It didn’t take the Hearts squad long to suss just how seriously manager Craig Levein was taking this season.
An overhaul of the playing personnel in the summer was followed by the toughest pre-seasons many of them have experienced but it ensured that no-one was left doubting what was demanded of them.
Digging deep, they learned a lot about each other’s mindset and the gruelling sessions helped their forge strong bonds as they worked to pull each other through.
“Training has been brilliant and we give our all in every session. We are a lot fitter than last season and that has shown on the pitch,” explains Michael Smith, who is one of the few players who started last season to have survived the cull and commanded a place in the starting line up this season.
“I came in halfway through pre-season last year and the boys were saying they hadn’t done a lot of running. The game’s moving on with a lot of stuff with the football and things like that, but you still have to get that base fitness in with a little bit of running at the start and I don’t think they’d done that. This year after the pre-season’s we’ve had, we’re reaping the rewards.
“Even the second day of pre-season we did a lot of running and the boys were like ‘wow! This is mad’. Then when we got to the beach they thought ‘aw, a beach day, brilliant’ and we’re up and down sand dunes. They quickly realised we mean business this year.”
That day trip to the infamous Gullane sands was as tough as it got but, looking round the dressing room now, Smith believes it provided a solid foundation for the league and cup campaigns and helped them get the season off to a bold start.
“We are a band of brothers and that day at Gullane Beach was my hardest day in football without any exception. But we came out of that feeling very strong and feeling better and more together.
“We went to a hotel afterwards for lunch and everyone was just silent. Everyone was just knackered. It was great, though, everyone had got through it and pulled each other through and the attitude within the changing room is brilliant. That’s where the togetherness comes from. If you get a tough day on a Saturday you know that you can pull someone through and they can pull you through. It helps knowing that you have those people out on the pitch.
“If you’re not playing well as a team on a Saturday you know the mental strength of the squad can really get you through a game and get you three points.
Sitting top of the Premiership with five wins out of five, it is a far cry from 12 months ago. A difficult start to that term meant that it was December before the team could lay claim to their fifth league victory and, while the upturn in fortunes has increased expectations, Smith says he would rather have that to contend with that than the struggling form and managerial upheavals of a year ago.
“It is a lot nicer than last season but we’ve got to stay grounded,” stressed the Northern Irishman. “Some fans get carried away but we know it is only five games in and there is a long way to go. It is nice at the minute and we just need to see where it takes us.”
This afternoon they host newly-promoted Livingston, who have also burst out the blocks and sit in joint second place and Smith says that no-one in the Tynecastle ranks will be underestimating them.
“We know our home form from last season was fantastic. It was the away form that was killing us. But we seem a lot more solid and the lads that have come in have a great attitude and mentality not to mention their ability. They can play. That has made us a lot more solid.
“Livingston are doing really well. They’ve got their own style of play and it’s working for them at the minute. But as we showed against Motherwell we can come up against physical, direct teams and we’ll stand up to it.”