A FEW months ago, the end of the league season could not have come soon enough for many at Hearts. But with only three games remaining, the feeling is no longer one of relief.
Manager Gary Locke says he is disappointed that the campaign is coming to an end when they are on a good run, while midfielder Ryan Stevenson says the aim now is to ensure Hearts can maintain that form through the final few games.
On paper, Hearts have had little but pride to play for since relegation was confirmed last month, but it has proved a strong motivator and has given the other sides in the bottom six a major headache, few relishing their encounters with a side who have dropped just two points in their last five games and look to maintain that form against Kilmarnock today, Partick Thistle on Wednesday and St Mirren on Saturday.
“I was never a great fan of the split and I didn’t enjoy it but this year it has worked out the best it has in years,” says Stevenson. “With the play-off it is great and it is good for Hearts that we are involved in games that are meaningful and they are going to be exciting as other teams have something to play for.
“We have our goal. Psychologically, if we can move to within 15 points of the 11th-placed team, then that will be a big thing for us as we would know that if we hadn’t had the points penalty we would have been there or thereabouts this season.”
Locke has always insisted that this season was going to be a work in progress. With so many players arguably promoted to the top team prematurely and with 15 points to claw back and all the off-field uncertainty, he knew confidence would be fragile and it would take time for the work on the training ground to manifest itself on the pitch.
But there were times when the flak from the pundits and some punters cast doubts on the manager and the team, when patience ran thin, desperation set in and self-belief became brittle. Regrets, Hearts have a few, but having proved many detractors wrong in the last month, they are relieved that the end of the season has been swathed in much more optimism.
“We have all made mistakes but it has been a learning curve for us all,” says Stevenson. “When you are losing you get into that rut. We are in the groove of winning now and hopefully we can keep that going until the end of the season.”
He could have spared himself the misery. He could have cut his losses in the summer and scarpered, with some suitors also sniffing round in January. But while he confesses he wanted the agony to be over, he never wanted to leave.
“At the lowest point, round about Christmas, you were just thinking: ‘Can the season not just end?’ There have been difficult stages this season. Losing to Ross County when we had been winning with two minutes to go but lost two goals [in September], there have been games that have been incredible and there have been some massive low points. And it’s still a low point that we are going to be relegated at the end of the day. We’re going to be in the Championship next year, which no one wanted. But we’ll try and take the positives out of it. We have grown as a team and hopefully we can take that into next season.”
Given the opportunity to do things over, they may have tackled things differently, with Stevenson claiming one of the biggest mistakes was maybe trying too hard. That occasionally resulted in suspensions but it also cost them points, he says.
“It has been a strange season. Chasing three points every week, at times we let that get the better of us, especially at Christmas time when there were games where we chased the three points instead of just taking a draw. We probably should not have done that.
“Looking back on it you can think ‘what if?’ or ‘what if we had done this differently?’ But it was always going to be a tough ask for us. It has been a hard season for everyone, not knowing if there was going to be a club or not. So the biggest thing is the club is still standing and we’ll take this step back next season in order to take two or three going forward and the club should be in a much stronger state for the next 40-50 years.”
Johnston desperate to recapture Queens’ magic with Kilmarnock
A YEAR ago this weekend Allan Johnston claimed the PFA Scotland manager of the year award. Now, he is looking to avoid the distinction of being the top flight’s poorest-performing boss.
Romping through the third tier and winning the Ramsdens Cup with Queen of the South must feel like it belongs to a different age for Johnston. His Premiership travails with Kilmarnock this season have been largely overlooked because of the plight of relegated Hearts. However, were it not for the 15-point penalty incurred for going into administration, the Tynecastle side that will host the Ayrshire team this afternoon would be sitting above them.
Even allowing for the perilous situation faced by his 11th-placed side, Johnston is refusing to look down because, going into the weekend, only two points separated the five teams that are scrambling to avoid being bounced into the relegation play-off. Maybe the 40-year-old is also drawing encouragement from the fact that today’s encounter pits them against a team which they have beaten three times this season, and takes them to a Gorgie ground where they boast six straight victories.
“It’s been a difficult season,” said Johnston. “But there are still three massive games to go and we want to finish on a positive note. We’re still in contention for seventh place so it’s up to us – it’s there if we want it. It’s hunger, desire and a wee bit of quality that’s going to be needed.
“You learn more every year and anyone who says they don’t is kiddingthemselves. It’s been a real test but, hopefully, I’ll improve as a manager with every year that passes. I knew it was going to be tough here because, when I came in, the majority of the team had left. We had about half a team, plus the budget had been significantly reduced. The way we started the season has caused us a lot of problems.
“When I was at Queens we got into the habit of winning – we went to Ibrox and won in the Ramsdens Cup. That’s the sort of mentality we need to instil at this club because some of our results this season have been unacceptable. However, we can still finish the season on a high. It’s only natural that players become tense but they’ve kept going – we scored with just a couple of minutes remaining [in the 2-1 defeat] at Dingwall last weekend. That shows you the determination the boys have to do well. They’re desperate to get results and I’m sure the fans will be right behind us.”
Johnston knows his own position will be scrutinised on the basis of what unfolds in the last three games.
“I think every manager in the bottom half is under pressure and depending on results and I’m no different. But I’ve got every confidence in this squad. With the quality we have, we can finish seventh. We’ve had good results against Hearts recently and we need to make sure we’re on the front foot on Sunday and that it’s another positive performance and then build on it.”
If Kilmarnock can scrape by, Johnston believes the club’s efforts to improve could be boosted by the change of ownership and plans to lay an artificial surface at Rugby Park.
A synthetic surface would allow the ground to once more be the heart of the club’s daily training operation. Currently, that is done at the Garscube complex in Glasgow.
“I think the club can build on what we have,” he says. “We have good young players coming through and what we need to make sure we do is take the club forward. Getting the astroturf at the pitch allows us to have the youth system and the senior players based in Kilmarnock, and bring a bit of a community spirit.
“With us in Garscube and only at Rugby Park on matchdays, you can feel you are here, there and everywhere and more of a Glasgow club. Astroturf pitches are the way forward for small clubs like ours, whether the boys want to go and do more on the pitch, or whatever.
“We have a good youth system that has been working well in recent years, but we are looking for ways to improve that and better facilities to train on is one way.”
Retaining a Premiership budget is another.