They have been widely written off for tomorrow’s trip to Aberdeen on the basis of their recent poor form, which culminated in a shameful 5-0 defeat against Livingston last Friday. The only positive to emerge from that excruciating trip to West Lothian was the subsequent humility shown by the players as they chose to scrap their Christmas trip to Prague.
The awareness that they had capitulated in an unacceptable manner in the last 20 minutes at the Tony Macaroni Arena has prompted in-depth discusssions at Riccarton this week as Hearts try to get their faltering campaign back on track. Supporters making the trip to the Granite City tomorrow can only hope that the anguish of the past week proves enough to draw a spirited response against Aberdeen.
“It’s been tough,” defender Michael Smith told the Evening News. “It was a disastrous result and we were hurting after the game. The mood in the changing room was bad, it’s the worst I’ve experienced since I’ve been here. It wasn’t right for us to go on the trip. As players we made the decision to cancel it. We just couldn’t go, we wouldn’t have enjoyed it, simple as that.
“After games like last week’s, you need to look back over it and give a few boys a rollicking. It stays in that meeting room afterwards, it doesn’t go any further than that. You get on with it and look forward to the next game but it’s certainly worthwhile having discussions like that.
“We’re looking to turn things round this weekend. We’ve been working hard and we’re looking forward to the game. The quicker we can get back out there and try to put it out of our systems, the better. Training’s been good this week and it really is time for us to stand up and be counted now.”
Although a positive response from Hearts is expected, there are no guarantees that showing extra fight alone will be enough to secure a result. Aberdeen, after all, have been the form team in the Premiership over the past two months, with seven wins in their last nine league games hauling them from the bottom six into the top four. A serious test of character beckons for Hearts just two months on from an impressive 2-1 win over the Dons at Tynecastle that took them three points clear at the top of the table.
“Aberdeen is a hard game but we need a reaction from last weekend,” said Smith. “It’s a good game to look forward to. They’re starting to play the way we know they can. The last time we played them, I was suspended so I was watching, but the lads did really well against them. They didn’t give them a yard of space in the first half so hopefully we can come out with the same result this time.
“Having a will to win and a will to fight for each other is massive for us on Saturday. There has probably been a dip in confidence, as every team has at some point, but we need to remember what we were doing at the start of the season, how we were beating teams, and if we can get that back, the confidence will return.”
In that regard, they should be aided by having their talisman back tomorrow following almost two months on the sidelines. The last time Steven Naismith played a league match for Hearts, he inspired them to a 3-0 win over Dundee that took them six points clear at the top of the table towards the end of October. The on-loan Norwich City attacker returns to a team that now sits in fifth place, six points off the summit, following a run of one win from their past nine matches.
“It’s crazy that we’re still up there, in with a shout, considering the last couple of months we’ve had,” said Smith. “It just shows you what a good start we had. If we can get back to playing anywhere near that once we get a few boys back fit, we’ll start doing well. Naisy’s back so that’ll be a big boost for us. He’s a massive player for us. He’s a real leader on and off the pitch so getting him back in will make a massive difference.”
The trip to Pittodrie kicks off a year-ending week in which Hearts also host Hamilton on Boxing Day and visit city rivals Hibs. “It’s a really big week, so hopefully we can finish the year on a high and go into the winter break looking forward to the next run of games,” said Smith.
With Jimmy Dunne, John Souttar and Clevid Dikamona injured, and Aaron Hughes unlikely to be used from the start in such a demanding fixture, Smith, primarily a right-back, is expected to be step back into central defence, where he performed so well in the win over Motherwell a fortnight ago. “I’ll play anywhere,” said the Northern Irishman. “If the gaffer wants me to play centre-back, I’ll do that.”