Hearts manager Daniel Stendel has admitted trying to revive a team that have been on a descending trajectory for more than a year has been much more complicated than he envisaged.
The fact the Tynecastle side have only amassed six points from the available 30 since the German was appointed as Craig Levein’s successor on 7 December both supports his claim and illuminates the club’s predicament.
There can be no underestimating the magnitude of today’s visit of Hamilton as Hearts, who are one point adrift of Accies, attempt to climb off the Premiership basement.
With only 12 Premiership matches left, time is running out to salvage any modicum of pride from a car crash of a campaign that has yielded a paltry 18 points from 26 outings. Hearts began the season with designs of qualifying for Europe, but any joy now will be derived from fending off the spectre of relegation.
Three days on from the demoralising 5-0 loss at Celtic, Stendel remains steadfast in his belief that Hearts will avoid the fate that befell the club six years ago.
“It’s a really big game for us. Saturday will not decide what happens at the end of the season but it’s a big chance to make the right step for the rest of the season,” said Stendel.
“The expectations from myself are so different from the results of the last two months. But I need to learn also.
“The situation for me was also a little bit new. It was really the first time that I had started in a situation like that.
“The problem was not in the last six months. It was a little bit longer.
“My feeling is that the task was so much more complicated than I expected.
“But this is my job. I think we all learn from the situation. In the end, we achieve our goal and we stay in the league and we can look back and say: ‘Okay, it was not easy but we learned from this and this and this and we have that experience’. I think it’s helpful for us, for me, for the team, for the club.
“This is my biggest goal: to say that after the season.”
Stendel will take to the dugout today buoyed by the unanimous backing he was afforded by the supporters at a meeting on Thursday night.
Given the team’s predicament, the former Barnsley and Hannover 96 manager had expected at least a few murmurings of discontent.
He added: “First I have to say I got the feeling everyone is staying behind us, and this is not normal.
“I expected a bit of a different atmosphere. But it’s my job to deal with that – I have responsibility for the results.
“I know the results haven’t been what we all expected. But there was no chance I’d be scared of the situation.
“It was a good feeling they said they would stay behind us. They believe in us and it is a good sign. It’s a sign that Hearts is a special club, that we all stay together in hard times.”
One benefit for Stendel is that Sean Clare and Michael Smith, who were forced off at Celtic Park with niggling hamstring and groin injuries respectively, are willing to put the team ahead of themselves this afternoon.
“Some players have a lot of injuries that aren’t so bad, they still want to play and want to help us,” he added.
“In a normal situation, it would be a bit different. But, in our situation, we look at it differently. Michael Smith and Sean Clare are examples, they’ve come back to help us and suffered for it. Anyone who can play will play.”
Hearts playmaker Jamie Walker was a member of the team that was relegated six years ago, but insists this feels different.
He said: “We’ve got better players. We’ve got higher quality players that have played at a better level than most of the players that we had before. Most of them were young kids back and we also had the 15-point deduction.
“No-one expected us to be in this situation..”
Hamilton goalkeeper Luke Southwood is ready to make his voice heard after losing skipper Brian Easton ahead of today’s crucial encounter.
Experienced defender Easton has been ruled out for up to 12 weeks after dislocating a shoulder in Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat by Aberdeen. He was replaced by Shaun Want who joined two other 23-year-olds and a 21-year-old in the Accies defence with Southwood himself just 22 and in his first season in league football.
Southwood, on loan from Reading, knows they need to stand up and be counted. He said: “Easty is a really good player and a good leader and character to have in the changing room, so losing him is a big blow. But it’s a good opportunity for me and other players to step up and show that we can lead as well in our performances and our communication.
“As the goalie it’s your job to take charge of the back four and the defensive-minded players.
“It’s definitely something I need to challenge myself to do in the upcoming games if there’s going to be new players coming in.”