The sight of Craig Levein storming down from the directors’ box after less than half an hour of Saturday’s draw with Livingston, barking instructions on to the pitch, was a vivid illustration of his frustrations while the boos that rained down on the team at the end of the match were a vocal indication of how some fans were feeling.
But rather than shrink away from the negativity, the Hearts boss was delighted to hear the players airing their own dissatisfaction in the dressing room afterwards with the way the game had panned out.
“Listen, I’ve been here a long, long time and I know what happens if you do not win at Tynecastle. That’s what happens,” said Levein.
“I think it’s a measure of the expectation levels of the fans and the club. If you had been in the dressing room afterwards there were a few people having a go at each other – and the fans share that frustration about not getting a result.
“We speak at length about what to expect at the club when the players first come to visit. We take them to the stadium and tell them, ‘it’s quiet just now but sometimes it is fantastic, when we are doing well, at other times you need big balls to play here’ and that is true. I have heard people in the past talk about the Old Firm and players being able to handle the pressure but it is a similar type of thing here.”
On Saturday, the side sullied their 100 per cent record in the league but the draw stretched their unbeaten start to the season to 11 games.
The fact that there was still consternation in the ranks was reassuring to the Gorgie manager, who believes he has a squad who have set the bar high and are willing to call each other out when they fail to attain those levels.
“I opened the door to the changing room and there was a little bit of an altercation going on so I just shut it and left them to it!” he added.
“It is frustration from the players. They put a lot of effort in and that is one thing I can’t be critical of, the amount of effort we have put into every single match. The stats we have back that up. We are working harder than we did last season, we are fitter than we were last season and we have benefited from that in matches up to now. Livingston was the first game where there was a real proper level of frustration.”
“We’ve got a good changing room with a lot of good characters,” added midfielder Olly Lee. “There were a few words said, which has to be done because we’re not going for mediocrity, we want to do something special. We feel we’ve started well but it’s just a start. We haven’t done anything yet. We need to keep pushing each other to be better.”
The weekend disappointment can be dispelled with a winning performance at Tynecastle tonight. A second victory in less than a fortnight over Motherwell would take them through to the semi-final of the Betfred Cup, and set up their first appearance at Hampden since defeat in the final of the same competition, in 2013.
“I came up here to play in big games, play at Hampden, play in semis and finals and win silverware. This is our first big opportunity to get somewhere and we’re looking forward to it,” said Lee, whose best cup memory was with Luton in last season’s FA Cup defeat by Newcastle United – his dad Rob’s former team – playing alongside his brother Elliot.
“That was an amazing day for me personally. My dad was there with my brother and it was something you couldn’t really make up. It was a day that will live with me forever. Hopefully there are a few more to come this season.”
But if the Gorgie side are to make progress towards winning the first major silverware of the 2018-19 term, they will likely have to do it without Uche Ikpeazu who created the only goal when the team travelled to Fir Park 11 days ago.
Still struggling after a challenge with Well keeper Trevor Carson, neither player has featured since. In Ikpeazu’s absence on Saturday, Hearts failed to score for the first time this season. Levein believes there is still the strength in depth to carve out the vital win. But he adds they have no divine right.
“We have more ammunition up front than we have had for a while. But how well equipped are we? When it comes to a one-off match like this anything can happen. All you are doing is increasing your chances of being successful by having a better squad. That doesn’t mean you are going to win one particular match.”