It doesn’t sound an entirely promising set of circumstances. A cup game in front of the cameras against a team smarting from being beaten 5-2 at home on their last outing. Throw into the mix poor form and add the likely absence of the player reckoned to make the team tick, then it is clear Hearts manager Craig Levein faces a daunting task against Motherwell on Friday as he attempts to save his skin and muffle the critics.
It could be worse, of course. The Betfred Cup tie could be at home. But it could be a lot better. Steven Naismith might not be struggling to shake off a hamstring injury for starters.
Hearts’ creditable performance and narrow defeat in the Scottish Cup final against Celtic in May was widely interpreted as having bought Levein more time in the dugout. Around three months and two league games it’s turned out.
We’ve not even reached the end of the first transfer window and he is in the stocks again. The almost overwhelming negativity mirrors the atmosphere that pervaded the last days of his Scotland tenure. At least Levein seems far better equipped to handle the brickbats.
The cynic might suggest he’s simply getting used to it.
The wall of boos that greeted the latest unacceptable performance in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Ross County has become a regular soundtrack after Hearts games at home. It’s become almost as much part of the Tynecastle experience as Tannoy man Scott Wilson’s pre-match appeal for fans to make some noise.
It’s probably helpful that Friday’s potentially hugely significant clash with Motherwell is away since this provides some measure of relief from the prevailing mood in Gorgie. It also gives the Tynecastle pitch further time to recover after having lots of inanimate objects on it. There was also damage caused by hosting a concert to open the Edinburgh International Festival at the beginning of the month.
Some claim that a defeat on Friday, followed by likely loss away to Celtic the following weekend, would mean Levein has already managed for the last time at Tynecastle. Managerial sackings in August can happen – remember Ian Cathro, axed by Levein himself. It might still happen again at Hearts. But it’s likely the game against Hamilton Accies on the last day of this month will be a more telling encounter in terms of Levein’s future prospects than this Friday’s trip to Fir Park.
For a start, there seems little appetite from owner Ann Budge to remove him. She’s invested a lot in Levein, likes him and is still permitting him to sign players. It’s understood Republic of Ireland international midfielder Glen Whelan, left, will join in the next 48 hours having trained with the first-team again yesterday.
Whelan is the second former Premier League player to sign in a matter of days. Former Cardiff City player Loic Damour joined last week and made his debut the next day against Ross County. Aidy White, the former Leeds United full-back, also played his first game on Saturday and bar conceding a late penalty, performed well given his lengthy lay-off. They are all well established, clearly competent players who are more than good enough for the Scottish Premiership.
Levein deserves the chance to meld them into his team. Not an endless chance, as many Hearts supporters complain he is being given, but a chance. Hearts’ performances have been poor for the most part going back to the start of this year but they still finished top of their Betfred Cup group and with the game entering its final stages were leading Aberdeen 2-1 last weekend. It also needs to be remembered that the final score on Saturday was 0-0. A Hearts team still trying to gel earned a point. They also gained a point on teams they are likely to be challenging for third place, Aberdeen and Hibs. Both these sides suffered worst results, against St Mirren and Rangers respectively, on a telling weekend of Premiership action. It seems the only gap will be between the Old Firm and the rest, unlike last season when those teams fighting relegation became detached early on.
Competition is fierce. But Aberdeen and Hibs at least won their opening league games – Aberdeen having struck two late goals against Levein’s side. After not winning any of their last seven league games last season, Hearts only have a single point after two games of this campaign and could well go into the game against Hamilton Accies sitting bottom of the league.
It’s that fixture that could prove crucial to Levein since it’s at home and falls before a lull in league matters as Scotland host Russia and Belgium in a Euro 2020 doubleheader. Not since the last days of his reign as Scotland manager will Levein have felt so uneasy about an approaching international break.