He returned to the bench on Saturday but the 24-year-old’s return to the starting line-up at Ibrox this weekend will be more about preventing goals than scoring them. At Rugby Park on Saturday interim manager Austin MacPhee’s side conceded defeat with 74 minutes remaining after some disastrous defending left them with a mountain to climb, one which they never looked like scaling.
Once again, former Scotland pivot Christophe Berra had the look of a player who had embarked upon a season too far while 17-year-old left-back Aaron Hickey was tortured for 45 minutes (he didn’t reappear for the second half) by Kilmarnock winger Chris Burke, who will be 36 a week today.
Hearts displayed all the organisation of a bounce game in a playground and were torn apart by a home side who were sharper and hungrier on the day. The goals, well taken from the hosts’ point of view, were cheaply conceded and there is every possibility that MacPhee’s men could be propping up the Premiership following their meeting with Rangers at Ibrox on Sunday. The idea that Hearts are too good to go down or that this is merely a blip can be discounted.
“To say the start killed us is an understatement; it was a crazy seven minutes,” said Northern Ireland full-back Michael Smith.
“We came here with a game plan, but we didn’t execute it on the pitch. In the first 15 minutes we were wide open and made some stupid decisions – and it cost us. That was the game dead and buried there. They then sat in and made it hard for us to break them down.
“Maybe we thought it would be easier than it was, but it’s always been tough when I’ve been here before and it was really poor from us.”
Understandably, after the game MacPhee was questioned about the damage this result (and performance) had done to his prospects of succeeding Craig Levein on a permanent basis but Smith believes that the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the 14 players who took part in this latest disappointment.
“Every loss is down to the players,” he said. “This is solely on us; we were very poor right from the off and I could sense that we just weren’t at the races. Do we need the stability of a manager? Yes and no. [Owner] Ann Budge has made a decision to take her time and it’s a big decision. I support that and, whatever she decides in the end, we’ll be fully behind it. When a manager gets sacked there’s always a bit of chaos around the club.
“The new manager might not like you so you have to make sure you do your best because, whoever comes in, they’ll be keeping an eye on us.”
Whoever may end up at the helm, Smith is under no illusions about the severity of their current plight.
“We’re only one loss away from being at the bottom again,” he said. “We need to pull our finger out and everyone must realise we’re in a scrap at the bottom.
“We have the quality to get out of this but, again, it’s a mentality problem.
“We had the same tactics and the same personnel [as in the 5-2 win over St Mirren in the previous game] but it didn’t happen for us. We had to change it ourselves but we didn’t look like getting back into the game.”
Kilmarnock had lost twice at home to Hearts last season but that sequence never looked like being extended when Burke fired them in front from Mohamed El Makrini’s pass. Eamonn Brophy took advantage of slack marking to head home a Burke cross and the veteran then ran half the length of the pitch to complete the scoring, prompting El Makrini to tip him for a Scotland recall.
“With his experience, he could maybe be important in the play-offs,” said the Dutchman. “Of course, the Scotland manager [Steve Clarke] knows him really well. These play-offs are obviously vital and maybe you need something extra. He has that, absolutely. You can see the way he created things in this game and his fantastic cross for Brophy. Only a few players have that. Chris was fantastic today; he is a special player.”