Four matches since Steven Naismith hobbled off, and four matches without a goal, let alone a win. For a Hearts squad that has proved adept at rolling with the blows this term and still been able to punch above their weight, they have now need prove their resilience once again.
After 13 games without defeat, they bounced back from their maiden loss, with solid victories over Aberdeen and Dundee, but, while they battled to absorb the injured-enforced absence of club captain Christophe Berra, John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu, losing Naismith, while not perhaps denting their resolve, has rocked them.
The recent international break took them two weeks closer to welcoming their stalwarts back, but until Berra can resume on-field leadership duties at the beginning of next month and Naismith returns to the fold in a matter of weeks, manager Craig Levein is hoping that the trip to Paisley this weekend will give the rest of the squad the opportunity to prove their ability to carve out wins in difficult circumstances.
“That’s vital,” said Levein. “When we played Aberdeen and Dundee before the cup match, we managed to win both of those and I thought we were very unfortunate not to win the Hibs game. And I also thought it was a bit of a smash and grab [win] by Kilmarnock last time. But the key thing is still finding ways of winning, even when we don’t have our best players – and also when we’re not playing particularly well. I’m not saying we’re not playing well. I think we’re playing really well just now. But that’s the challenge.”
Naismith leaves a gaping void, though. Not only is the Scotland striker the club’s top scorer this season with 11 goals, he has been an inspirational talisman on the park and a key reason Hearts were the early Premiership leaders until Celtic hit their stride.
Added to the loss of Ikpeazu and considered in the context of the competition in recent matches, and it is understandable that goals have proved harder to come by recently.
“With such high profile players, I can’t not talk about them. And it’s not just their play, it’s their influence on the team. It’s also the other teams looking at our line-up and seeing Naismith, Souttar, Christophe, big Uche who has been a big plus for us, all missing.
“So, once those players come back, we’ll get two things. We’ll get the football benefit – and we’ll also get the benefit of other teams thinking: ‘Uh-oh, we’ve got a tough game today.’ The challenge for all of us is picking up points in the meantime.”
Against relegation contenders St Mirren others will have to step up and end the four-game goal drought.
Levein added: “I don’t think it’s a lack of belief. We just haven’t been clinical enough. It’s an opportunity for Steven MacLean, Craig Wighton and the other attack-minded players to step up for the foreseeable future. There’s some really good things in Craig Wighton’s game but he’s got into some bad habits and we speak about how we can improve them. We push him really hard because I don’t want to see him not get to where he should be.”
Sean Clare is another who is being asked to deliver. The 22-year-old will be included again tomorrow, with Levein confident he is ready to shine.
“He’s got a lot more to give. I see quite a lot of things in training that make me feel good and he’s at the point I’m ready to start him. As well as getting him up to full speed, I want him to be able to help and contribute to victories. He’s slowly adjusting to a slightly different type of football.”