The financial problems at Tynecastle are all too real, but in their last two games the Hearts squad have put their worries over unpaid wages behind them to play some of their best football of the season. If they claim the three points at Pittodrie tonight, Paulo Sergio’s team will have won three games running for the first time in this campaign – and will have given a boost to their hopes of finishing third.
Those hopes appeared forlorn just a couple of weeks ago, when they were in the middle of a barren patch in which they won just one game out of seven. Since losing at Celtic, however, Hearts have beaten Dunfermline 4-0 and Motherwell 2-0, proving with the latter result in particular that, on their day, they can still be the best of the rest behind the Old Firm.
Hearts are fifth at present, a point adrift of St Johnstone and still six points behind Motherwell, who have a game in hand. They need to raise funds in January, and plan to do so by selling some of their best players. If they lose too many they will struggle to stay in the top six, but if the core of the squad stays together they will be confident of at least mounting a strong bid to wrest that third place away from Motherwell.
“We needed to get the three points to put a little bit of pressure on them,” full-back Ryan McGowan said of Saturday’s 2-0 win at home to Motherwell. “We’re already on a bit of a run just now, but hopefully we can get a run of results together, put a lot of pressure on and try and get third by the end of the season.
“It’s a tough trip up to Aberdeen, but hopefully we’ll win that, then it’s the big one,” he continued, referring to the Edinburgh derby at Easter Road on Monday. “They’re two games we’re looking to get six points from. Wherever we go we’re looking for three points. We don’t really go anywhere to look for a point or try and hold them off. If we play our game we’re a match for anyone, so we’re going up there looking for the three points.”
While Ryan Stevenson has refused to play any more for the club in protest at the unpaid salaries, the rest of the squad have felt able to put that issue to one side, at least until the SPL holds a hearing into the issue next Wednesday. Dubbed “the volunteers” by some of the club’s supporters, they have displayed a new-found togetherness in their last couple of games which bodes well for the rest of the season.
“I don’t see one unhappy face in the changing room,” McGowan added. “All of us are focused on what we have to do. The main thing is we’re football players and that’s what we want to do – play football and win games.”
After fielding the same starting XI on the last two Saturdays, Sergio will make at least one change tonight because of injury to Jamie Hamill, with Darren Barr probably slotting in at right-back for his first start of the season. The manager said at the weekend he would think about making more changes, but he is likely to decide against that given the ideal balance the team has shown in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
Although Sergio is certain to lose more squad members in January, he will also have that squad augmented by the return from loan spells of some of the most promising talent at the club. Cowdenbeath confirmed yesterday that they have been unsuccessful in their bid to extend the stay of Jordan Morton at Central Park, and that the 19-year-old will be back at Tynecastle next week.
However, goalkeeper Mark Ridgers and striker Rob Ogleby still have one more game to play at East Fife – against Cowdenbeath on Monday – before returning to Edinburgh. The pair thought they had played their last match for the Methil club when the Division Two fixture at home to Dumbarton was postponed on Boxing Day, but learned yesterday that, due to what they called an administrative error, they would still be East Fife players for the derby at Central Park.