Hearts: Old hands key to Gary Locke’s progress

Jamie Hamill sat out last season's League Cup final as Hearts lost to St Mirren, but says he would trade the chance of winning that trophy this year for a miraculous escape from relegation to the Championship. Photograph: Neil Hanna
Jamie Hamill sat out last season's League Cup final as Hearts lost to St Mirren, but says he would trade the chance of winning that trophy this year for a miraculous escape from relegation to the Championship. Photograph: Neil Hanna
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Hamill, MacDonald and Stevenson have been vital to Hearts, their manager tells Moira Gordon

BEING handed a League Cup final as your managerial debut can wreak havoc with your emotions. Gary Locke says his delight at landing the role of Hearts boss and leading his side out at Hampden last season was tempered by the disappointment he felt that his predecessor was being denied that opportunity.

He had been in the dugout with John McGlynn when the Tynecastle club secured their trip to the national stadium with a tense and turbulent semi-final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle which culminated in a penalty shoot-out triumph. But just days before the competition’s conclusion his gaffer was ousted and he was elevated.

“It was good last year but, for me, it should have been John taking the team,” said Locke. “He got us there and if we had managed to pull it off, it would have been down to John, no doubt about it. On the day of the game, it did feel a bit awkward.

“I don’t want to look too far ahead, and it will be a really difficult game against Inverness, but it would be really great to get back to another final.”

If that comes to pass he will undoubtedly feel he has earned the right to savour every single minute. The problems he has had to contend with have been well-documented. The uncertainty of administration, the financial constraints, the lack of experience in his squad, the 15-point penalty in the league, the manoeuvrings with backroom staff, the paucity of transfer dealings, the constant struggle to fill the bench, injuries to key players… the list goes on. Add his own inexperience, the shouts from certain quarters to have him replaced and the fact he has kept his sanity let alone found a way to help his players turn things around in recent weeks means there is no sense of guilt this year.

Refusing to budge from the pre-season assertion that the Premiership remains the primary focus, he describes the club’s progress to the semi-final of the League Cup as a bonus. It certainly wasn’t something he was taking for granted at the start of the campaign.

“It was difficult,” said Locke. “You looked at the young side we had and you are not really sure what we would be capable of. On our day we have shown that we can match teams and there are not many teams apart from Celtic who have really turned us over but with young lads you can go from one extreme to the other. I was there myself and I was inconsistent myself but the most important thing is that they are learning and improving and I can certainly see that.”

Some pundits and punters were casting aspersions about the validity of that claim as recently as last weekend, despite the fact his team had halted a run of winless results and taken four points from a possible six. They added another win, against St Mirren, on Wednesday night to secure their first back-to-back wins of the season, playing some of their best football in the process.

Locke puts that down to confidence and a great team spirit, as well as the effort put in by staff and players behind the scenes, in terms of strength and conditioning, gym work, sports science, match analysis and training ground sessions. This afternoon, just as a year ago, they will be bolstered by the inclusion of a loan striker. Paul McCallum joined the squad on Friday and will hope to make the same impact Michael Ngoo did on his debut. The Gorgie side are also boosted by the return of Ryan Stevenson from suspension.

“I have said all season that we can do so much on the training ground, we religiously go over shape and everything we are doing wrong, but once you cross that white line on a Saturday it’s up to the players,” stresses Locke.

With that in mind he remains grateful to the elder statesmen of the squad, the likes of Stevenson, Jamie MacDonald and Jamie Hamill, who accepted salary reductions to stay on at the club and try to help the cause.

“It would have been a struggle if they hadn’t,” adds Locke. “They have been massive this season and especially Jamie Hamill because he’s played the majority of games, he’s outfield and he is a leader – he talks. Danny Wilson’s the captain and a decent talker but we haven’t got a lot of leaders on the pitch. The lack of experience has been our downfall in a few games. If we’d had another couple of older players who can see games out it would have given us a better chance. The fact those three lads took wage cuts and wanted to stay speaks volumes for them.

“Maybe some people have forgotten about it but I certainly haven’t and it was a worry for me. If I had lost the three of them we would have been a really young squad.”

Hamill says he has no regrets. Having watched last season’s cup conclusion from the sidelines, he is keen to guide them into a second successive final, although he admits he would trade the chance of a medal and a trophy for a miraculous escape from relegation. “I’d love to get there and win one but keeping Hearts in the Premiership would be the bigger achievement, considering the 15-point deduction we had to face,” he said. “If I was to choose one, it would be staying in the league, hands down – same as everyone else in the dressing room – but I’d love to get there and stay in the league. Maybe getting there would take a wee bit of the strain away from the league and give us something to look forward to.”

Given their performances in the League Cup so far, it would be silly to completely write them off. The players have shown great tenacity, holding their nerve in penalty shoot-outs with Raith Rovers and Queen of the South to progress this far.

“It has been difficult sometimes and fans have to realise where we are at the moment and the process the club’s going through,” said Hamill. “I think some of them still expect us to be challenging for leagues and getting to cup finals. Everyone will be giving 110 per cent to try and get to the final but it would be up there with the Scottish Cup if we managed it. When I signed, part of my aim was to play in cup finals. That team was capable of doing that, but in the situation we’re in at the moment, to get to a cup final would have to be up there with previous finals, because of the size of the squad and the ages of the players. Hopefully we can produce the goods.”