Covid 19 numbers are reducing thanks to vaccines and lockdown will slowly ease into spring. Optimism is growing that a semblance of normality will soon return to everyone’s daily lives.
Sport, its participants and supporters are desperate to function without restrictions and get back to joyous days in full stadiums. None more so than at Tynecastle Park.
The prospect of Hearts playing Premiership football in front of their fans again may well become reality in just a few months’ time. It is a huge incentive for players and staff entering the final ten games of the season.
They travel to Inverness for Friday night’s live match in front of the BBC Scotland television cameras seeking to extend their 11-point lead at the top of the Championship table.
It is very much about the here and now for manager Robbie Neilson and his squad, determined not to become presumptuous about automatic promotion back to the top flight.
However, the stark reality is that the quicker they rack up points, the quicker they can look forward to what represents something of a holy grail: Premiership football at a bustling Tynecastle.
“That’s been the incentive the whole season, to get this club back to the Premiership,” explained defender Stephen Kingsley, who last month extended his contract to stay with Hearts for next season.
“That's the first step to getting us back to the top end of the Premiership. Everyone's going to look forward to having the fans back.
“Me personally, hopefully if we can get over the line this season and get the fans back, it's something I'd be really looking forward to. Hopefully we can complete the first stage of that and get promoted.”
Kingsley is one of several players signed by Hearts since last summer still waiting to play in front of the home support. “It’s definitely a regret. It’s something that I knew a lot about,” he added.
“I had the opportunity of playing in front of them before [with Falkirk] and coming into the club that was something I was really looking forward to. It’s not been the case so far, but hopefully in the future I’ll be able to experience it.”
At Inverness, record attendance figures are being set despite the fact the Caledonian Stadium’s stands will remain empty tonight. A virtual ticket scheme has taken off thanks in part to the generosity of Hearts fans and the total could hit 10,000 before kick-off.
“It’s brilliant to see how many tickets have been sold,” said Kingsley. “It’s work as usual for us really, we’ll have to create our own atmosphere and it will be a tough game up there. It’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.
“Obviously it’s great to see with the fans buying tickets for this game. I wasn’t too aware of it before coming in but seeing the reaction for Friday’s game is great.”
Not good enough
Following successive 1-1 draws with Queen of the South and Morton, Hearts’ points advantage at the Championship’s summit has reduced from 13 to 11. A win tonight would put them 14 clear ahead of tomorrow’s fixtures.
“The results haven't been good enough for the last couple of weeks. We know we need to be doing better than that,” admitted Kingsley.
“Saturday was especially frustrating because, in the first half, I thought we played very well. It was just that last five per cent and finishing these chances that we needed to take advantage of.
“That was frustrating but we created the chances. We're working very hard to try take some of those opportunities and, looking forward, hopefully that can put us on another run again.”
Inverness don’t have their troubles to seek despite the heartening response to their online ticket campaign. Manager John Robertson was given compassionate leave earlier this week after a family bereavement, while his assistant Scott Kellacher is absent through illness.
That prompted the Highland club to hire Neil McCann as interim manager to help coaches Barry Wilson and Ryan Esson.
McCann, 46, is a former Hearts team-mate of Neilson’s and was interviewed for the manager’s job at the Edinburgh club last November prior to Daniel Stendel’s appointment.
“We're expecting a tough game. Neil coming in might change a few things, I'm not too sure but we're just focusing on ourselves,” said Kingsley.
“With everything that's gone on in the last couple of weeks, we've got a lot to prove and get ourselves back on track. We understand it's going to be a tough challenge up there so we need to make sure we’re ready for it.”
More ruthless approach
There have been calls for a more ruthless approach in front of goal with Hearts bulging the net only four times in their last four outings. Suggestions of complacency because of their sizeable points advantage are dismissed.
Recent signings Armand Gnanduillet, Gary Mackay-Steven, Gervane Kastaneer and Aaron McEneff are still adjusting to life with their new club and improving their varying levels of fitness.
Kingsley stressed there is no lack of effort on the part of the players at Riccarton. “Everyone's been at it. The results haven't been good enough for the last couple of weeks but it's not through a lack of trying.
“We've been training well, it's just about trying to get back on that winning run again and hopefully we can start that on Friday then kick on again for the last ten games of the season.”