OFFICIALLY, Hearts have nothing left to play for this season, having finally been relegated a fortnight ago.
In reality, they will use their remaining five games in the top flight, starting with today’s match at home to Ross County, as a series of dress rehearsals for life in the Championship next season.
Having taken seven points from their last three fixtures, Hearts already look more than capable of mounting a serious bid to go straight back up to the Premiership in a year’s time. The disjointed form they suffered around the turn of the year, when a run of ten league games without a win effectively killed off their hopes of avoiding
demotion, has been left firmly in the past.
The squad is improving both individually and as a collective, and not one has yet to say he wants away this summer. United as players, they also hope the coaching team stays together under the leadership of Gary Locke.
“I think more than anything else in this world the manager deserves his shot at this,” Ryan Stevenson said. “Everyone knows what this club means to him: it’s his dream job, and with what he’s had to deal with in his first managerial job, under the circumstances what he’s done has been nothing short of remarkable.
“With the feelings I’ve got for him as a friend, I would obviously back him to the hilt, but away from that, as a manager and as a coach, he’s got a massive career ahead of him, because he’s a top, top manager and a top, top coach. So in my eyes it would only be the right thing to give him the chance to go and bring in his own players and put his own stamp on it. I’m more than positive that he’ll be a great manager for Hearts in the future and we can all work towards getting back to where we belong, and that’s back up the top of the SPFL as soon as possible.”
Provided the club completes its exit from administration in the coming weeks, new owner Ann Budge will come in and quickly put her own stamp on how Tynecastle is run. Deciding who should be manager next season may well be the most
important decision she makes during her time in charge, and while Craig Levein has been consistently linked with a
return to the club he managed for four years from late 2000, the performances Locke has coaxed from the team in recent weeks have at least made her choice more difficult.
Stevenson acknowledged that the chairwoman-in-waiting has the right to appoint new personnel, but insisted that from his perspective, Locke, assistant manager Billy Brown and under-20s coach Robbie Neilson were the ideal group to be in charge next season.
“Inevitably, that will be her decision in what way she wants to see the club going forward,” he said. “I can only speak from how I feel and, personally, I think the job he’s done – and also Billy Brown, and Robbie Neilson since he came in – has been nothing short of remarkable. And even the likes of Billy, working with no contract and for no money, it just shows you that everyone here is pulling in the right direction for Hearts, to try and do well and try and save the club. It’s the right sort of people at the club and I’m more than sure if they get their chance they’ll get us back to where we belong.
“You could have brought in the most experienced manager in the world and they would have found it difficult. We’ve had young kids, injuries. I wouldn’t have thanked you to be in that situation.
“It’s been a horrendous task for him to try and take us forward. He will admit there are times he’s made mistakes and so have the players, but it’s his first ten months in a job so he’s going to make mistakes, especially with little help. People will have their own opinions, but for me, working with him day in and day out and knowing how good a coach he is and how good a manager he is – aside from my personal feelings for him – he deserves his chance more than anyone else in the world.”
The hope, of course, is that the squad will not stay exactly the same, as a modest budget should still allow the manager to strengthen over the summer. If some new players do come in, Stevenson is confident that Hearts can put in a real challenge in the Championship.
“We’ll need fresh bodies in and a bit more experience to go for the title push,” he said. “It won’t be easy, but we’ll give Rangers a run for their money and if the manager brings in the players he wants then there’s no reason why we can’t win the league. We’re not going to
accept Rangers are going to win it and settle for second. Our main goal is to win it – but we’ll need reinforcements.”
Ross County skipper Richard Brittain refused to countenance the prospect of a relegation battle ahead of the trip to Tynecastle, saying: “We want to look up the table, we don’t want to look over our shoulder and we have never done that.