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Tom English: 'Let's be clear. Hearts have an awful lot going for them'

It was a year ago, almost to the day, that then Rangers player Kevin Thomson scoffed at the notion that a third force could emerge from the pack in the SPL and split the Old Firm at the top of the division.

• Heartening performance: Jim Jefferies' side have matured into a real force, but can they really split the Old Firm come the end of the season? Photograph: SNS

In fairness to Thomson, he could have gone along with the cosy agenda, could have said, "Aye, all credit to Dundee United and Hibs, they're a proper danger", but he didn't. He said he'd be surprised if the also-rans weren't 15-20 points behind in third place come the end of the season. How right he was. United, saluted widely for a terrific campaign, trailed runners-up Celtic by fully 18 points when the curtain fell.

In the last couple of weeks we've been hearing talk about Hearts splitting the Old Firm. The Tynecastle side had, after all, won their previous six games before yesterday's tussle with an uplifting Caley Thistle team - and eight of their last nine. It was a run of form that shot them into the kind of position that their beloved neighbours, Hibs, found themselves in this time last season. A year ago, Hibs went unbeaten for a dozen games and sparked discussion about them nipping in between Rangers and Celtic. Thomson rubbished the idea. Shortly after his sobering words he offered his old club a veritable cold bath when Rangers went to Easter Road and won 4-1. So ended the chat about Hibs as giant-splitters.

And we all know what happened to the once-heralded John Hughes thereafter.

Unlike Thomson last season, Neil Lennon has lent credence to the notion of a team dividing the big two, which is probably no surprise given the impoverished form of his own boys of late. In fairness, he's hardly going to dismiss Hearts' prospects of getting into second spot when his mob are in a rut right now, incapable of defending one and two-goal leads at home to Dundee United and Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Now, my chums at Tynecastle aren't going to appreciate this, but the idea of Hearts getting in between Rangers and Celtic at the top of the SPL come the end of the championship is a little bit bonkers. True, Rangers have a threadbare squad and could be vulnerable if they pick up injuries to key people that they just don't have the budget to replace. And Celtic? Well, they have about 27 centre-backs in the squad and it doesn't appear that any of them can inspire confidence. So, it's not unreasonable to think that Celtic are going to ship points also.

The problem with all of this is that, unless we are witnessing something truly special at Tynecastle this season, Hearts are not going to be able to sustain their remarkable run of form. At some time, it will taper off. They'll get injuries and suspensions and self-doubt. What Thomson said a year ago still applies. If Hearts can get within 15 points of the Old Firm come the end of the championship then they'll be doing well.

It's a tough balancing act for Jefferies. The talk of Hearts splitting the big two must send a shiver up his back. He doesn't want to be judged on the basis of where his team finishes in relation to Rangers and Celtic. The only fair criteria to gauge his progress is to see where they end up in comparison to the other ten. Expectation is great, but it can become a dangerous thing. It did for Hughes in the end. Hibs finished fourth last season, which is a good bottom line. But because they started so well and ended so poorly, the bottom line was forgotten and he began the new season as a man under pressure. For a boss, managing the hype can sometimes be as tricky as managing the lads who spark the hype in the first place.

Let's be clear about this. Hearts have an awful lot going for them. They're good to watch. Rudi Skacel, on his day, is a fine talent and in David Templeton we are hopefully seeing the first stirrings of an excellent international footballer. If, and when, Jefferies can get Andrew Driver fit and firing in the same side as Templeton then Hearts will be on to something potentially thrilling. Also, we have yet to see the best of Kevin Kyle as a Hearts goalscorer, but it could come at any time.

It might be a slight exaggeration to go along with David Obua's description of Hearts' defensive midfielder, Adrian Mrowiec, as the new Rino Gattuso, but Mrowiec is one of the SPL's most effective and most consistent performers so far this season and his presence at Tynecastle is proof of Jefferies' eye for a bargain. The old dog is doing an outstanding job, transforming a team that couldn't score into a dangerous crew with good finishers dotted about the park and a resolute defence keeping it tight behind them. Five clean sheets in their six games before Adam Rooney finally broke their resistance yesterday was a fantastic tribute to what Jefferies is creating, but perhaps the introduction of a goal threat in the team has been his biggest result to date.

To put it into context, in the last 17 games of last season's SPL, Hearts could only score 15 goals. In their first 17 games of the current campaign they've knocked in 30. Skacel, the little dervish that he is, has already claimed seven goals, one more than Hearts' highest scorer in all of last year's SPL. Suso Santana managed six back then. Templeton is already level with Santana's 2009-10 mark. Kyle is only one behind.

Hearts won't split the Old Firm, but they don't have to. Just like their remarkable opponents yesterday, it's easy to admire what they're building there.

 
 
 

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