THIS time last year Hearts had just lost the New Year derby and were 16 points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership. Six months into administration, they would go on to suffer a relegation that had been all but inevitable since they were docked 15 points for becoming insolvent.
Today, as they prepare to welcome Hibernian to Easter Road, Robbie Neilson’s team have ample breathing space at the top of the Championship. Six months after coming out of administration, they are on track for an immediate return to the top flight.
It has been a remarkably swift transformation, one in which everyone at the club has played their part, and one which those in the thick of things could hardly have imagined during the dark days of last winter.
“It’s been a strange year – a year of two halves, to use a football analogy,” captain Danny Wilson said. “Obviously the second half has been a lot better. We’ve gone unbeaten in the league, even if we’ve had a few disappointments in the cups, when we could have done a lot better.
“There has been good and bad. But I think you get that in football; it’s about how you handle the bad with the good.
“I think you appreciate the good times more for having been through the bad. We went through a lot of defeats last year, so you were going home on a Saturday and not really enjoying it. If we were off on the Sunday, you would have a lot to stew over.
“Now we’re coming in off the back of wins, feeling good about everything. That obviously helps your footballing life, and your private life as well.
“It’s a much happier time, basically because we’re winning football games. But we know it can come to an end – all it takes is for us to stop winning games. That’s why we’re working so hard to get results.”
While Ann Budge’s money and Neilson’s astute coaching have been indispensable ingredients of this season’s success, the recovery began long before those two had taken on their current roles, with some inspiring late-season performances offering the supporters hope. The conventional wisdom is that, having survived their baptism of fire, Hearts’ young players grew up very quickly, but Wilson thinks that may be too simplistic an explanation.
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“It’s hard to say how the tough times prepared us for this. Because, believe me, when we were going through the bad times, I don’t think many of us were sitting there thinking: ‘Oh well, it’s going to come good at some stage’.
“We were always hoping that it would, knowing it would be tough. We were just trying to win the next game, so I didn’t think about the big picture much then.
“Now, looking back, I probably think… it wasn’t a good thing, because relegation can never be that. But it has helped a lot of the boys, gave a lot of them a grounding in the team, the younger ones who are performing so well this season. So it’s mixed. You would rather have had the good times, but, having bad times, it’s good to feel that we’ve come through it stronger.
“Going back to the relegation time, I don’t think we could have imagined ending the year in any better shape than this. At the start of the season, not many people would have expected us to be 15 points ahead at this stage.
“But we’ve spoken about it. We could be however many points ahead – we’ve still got half a season to play. So it’s not like we’re going to get carried away.
“Being 15 points ahead brings its own pressures. The pressure to not let your standards drop, the pressure to keep getting three points every time you play. We’ve got a tough run of games coming up, not just the derby, so we have to keep working – and forget the good that has happened in the last six months, just look forward to the next few months.”
After a precipitous decline last season and a shaky start to this campaign, Hibs can also look forward to the next few months with justified optimism. It is now all but forgotten that their 2-1 home win over Hearts last 2 January – a third straight victory under then manager Terry Butcher – took them back into the top six. The rot set in soon afterwards, but now, under Alan Stubbs, they have become a far better, happier and more confident team, and they go into today’s match in exuberant form following last week’s 4-0 win over Rangers.
“I think it’s good for the city,” Wilson said of the two clubs’ improved form. “They had a slow start and took a wee while to get themselves going after the summer, for one reason or another. But look at them now: they’re a good team who play football the right way, and they’re now getting the results.
“Last weekend was a great result from them and they’ll be on a high after that. It’s good, because you want the derbies to be good games. And you’ll only get that if both teams are performing well. Right now both are.
“So it is good for the city. But I’ll never say I’m happy to see Hibs do well!
“Seriously, they are doing well. You have to give them credit. Alan Stubbs is doing a good job there and it’s good for them. I hope it continues for them. Just not on Saturday.
“I think it’s better when both teams are competing at the right end of the table. You ask the boys and they’ll all tell you they want to play in the big games. We’d all rather it was in the Premiership but it’s not to be, so the next thing is to make these Championship games really big.
“With Hibs in such good form and us in good form, it’s got the makings of a good game, although there are no guarantees in a derby. I’m sure we’d take three points from a game that’s not so great.”
After being unsettled by the tempo and desire with which Hibs played the last time the teams met, Hearts should be better prepared this time for the threat of Scott Allan. Neilson could select three central midfielders – Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben and Miguel Pallardo – to counter the visitors’ midfield playmaker, with Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker on the wings and James Keatings beginning on his own up front. Wilson, who by his own admission should not have played in the 1-1 draw as he was carrying an injury, will take his usual place in a back four which has conceded a mere eight goals from 18 matches. Such a statistic must have been all but unimaginable for most of last season, but it too is testament to the comprehensive way in which Hearts have revived.
Given Hibs’ form and their greater need for a victory, it will be no surprise if Hearts’ unbeaten record, the last in British football, goes this afternoon.
But even if it does, one look at that bigger, brighter picture of which Wilson spoke should help the Tynecastle club get over their disappointment quickly, and resume a journey which still seems destined to end in automatic promotion.
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