Thousands of fans watching games from their living rooms have seen the Tynecastle side’s performance level fluctuate from one extreme to the other – sometimes week to week – whilst striving for Premiership promotion.
They were exhilarating and devastating in beating Dundee 6-2, Queen of the South 6-1 and Raith Rovers 4-0. They were also uninspiring and enraging while losing 2-1 to Dunfermline, 3-1 to Dundee and 3-2 to Raith.
Nonetheless, Hearts are presently out in front as the most dominant Championship side of the last few years according to statistics. Having completed 19 league games so far this term, they boast 13 victories, three draws and three losses – resulting in a win ratio of 68 per cent.
Provided they maintain momentum they will finish with a better win percentage than the last four teams to top the division.
Dundee United, with Robbie Neilson as manager, earned a controversial promotion last year to plunder Hearts’ Premiership place.
They played 28 Championship fixtures before the Covid-enforced shutdown, winning 18, drawing five and losing five. They finished 14 points ahead of second-placed Inverness Caledonian Thistle with a 64 per cent win percentage.
Ross County claimed the title in 2019 after a 36-game campaign. They won 21 matches, drawing eight and losing seven and finished six points in front of Dundee United with a win ratio of 58 per cent.
In 2018, St Mirren achieved automatic promotion back to the top flight. Of their 36 matches, 23 were wins, five draws and eight defeats. They topped the table 12 points better off than runners-up Livingston with a 64 per cent win percentage.
Hibs won the Championship in 2017 after completing 36 rounds, winning 19 games, drawing 14 and losing only three. They went up 11 points ahead of second-placed Falkirk with a win ratio of 53 per cent.
Although Hearts’ statistics better all of the above, their considerable financial muscle should be taken into account. Playing budgets at Riccarton are always going to dwarf those at Ross County and St Mirren, and will also be bigger than at Dundee United or Hibs.
So, with Neilson having defected from Tannadice Park to Tynecastle Park last summer, his new team are doing what is expected of them. In truth, it would be an almighty catastrophe if they didn’t win promotion from this position.
The general view is that a number of new recruits are needed for Hearts to compete in next season’s Premiership. Some signings have worked, others haven’t, and there will be more incomings and outgoings this summer.
Neilson inherited a malaise not of his own making at Riccarton and is in the process of trying to eradicate it. He didn’t hand three-year and four-year contracts to players not worthy of the jersey but finds himself lumbered with them nonetheless.
He is just nine months into the job, therefore it would be unrealistic to expect him to have fully transformed the dressing-room mentality yet.
Sports performance consultants and mindset coaches say it is generally accepted that a manager needs three to five years to build a successful winning culture within a football club.
Only this season are Rangers where they want to be three years since appointing Steven Gerrard. Neilson may well require similar time and patience. Based on the success of his previous spell in charge of Hearts, he deserves the chance to aim for the Premiership’s upper echelons again.
He also needs assistance from influential figures within the first-team changing room to get there. A team’s mindset won’t change simply because the manager and a couple of coaches demand it. That happens when players themselves call one another out and urge people to alter their methods or attitudes.
Means to an end
Questions have been raised over Hearts’ style of play this season regardless of the 14-point advantage. It is labelled overly pedestrian and lacking a cutting edge at times, particularly when results go badly.
This led to some stinging criticism of Neilson in particular. Board members haven't escaped the wrath of fans wanting a more assertive approach, either. Yet Hearts are the Championship’s top scorers by some distance, rattling in 46 goals in those 19 league games to date.
Possession football in Scotland’s second tier might not be a common tactic but this year is very much the means to an end in that regard.
The long-term plan at Tynecastle is to challenge in the Premiership, qualify for Europe on a regular basis and eventually try to make a better impact at that level.
Recent history shows the most successful teams in the top flight have been able to dominate possession to control games whilst also displaying a ruthless edge in front of goal.
That approach may not always yield the desired reward in the Championship, where physicality, tenacity and aggression can often be the order of the day. However, the alternative potentially carries more risk.
Hearts could go direct by launching balls forward in every game this season and possibly score even more goals. They would then need to totally transform their game during the summer to be ready for a new approach in the Premiership.
The management team seem determined to stick to their blueprint for the purpose of maintaining continuity. Statistics show there is justification for doing so with eight league games left on the Edinburgh club’s fixture list.