HEARTS may need the most improbable of miracles to escape relegation now, but Gary Locke believes that with a win or two in the coming weeks his team can at least give the clubs above them the jitters.
Eighteen points separate Hearts and second-bottom St Mirren – three more than when the season began. But, with Partick Thistle and Ross County just a point further ahead, the fear of ending up in the play-off place could become a factor over the closing 11 games of the season. And, if Hearts can pick up points at the same time as one or more of those teams is losing, Locke is sure the pressure can be cranked up a little more.
There was a similar situation with Dundee last season, when, after apparently being down and out, they enjoyed a minor revival of fortunes under John Brown. They were still relegated but not before causing a few anxious weeks for St Mirren.
“That’s got to be the target,” Locke said yesterday. “We can only look after ourselves but, if we manage to get a couple of wins, maybe the teams above us might start thinking ‘Hearts are getting a bit closer’.
“There is a big gap at the minute and they might think the pressure is off a little bit, but we can just try our best to get a couple of wins and if we do that then we can start putting pressure on others.
“We have 11 games. It is a tall order but, as long as it is mathematically possible, we’ve got to keep trying. And if we keep playing as we have done in the last couple of months, I’m hopeful that we can have a good end to the season.”
Hearts visit Motherwell tomorrow then Kilmarnock next weekend before they have a run of three home games. After that they go to Firhill in their last match before the split, and at least keeping the fight against relegation going until then would appear to be a reasonable first target for them.
“That would be great,” Locke continued. “Obviously we’ve got a lot of difficult fixtures coming up. The next two are away from home against two difficult teams, but all we can do is keep trying. And, if we play as we have been playing, I think we’ll give both these teams a game.
“I haven’t looked too far ahead, thinking ‘It’s all doom and gloom – we’re going to go down’. We’re just looking at the next game at the moment. We have to do as well as we possibly can, and if we win the next couple of games and the teams above us don’t, then maybe we can put a wee bit of pressure on them.”
As usual, Locke has restricted options when it comes to selecting a team for tomorrow Callum Tapping and Jason Holt are doubtful, while Jamie Walker and David Smith remain longer-term absentees. But the manager has been encouraged by the form of those who are available to him.
“They are doing things better. I definitely think earlier in the season some of our younger players were making errors that would cost us a goal by maybe being in a position that we shouldn’t have been in, but we have tried to work as hard as possible on the training pitch and you can see an improvement in every young player.
“As a manager, it’s pleasing to see, because it shows they are listening and taking things on board. Certainly, in the last couple of months we are not making the errors we were making. They are more tuned in and one or two of them have gained a bit more confidence and are believing that they can play at this level, which is a huge thing.
“I said to the players that there was a big difference between last week’s performance against Celtic” (a 2-0 league defeat) “and the one we had in the cup” (the 7-0 loss at the start of December). “We were in the game right until the last couple of minutes when they got a goal as we were up the park trying to get an equaliser.
“There were a lot of positives and you can see that a lot of the younger players have improved over the season. Hopefully, we can take that into the last 11 games.”
Motherwell have conceded three goals in each of their last three games, but Locke expects a tough encounter. “They’ve done remarkably well on limited resources. Stuart [McCall] and Kenny [Black] have done great – they are up the top of the league again, and the spine of their team is full of experience.
“We’re under no illusions about how difficult it is going to be. They’ve beaten us twice this season already, but they were close games. We’ll go there full of confidence and, hopefully, we can get a good result.
“If we win and the teams above us don’t, we can put a wee bit of pressure on them”