John Sutton fears over Hearts’ SPL position

RELEGATION is becoming a concern for as Hearts languish second bottom of the Scottish Premier League. Gary Locke was in charge of the Edinburgh club for Saturday’s 2-1 home defeat by Motherwell following John McGlynn’s sacking. Sutton scored their goal but, despite his team’s 15-point advantage, the striker admitted he is wary of being caught by bottom-placed Dundee.

Tomorrow evening’s visit of St Johnstone offers a chance to extend that gap. Then comes an Edinburgh derby and the Scottish Communities League Cup final. All are massive games for different reasons. Sutton feels the next two weeks are crucial and stressed Hearts cannot afford to be dragged any closer to the bottom of the league.

“As a player you want to play in big games and they don’t come any bigger,” he said. “The disappointing thing is it looks like making the top six is out of our hands. If you’re in the top six, you’re playing for Europe or in games that can affect the title.

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“First of all, we’ve got to make sure we don’t get relegated because you never know what Dundee are going to do. The chances are there will be a few dead rubbers in the bottom six. That’s disappointing because we want to play in big games against Hibs and Celtic.

“The fans have been unbelievable. Their fundraising saved the club late last year and they have every right to expect more from us on the pitch. I didn’t hear any rumblings on Saturday, they got right behind us again and we can’t thank them enough. It’s disappointing we couldn’t send them home any happier.

“We haven’t talked about relegation – we were always looking up the league – but the fact is we’re second bottom. If you’re in Dundee at the moment, we’re the team to catch. We still have international players and players with unbelievable ability but unless we start putting results together we aren’t going to be safe.

“A lot has been made about the strength of the squad. In my opinion we have good squad strength and good individual players but we’ve got to play well as a team. You can talk about the management but it’s up to us as players to help the fans and the manager out.”

Sutton was reinstated to the starting line-up having been marginalised for much of McGlynn’s reign. He started Saturday’s match alongside Michael Ngoo in a 4-4-2 formation and is determined to forge an understanding with the on-loan Liverpool player.

“Hopefully it’s a chance for me. If there’s two strikers playing it’s a sign of a bit more of an attacking intent,” said Sutton. “If you can get an understanding with your partner – whether it’s me and Michael or me and Goggsy (Gordon Smith) – you can create chances. Hopefully this is just the start of a good relationship up there.

“There is a sense we let Lockie down on Saturday because you all know how much Lockie cares for Hearts. The players are aware how good the fans have been. I’ve always been lucky to play for clubs with good fans but really we should be the second biggest team in Scotland with Rangers out of the league. We’re languishing in the league, we haven’t played well and we haven’t put back-to-back wins together.

“The fans have stayed with us and, to an extent, people like Lockie have stayed with us as well. You just want to repay the faith they’ve shown. It’s going to be tricky getting into the top six now but we’ve got some big games coming up.

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“There’s tomorrow night, then the Edinburgh derby and then the cup final. There is still a hell of a lot to play for.”

This certainly was not the start Locke desired. Hearts’ player development manager, Darren Murray, is officially joint interim manager with Locke, but the former Tynecastle captain seemed the man in charge. He was poised at the edge of the technical area for much of the afternoon, with Murray very much in the background beside the dugout.

Quite literally, it was a beginning to forget as Hearts fell 2-0 behind against Motherwell inside the first eight minutes with their defence once again looking shambolic. McGlynn was heavily criticised for such flaws. He has now gone, but the problems evidently still remain and badly need addressed.

The visitors were simply irresistible in the first half as Michael Higdon, James McFadden and Nicky Law destroyed their opponents. They cut open the Hearts defence time after time, which in itself is strange given they have two Scotland internationalists in the centre of it. Higdon stroked the opener after three minutes before a Dylan McGowan own goal gave Motherwell a two-goal advantage.

Sutton headed home after a cross by the impressive Arvydas Novikovas on 59 minutes. The Lithuanian changed the context of the game coming on as a half-time substitute and allowed Hearts to dominate the second period. However, they fell just short of what was required to source an equaliser.

“As I said in the dressing-room, why did we take 45 minutes to produce a good half of football?” asked Sutton, referring to a gallant second half performance from Hearts. “Would we have been like that if we weren’t 2-0 down? Would we have shown the same drive or had the fear drive us on to do something better? We’ve got to start games like that. When we did play like that, I think the fans could see there was a real hunger there, a desire to play for the shirt and a real ambition. With the quality we have, we will be a handful for teams if we play at that tempo.

“We’ve lost players who were some of our top players. If we’d played better as a team this year was an opportunity to do well with Rangers not in the league. We haven’t been good enough to be challenging the likes of Motherwell. You can imagine what the place would’ve been like if we had been fighting for Champions League football.”

The financial problems of Vladimir Romanov, Hearts’ majority shareholder, have caused some consternation within the Tynecastle dressing room following the collapse of Ukio Bankas. “We’ve been kept informed about what’s going on,” said Sutton. “It is worrying because, although we get well recompensed for what we do, it’s not like we’re on Manchester City wages. Most of us all have mortgages and bills to pay so, when you hear news like that, there’s no doubt it’s a worry. Yet we could still finish the season with silverware. Previous Hearts teams have done better than this but not come out of the season with a trophy.”

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That may be a perfect way to bid farewell to a host of experienced high-earning players who are expected to leave Tynecastle this summer. Sutton, though, is not one of them.

“We don’t know who is leaving yet. I’ve got another year on my contract and I’ve got no intention of going anywhere. Unless you’re going to a very good club, it’s always going to be a step down leaving Hearts because of the support. There has been talk of wage bill reductions but no-one has their heart set on moving away. Everyone realises it’s a privilege to play for Hearts.”