go out and express ourselves,” Smith said.
“It would be great to get a win and put a bit of pressure on. It would be a miracle if we stayed up now, but we’ll try and stay positive. A season in the top flight has given us experience and if we’re playing in the Championship next season then hopefully we can take it into that league, prove we’re good players and come back up.”
With the outcome of Hearts’ season on the pitch all but determined, anxious attention has turned to Monday’s two meetings in Lithuania which could determine whether Tynecastle administrators BDO can proceed with their planned Company Voluntary Arrangement. Some Hibs fans have taken an active interest in events in the Baltic republic, to the extent of getting in touch with the relevant authorities there in the hope of influencing them against their city rivals. But Locke suggested it was in the interests of both Edinburgh sides – and of Scottish football as a whole – for Hearts to survive and for the derby to return as soon as possible to the domestic fixture list.
“If you speak to a sensible football fan in Edinburgh, they’ll tell you how much it means to them. If you were at the game on Sunday, speak to the players, anyone involved with Hibs or Hearts, they’re great games to be involved in. That’s not just true for me but for all the fans, and for the worldwide audience that watch on TV. The Hearts-Hibs game is great to watch on TV, it’s great to be at, a brilliant atmosphere. It will be a huge loss. The season Hibs went down, it was a loss for us, because it’s a game we all want to be involved in.
“We’ve seen the same with the Old Firm. Without a shadow of a doubt, Celtic miss Rangers. For the sake of Scottish football, we want all the big games. You want a Dundee derby, an Old Firm game, a Hearts-Hibs game, Aberdeen-Dundee United.
“At the moment, with us going into the Championship, if you’ve not got that – and I’m not being disrespectful to other teams in the league – then you lose some of the games that give the league a bit of spice. Sponsorship-wise and all that, it’s important that we get Scottish football back to a good level, with everybody wanting to watch it.
“If you lose these games, it will certainly make people disinterested. I’ve not really got a lot of Hibs friends, to be honest. But those I do meet say they want the club to survive.
“The only Hibs fan I’m really pally with is a guy called big George Ramsay, who goes to the same gym as me. To switch off, I do a bit of boxing on a Wednesday morning – and it’s great that we get to punch lumps out of one another Who wins the fights? Who do you think? But he’s the same. He says he’ll miss the game – and he’s Hibs daft. A lot of Hibs fans feel the same. He’s a great character and you do meet a lot of Hibs fans, being a local guy. They’re all saying that they would miss the derby games, there’s no doubt about that.”
Locke also revealed that assistant manager Billy Brown, who had been on monthly contracts since a longer-term deal expired at the start of the year, has now agreed to work for no fee.
“Billy is back working for nothing, which is a mark of the man and what he’s done for the club,” said Locke. “The club is more important than any individual and the fact that he’s going to work until the end of the season for nothing is fantastic for me and for Hearts.”