Hearts top-six bid looking increasingly forlorn

Hearts striker Michael Ngoo pushes Gary Warren as tempers flare. Picture: Toby Williams
Hearts striker Michael Ngoo pushes Gary Warren as tempers flare. Picture: Toby Williams
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WHEN John McGlynn said last week that Hearts would “probably limp over the finishing line if we’re fortunate”, he was referring to the club’s financial plight this season.

Hearts 2-3 Inverness CT


Hearts - Holt (55), Webster (74)

Inverness CT - Warren (15,77), McKay (61)

What is clearer than ever after Saturday’s demoralising defeat for his team is that the manager’s comments are just as applicable to their on-field fortunes as well.

Football and finance are intimately connected, of course, and, talking ahead of the game against Inverness, McGlynn spoke convincingly and at length of the talent he had lost because Hearts were forced to raise funds and cut budgets. But he also said that the season might still be deemed a success, as Hearts could win the League Cup and end up in the top six.

If the Edinburgh club do win the trophy for the first time in 50 seasons next month, McGlynn will surely be correct in his overall assessment. Once this campaign is out of the way, what difference would fifth or eighth place make to the fans as long as the League Cup had been won? But talk of a top-six finish, already unconvincing when McGlynn made those remarks last week, now sounds highly implausible.

All season long, there has not been much of a gap between second top and second bottom in the SPL. A couple of good results can therefore make a big difference. Witness the rise of Ross County. Tagging along in tenth, just behind Hearts, not so long ago, and up to fifth on Saturday night after beating Motherwell. But, with six games to go before the split, Hearts are now 12 points behind Caley Thistle, and 11 adrift of third-placed Motherwell. Ross County are eight ahead.

McGlynn’s team have won one league game since the turn of the year, at home to Dundee, and have conceded three goals in each of their last three games. At a time when sides need to embark on a decent run of form if they are to claim a place in the upper half of the table, Hearts are getting worse, not better. There are extenuating circumstances other than the lack of cash.

Injuries have depleted McGlynn’s squad at the very time when he could have done with having everyone fit, and the sight of Danny Grainger, Jamie Hamill and Callum Paterson watching this game from behind the dugouts told its own story. All are still injured, as is club captain Marius Zaliukas. The loss of those players and the departure of others has taken a heavy toll, but it is not the whole story.

While the team fielded by McGlynn looked like an under-21 side with the usual permitted complement of overage players, there was substantial experience on the bench in the shape of John Sutton, a late substitute, and Mehdi Taouil, who went unused.

Sutton hardly had a touch, and the game might well have been too frantic for Taouil to make a useful contribution, so it would be unfair to blame McGlynn for omitting the pair from his starting line-up. But the presence of the two on the bench did show that the manager’s hand has not wholly been forced. He could have chosen more experienced teams in recent games, just as he could have opted to play two strikers. In choosing between 4-5-1 and 4-4-2, managers often have to strike a delicate balance. After all, what is the point of playing two up front if your midfield quartet is so overrun that they never get any ball to the strikers?

In this game, Hearts had to compete in really determined fashion to hold their own in the middle of the park, and might well have been pressed back if they had played with a four-man midfield from the start. They did hold their own physically, and played some impressive football at times, too, never more so than when Jason Holt accepted a pass on the edge of the penalty box, deftly made room for himself, then fired a shot into the far corner of the net. That was Hearts’ equaliser ten minutes into the second half, Gary Warren having given Caley Thistle a first-half lead with a header from an Aaron Dorran free-kick.

After getting back on terms, Hearts played brightly for a while but Billy McKay soon had Caley Thistle back in front with a back-post header after Owain Tudur Jones had nodded a free-kick back across goal. Twelve minutes later, Andy Webster equalised with a deflected shot after Nick Ross had headed off the line from Michael Ngoo. At that stage, taking the sting out of the game might have been Hearts’ best policy but they soldiered on and let themselves down with more sloppy marking at a set piece when Warren grabbed his second with another header. This time the goal came from a corner but the defence was equally culpable.

Few teams can afford to give their opponents two goals and still expect to emerge with anything from a game, and this Hearts side know that if they can cut out those basic errors they should have the beating of quite a few clubs.

“We’re playing quite well and we definitely deserved at least a point against Inverness,” is how Holt put it. “It comes down to small margins and we’re losing out.”

It is easy to sympathise with those young Hearts players who have been given an extended run in the first team because of the club’s problems both fiscal and physical. Easy, too, to sympathise with McGlynn, a decent man doing his best in circumstances which would have severely tested any of his more illustrious predecessors in the job.

But, as Hearts lie a lowly tenth, it would be wrong to regard their season as one blighted by bad luck. For they have been fortunate too, above all in the fact that their financial crisis has hit them a year after Rangers’ problems led to the Ibrox club’s demotion from the SPL. Without that crisis, Dundee would never have been promoted, which would have left Hearts fighting a desperate battle against relegation.

Seen in that light, failure to reach the top six should be of minimal concern to the club’s supporters, no matter how galling it may be to them to lose winnable games such as this one.