Bottom of table Hearts are Well and truly in crisis
Victory in the first capital derby of the season may not be enough to satisfy the frustrated fans who gathered outside Tynecastle on Saturday evening, enraged by a poor start to the season and the fact that defeat by Motherwell had left them languishing at the foot of the Premiership table, but defeat would undoubtedly be enough to swell their ranks.
Criticisms of manager Craig Levein and a board that has stood by him, despite a disappointing year on league duty, filled the air in front of the main stand in the wake of the third league match of the season without a win but, with only six points separating them from the team in fourth place and the new campaign only five games old, the Hearts manager was adamant that fortunes can still be turned around.
They will have to be, and quickly, though, after the gifting of three avoidable goals left them with too much to do against a Motherwell side they defeated on cup duty last month but who are now third in the league standings, having gained some welcome momentum, while the Gorgie side continue to stutter.
Taking the lead in the 20th minute thanks to Declan Gallagher making the most of a corner delivered into the home area, the Fir Park side made the most of the unrest within the ground, stoking the anxieties in the stands and on the pitch.
That early advantage allowed them to stifle Hearts and then hit them on the counter attack. Switching up the pace of play they passed around their hosts with positivity, displaying the kind of dynamism and confidence their hosts lack at the moment. Weighed down by the desperate desire to get their season up and running and to quash the rumblings of discontent among the fans, Hearts showed industry but what they really needed was to find the courage to take the ball and responsibility.
Along with the speed and drive of Jake Mulraney, newcomer Ryo Meshino was one of the few possessed of the invention and creativity the team needed to stage a fightback and unencumbered by the doom and gloom that has descended on Hearts, he was willing to grab the game by the scruff of the neck.
But by the time Meshino took to the pitch as a second-half substitute, the Gorgie side were already two down to the better side, after Sherwin Seedorf, pictured right, pounced on a loose pass and burst forward to double the goal tally with a scorching drive past Colin Doyle seven minutes after the interval.
The Japanese player is an intelligent and competitive addition to the squad. But he will need more help than he was granted on Saturday if he is to prompt significant improvement.
The anticipated return of Steven Naismith for the derby match should help, especially after Conor Washington hobbled off with a hamstring injury, as will the presence of a fit again Michael Smith charging down the flanks and providing greater defensive assistance.
The Northern Irishman’s absence was acutely felt in the 66th minute, when stand in full-back Sean Clare and keeper Doyle laid an opportunity on a plate for Jermaine Hylton and, while Motherwell failed to convert a few openings throughout the 90 minutes, they were not profligate on that occasion.
It was a kick in the teeth for Hearts, who had, just five minutes earlier reduced the deficit. Meshino had the initial shot but when that was deflected by the keeper’s block, it was Uche Ikpeazu who nodded into the empty net.
The on-loan Manchester City playmaker did get on the scoresheet, carving out space to finish clinically from the edge of the box in the 86th minute. Although that inspired a late rally by his team-mates, they couldn’t salvage anything from the game, leading to the post-match protest and giving Sunday’s first derby of the season, against fellow capital strugglers Hibs, even more significance than normal.
“I’m sure a derby win would lift spirits massively around the club,” said Mulraney, “but it can’t just be one game, it has to be more than that.”
For starters, it will also, surely, have to take in the League Cup quarter-final against Aberdeen the following week.
“It is a massive ten days for us. Potentially we could have a derby win and be into a semi-final so that is massive. It would certainly help turn things,” added the Irish winger, who still has an eye on a European place rather than fearing relegation, despite the current league position.
“I believe that 100 per cent and if you look around the changing room at the boys we have, the different types of players, the quality of the players we have, the leaders, the experience. I definitely think we can finish high up the league. We are all frustrated at times because we are not winning games and not doing what we are capable of. But we have strong heads in the changing room and I’m sure we can turn it around.”