Having won two of their last three matches – in the league at Pittodrie and the League Cup at Easter Road – the Tynecastle club appear to have turned the corner after a run of poor results. If they keep up that improvement this afternoon against opponents who are themselves struggling to find form, they will give their hopes of avoiding relegation a significant boost.
It will be the third time in the past couple of months that Hearts have taken on one of their relegation rivals, and Locke knows he has to ensure they have learned the lesson from the other two games. They welcomed St Mirren to Tynecastle, at a time when the Paisley side had yet to win a game in the Premiership, and lost 2-0. Three weeks later they went to Kilmarnock and lost again, by the same score.
On both occasions, Hearts basically failed to turn up. At least their previous defeats had been spirited: in those two games, they fell flat.
The fear that many members of Locke’s squad would face burn-out because the manager could not afford to rest them has been voiced all season, and was articulated again this week both by Locke himself and by strikers’ coach John Robertson. But at least the young players themselves appear to feel no such fear, and despite their recent setbacks in the league are raring to get back into action, according to Callum Paterson.
“I feel fresh enough,” the 19-year-old forward said when asked if he thought he could do with a rest. “I’m young and have not got any excuses to feel not fresh. I feel great.
“I played quite a bit last season, so I’m kind of used to getting a lot of games in a row. So I’m all right with it.
“Everyone’s buzzing about playing first-team football. Our last result up at Aberdeen was great. It would have been better to have a game the next weekend, but we had a break and now we’ve got to keep our confidence going into the Ross County game.
“All the boys are used to playing football. We’ve done it with the 19s, at 17-years-old, for our lives really. There’s not much depth to choose from, so we’ve not really got a choice to get a rest. Everyone’s just playing through it and enjoying it. I want to keep playing.”
Besides that general desire to be involved as much as possible, Paterson and his team-mates have a specific reason for wanting to be involved today: having conceded two late goals in Dingwall to lose 2-1 the last time they met Ross County, they are desperate to show they have learned the lesson of that match.
“We played well for the first 89 minutes, then lost it in the last couple of minutes and they scored two goals at the end,” recalled Paterson, who opened the scoring midway through the first half. “It really hurts.
“The first 89 minutes I thought we played really well – played good football and that. Then lapses in concentration lost us a couple of goals.
“It had a big effect on us – such a young team losing a couple of goals in the last minutes was sore. But it didn’t really take us that long [to get over it]. We focus on the next game, not on the past.
“The fans have been great throughout the season. To get another win would just encourage us even more. It would put the boys in good spirits and keep us going for the next games.”
Even in his down time, Paterson admits he can never quite keep his mind off football.
“Just sit about the house, really,” he said when asked how he relaxes.
“Football’s always on the brain.”