‘In FOOTBALL, everything is possible.” Five words which are often heard, and most often from players who have come to our game from other countries. Bless them, they might not know how Scottish football works, but they may also bring with them more sunny optimism than the rest of us.
These five words were heard again after Hearts made it five wins in a row. They were uttered by Juwon Oshaniwa, the Nigerian left-back who arrived late, missed the opening day but is now playing his part in the Tynecastle club’s blazing start to their return to the top flight. He may possibly be overplaying the role of team spokesman, although such sunny optimism is good for headlines.
“Of course we can win the title,” Oshaniwa said following the latest success, Partick Thistle being seen off 3-0 without much fuss. “That is the reason why I am here. I didn’t just come for a picnic, I came to be celebrated.”
It has been difficult in the aftermath of that win, maintaining Hearts’ lead at the top of the Premiership, to find others to agree with Oshaniwa. A Glasgow-based newspaper told them to enjoy the view from the summit because it definitely wouldn’t last. Kris Boyd, punditising for Sportscene, seemed to scoff at the idea of them winning the league. Meanwhile, in another paper’s “team of the day” there were three St Johnstone players, another three from Ross County, but not one wearing maroon. A case, it seems, of Jambo tomorrow.
Robbie Neilson will love all this. Love that Hearts can be top of the table and at the same time written off. Love that a guy like Oshaniwa can give good quote and keep the hack-pack entertained. It means he can get on with the job of managing the team without too much fuss and bother.
If this keeps up, if Hearts keep winning and people keep dismissing their chances, Neilson may feel like reaching for the Blu Tack to affix offending words to the dressing-room wall for motivational purposes. Then again, perhaps he doesn’t resort to such time-honoured clichés.
We don’t know this for sure because Neilson is keeping a low profile – extremely low. The Scotsman, in common with other titles I’m sure, has asked for its own interview-time with him, a longer and more wide-ranging conversation away from the quickfire pre- and post-match sessions, but he has declined this.
He doesn’t like one-to-ones, we’re told. He may also by now be quite superstitious, reasoning that he rebuffed these requests all last season and look what Hearts achieved, so let’s continue in exactly the same fashion, right shoe first, never comb the hair, etc.
His silence beyond the bare minimum only makes Neilson more intriguing, so we’ll keep asking. Already his work has been of such quality that we are fascinated by the man behind the barnet and the triple training sessions, and keen to learn about the key incidents which shaped his philosophy. As long as Hearts keep winning, the mystique is only going to increase.
As long as Hearts keep winning. There’s a phrase to simultaneously thrill and chill the Gorgie faithful. It is 30 years since the famous, fateful season when Hearts kept winning and winning all the way to Dens Park, only to break the habit right at the death. But the fans aren’t getting ahead of themselves. In the first instance, they are wondering how these five wins on the trot compare with the scintillating start of exactly ten years ago.
George Burley’s side romped to their first eight. In that sequence they thumped Hibernian, overcame Rangers and also beat Aberdeen, so they had it tougher than the current side.
Ah, but don’t forget that this Hearts are a promoted team. It was only a few months ago, when a supposedly feeble and vulnerable Motherwell banged all those goals past Rangers, that people said the outcome of the play-offs merely confirmed the superiority of the Premiership.
Ten years ago, Hearts featured Celtic’s current goalkeeper, Dundee’s current manager, one R. Neilson at right-back and, as the manager points out, some pretty useful guys with international and Champions League experience, so we really can’t be likening his side to Burley’s. But, hang on, doesn’t that make everything Robbie the Reticent has achieved so far all the more remarkable?
First time I clapped eyes on Hearts this season, in the opening league game against St Johnstone, I thought: “Chelsea”. True, they don’t possess an un-reticent manager or the ability to splurge £21 million when something goes wrong after only two matches, but the team were big right across the back line thanks to the new recruitment and also up front with Juanma, soon to earn the tag of being a poor man’s Diego Costa, although as its originator stressed, this is actually a compliment.
That day Hearts had to win despite conceding three goals. Just wait until the defence gels, said Neilson. Now it looks Castle-Rock strong and finally Callum Paterson is at home in it, a tribute to the manager’s perseverance and nurturing.
Paterson’s power is a big feature and the team have it all over the pitch. Look at their first goal on Saturday, from a floated corner the likes of which you hardly see these days. Sam Nicholson could choose this delivery knowing that Paterson can outjump most in the game from a standing start.
Now, that is not to say Paterson is all brawn (he has a terrific, tempting delivery from the flank). Or that Nicholson is a wee guy merely scampering around in dutiful service of the big yins (he and Jamie Walker and Billy King are bright and inventive products of an admirable academy). Or that Morgaro Gomis is not one of the fastidious players in the game (he is).
But Hearts definitely have the ability to blow most teams away, which is what Burley’s side did, at least for a bit.
If Neilson’s men are to make it to eight wins in a row they will have to beat Aberdeen, which the sceptical are pointing out will be their first serious test, and after that it’s Celtic away. Jambo tomorrow? Maybe the champions will restore the natural order but for football’s sake you’ve got to keep believing that, as an ebullient Nigerian once said, everything is possible.