Last year, it was Hearts’ inability to overcome Dunfermline that denied the Tynecastle club the opportunity to escape the group stage of the Betfred League Cup and led to managerial upheaval.
But the man who was brought in to stabilise things following the sacking of Ian Cathro has ensured that the East End Park side will play host to a completely different entity in the first knockout stage of the same tournament tomorrow, according to Pars manager Allan Johnston.
“They’ve been totally turned around and that’s credit to Craig Levein; he’s done a great job,” said Johnston. “They have recruited really well. You can see the strength they have now, they’re not soft, that’s the easiest way to describe it. They look as if they are playing for each other, you can see the energy and desire they have.
“I have played alongside the likes of Steven Naismith before and for me he is still a top player. He is in excellent form and he’s probably their main danger man along with the striker [Uche Ikpeazu] they have brought in.”
The experienced Norwich City attacker was recruited in January and the capital club worked hard to renew that loan deal in the summer. Johnston can understand why.
“You can see why he has played at the top level. Even at Kilmarnock as a kid you could see the quality he had. He has ability on the ball as well as his running off it and he can see that pass as well as being a goalscorer. He is an intelligent player, he can play anywhere.
“We have watched Hearts’ last few games and he’s been the one who has created most of their chances. He goes into wee areas where he knows he can pick the ball up and cause teams problems.
“Even as young player coming through he was vocal, you could see how much he wanted to win, even in training. So you can see why he has had the career he has but even so he’s not taking his foot off the gas.”
There were suggestions earlier in the week that Naismith could face SFA disciplinary measures for an off-the-ball dig in last Saturday’s triumph over Celtic.
It could have ruled him out of this weekend’s cup tie, aiding Johnston and his players, but no action was taken. But the man who now has to plot a way to stop him has no issue with his fiery edge.
“He has that streak in him but you have got to be competitive, the fans will love that,” added Johnston. “He’s not just a nice player, he’s prepared to roll his sleeves up and work incredibly hard for the team. That rubs off on others and it’s maybe why Hearts have started the season so well.”
They have started far more positively than they did 12 months ago, but with that bright beginning comes greater demands. A fly in the ointment last term, the Gorgie side will be expected to swat the Championship outfit aside tomorrow. Levein knows that but would rather have that kind of pressure than be heading to Fife weighed down by the need to turn around a poor start.
“I’m sure they’ll still be desperate to get a result,” said Johnston. “That will be the message. They can’t take anything for granted. We got a result there last year and they won’t want to come out and just go through the motions. I’m sure Craig will have them fired up and it has the makings of a really good game.
“We have started the season well too. We have played against Motherwell and Dundee and put in really good performances. But we know this is a step up again.”
But in a battle, roared on by nearly 5000 travelling fans, Levein believes he now has players with the will to succeed and the wherewithal to demand the same of teammates, which has made the task of picking a captain tougher but also less relevant.
“I haven’t decided [who it will be],” he said. “Possibly John Souttar but there are a few other captains in that team. We have got Naisy and Steven MacLean. The good thing is that the ones we have got will do their captain’s part whether they are wearing the armband or not. We have a few leaders so I’m not worried about that side of things.
“I think the supporters have reacted well, particularly to the new players, and I think that is down to the fact that they have shown the desire and the enthusiasm to play for Hearts and they have a hunger to win and that is obvious in the way they play. Our supporters can forgive you for playing poorly but they won’t forgive you for not rolling up the sleeves and busting a gut for the jersey. The good thing for me is that the new lads have embraced that.”
A different entity indeed.