AFTER a draw against St Mirren which might easily have ended up in a win, Hearts can look forward to Thursday’s Edinburgh derby with a measure of hope.
Not only did they pick up a point for the first time in five games, they also welcomed back Ryan Stevenson more quickly than had been expected following his hamstring injury.
The Tynecastle club still hardly have their problems to seek, as they are still on negative points and are not allowed to sign new players when the transfer window opens.
But the influential midfielder will be a valuable addition to Gary Locke’s squad for the game at Easter Road, as much for the effect he has on other players – particularly Jamie Hamill, according to the manager – as for his own individual contribution.
“It will give us a lift going into a big game,” Locke said yesterday. “You saw against St Mirren that getting the influential players back in the team, like Stevenson and Hamill, will help. Stevenson has been a huge loss for us this season: he’s not played a lot of games and if we can keep him fit we’ll certainly give ourselves a better chance.
“It was a massive risk playing Ryan – he’d only trained for three days. But he is a bit of a puzzle – he seems to get back really quickly from injury.
“He said he was fine. I had a good conversation with him before the game, because I didn’t want to play him only for him to break down. He is so important, we couldn’t afford to have him out again.
“He got though the game and he’s okay, so we’re delighted. I speak to him most days and I get reports on his progress, but he’s the type of boy you pass in the corridor and he is always telling you he is okay.
“I told him: ‘I can’t afford to play you in one game and have you out for four or five’. But he was adamant he was fine and he got through the game and hopefully he has an injury-free season now. He holds the ball in, he’s a strong lad and he has that experience that we’re lacking.”
At 27, Hamill is the oldest outfield member of the Hearts team when the 29-year-old Stevenson is out, and Locke thinks that at times he has been trying too hard to lead by example. With Stevenson back, however, Hamill seemed free to play his own game.
“I thought Hamill was magnificent against St Mirren,” Locke said. “He scored a great goal and put in a man-of-the-match display. He has taken responsibility on board, but maybe in the last couple of weeks he has been trying too hard to do other people’s jobs for them. At St Mirren he focused on his own job and covered every blade of grass. He was the best player on the pitch by a mile.
“It’s important the two of them are playing, because they know the game so well and they are such a big help to those round about them. We’ve only had one of them for most of the season, and that’s been a big problem.
“There’s only so much a manager and coaches can do from the sidelines – you need experience on the field, and when they’re there, they make a big difference.”
Having said that, Locke went on to acknowledge the impact made by the new managerial team at Hibs. Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas are working with the same squad that underachieved with Pat Fenlon, and have made it a far more competent outfit.
“They’re a completely different team,” said Locke. “They’re playing with confidence. Terry and Mo have turned it around there and it will be totally different to the last two derby games. They are much stronger now, with a bit more height at the back, and we fully expect a very tough game. They have a lot of height and they’ve obviously worked very hard on the training ground at set plays, so we’ll need to be on our toes.
“I know them really well and have a good relationship with them. I sat next to them at the Livingston game. I get on well with them and – although it’s different during the game – hopefully I can go in and enjoy a wee drink with them afterwards.”
If Locke has a wee drink at midnight tonight, it will be to bid a glad farewell to a year in which Hearts plunged into administration. The 30-day cooling-off period which followed last month’s Company Voluntary Arrangement vote has now passed as expected without any creditor or shareholder having second thoughts, but until a Lithuanian court allows former parent company Ubig to sell its 50 per cent shareholding to the Foundation of Hearts, the club will remain in limbo. A resolution could still be a couple of months away, but a brighter future is at least now a realistic possibility.
“I hope next year is a far better one for the football club: 2013 is one we all want to forget,” Locke added.
“Hopefully things get sorted off the pitch. It will take a long time rebuilding, but the main thing is we’re still here, still fighting, and when we get things sorted off the pitch hopefully you will see a far better Heart of Midlothian in the future.”