Facing two major foes over the space of a few days is never easy but Hearts can take some belief from the fact that at least their meetings with champions Celtic, today, and city rivals Hibs, on Wednesday, will take place at Tynecastle.
Throughout a troublesome season that has failed to live up to hopes or expectations, one of the few crumbs of comfort has been the club’s home form and while there was a delayed return to Gorgie due to the building of a new main stand, since being back on home turf they have made the most of it and remain unbeaten there this season.
The results include the momentous 4-0 victory over Brendan Rodgers’ men back in December. That prevented the Glasgow side extending their unbeaten domestic run beyond 69 matches and could fuel a desire for revenge this afternoon. Tynecastle was also the setting as Hearts brought Hibs’ run of nine derbies without loss to a halt in the Scottish Cup fourth-round tie in January.
Don Cowie played in both of these matches and the midfielder believes the run of 14 home games without defeat is testament to Tynecastle’s powers.
“We have just earned a respect when we play at home. Teams know, if they come here, it’s going to be difficult. It’s a unique stadium, it’s one that as an away player I’ve sampled,” explains Cowie, right.
“It’s one you look forward to because it’s a great arena but it’s a very daunting place to come and play and we have managed to use that to our benefit. When you do well there and the fans are behind you, it’s a powerful place to play.
“We have just not been able to replicate that away from home and it’s been frustrating. We’ve spoken about it with the manager and it’s something he’s got this pre-season to really work on. Whether we are going to play differently, we will try to replicate what we do at home away from home, hopefully.”
A historical defect, with away results undermining most of the past decade, the issue will need to be addressed but the focus, for the next few days at least, is on how they maintain their upper hand at home.
“It’s been well-documented that the home form has been the positive so it’s imperative we keep that going into next season. It can give us a bit of momentum and give the fans something to get excited about it, it’s two massive games for us, the champions and then your rivals coming, so obviously we’ll deal with the Celtic game first, but they are both equally important.”
Manager Craig Levein knows how big a blow their 4-0 triumph over Celtic was. But while few saw it coming, he says Brendan Rodgers was magnanimous in defeat. A fan of the Parkhead boss, despite a few verbal spats this term, he wasn’t the man he voted for as Manager of the Year but says he could end up being the stand-out candidate if Celtic complete the double treble.
“He is a decent fella,” said Levein. “That job brings a huge amount of pressure and you can see that from the other side of the city but the contrast to what is going on there is that stability at Celtic.
“They have been brilliant, haven’t they? Ronny Deila is a lovely man but with similar resources, he didn’t do as well as Brendan. I’m not saying he had the same pedigree as Brendan but it is a pretty straightforward contrast. Maybe Brendan has had more money but a lot of the same players played [when they wrapped up the league title] last Sunday and that is telling. I’m not being disrespectful to Ronny in any way but it is an easy contrast.
“I think Brendan has done a brilliant job and I think in both seasons they have been in third gear at times.”
But that form and ability to see out games without hitting top gear is what made Hearts’ victory over them so startling and while Levein is fearful of a backlash in their first visit to Tynecastle since, he and Cowie insist they earned the points and the plaudits that day.
“I don’t think we played brilliant football that day but we just showed an intensity and how powerful it can be when you get the fans behind you and the pressure you can put on the opposition and it’s definitely the blueprint of what we want to try to do there,” says Cowie. “A couple of weeks ago, against Aberdeen, very similar, a very good team but we made it difficult for them and made them make mistakes and when we do get the lead we know we are a difficult team to peg back. We have a good defence that has been very strong this season.
“At the time it was exciting. You’re not desperate to beat them just because it’s a record, but you respect how good they are, the run of results they had, how consistent they were and the manner we managed to beat them was still very pleasing, but we didn’t manage to build on it, that’s the frustrating thing.”
Stuck in sixth place regardless of the final few results this term, Hearts’ aim is to remedy that next season. But Cowie says they have to be honest about the gap that needs to be bridged.
“The league doesn’t lie,” he added. “We’ve not been consistent enough. We’ve won four away games all season, two against Hamilton, so it’s not been good enough and there’s no point hiding and pretending it is. That’s why we have been so far behind them [the top four teams]. Aberdeen have been a benchmark for teams in the last few years and now Hibs have managed to replicate that this year and done tremendous so it’s something we really need to strive for next year.”