It was to Craig Levein’s evident frustration that Hearts were unable to redress their McDiarmid Park hoodoo on Saturday.
The Tynecastle side have now gone ten games without a victory in Perth but, given the circumstances, which included a red card handed out to Harry Cochrane, Levein could also express some satisfaction. There was another clean sheet to savour for starters.
But the manager knows what is at stake tomorrow against Hibs when there really is pressing need to rectify another long winless run. Ideally Levein would have liked to approach this clash knowing his side could draw level on points with the visitors. But the dropping of two points at McDiarmid Park combined with Hibs’ win against Ross County means the gap between Hearts and their rivals is currently five points and will stretch to eight if Neil Lennon’s side triumph at Tynecastle.
So while a draw would extend Hearts’ unbeaten run to eight games, only three points interests Levein as he attempts to improve a derby record that he admits has become a “huge irritation” to him.
The manager is only really culpable for one of the games making up a winless run of eight matches against Hibs. He was in charge in October when Hearts fell to a deserved defeat to their rivals, one of the four games they have lost in this sequence. Hearts have not beaten Hibs since August 2014. The run has long since started to exasperate Levein.
“It bothers me we lost the last one,” he said. “It bothers me every time we lose and it bothers me when we draw. It is something that is a huge irritation for me.”
Cochrane’s red card against St Johnstone, for two bookable offences, robs Levein of a playmaker. The versatile Michael Smith, meanwhile, is a doubt after pulling up with cramp towards the end of Saturday’s stalemate. But rather than complaining about reduced options, Levein believes Hearts are in a better position than they were before winning so handsomely against Celtic.
“You saw [Jamie] Walker come back in, that was good,” he said of the midfielder’s return on Saturday, where he played the last 16 minutes. “Aaron Hughes was also on the bench and if we needed to use him we could have put him on for half an hour.”
John Souttar returned against St Johnstone after missing the 4-0 win over Celtic and, along with Christophe Berra, ensured ten-man Hearts left McDiarmid Park with their eight-match unbeaten run intact.
According to Levein, the latter was “imperious”. Hearts have now earned five clean sheets in their last six outings. “That is where we are starting everything from,” said Levein. “I told them if we get a clean sheet we know we have a good chance of winning the game although that didn’t happen in Perth, so they probably think I’m lying now!
“We have shuffled things around a wee bit but it is no coincidence that the one name always on the team sheet is Christophe,” he added. “The way he defended in Perth was exceptional.”
Levein recalled a moment late in the game when Michael O’Halloran, one of the fastest players in Scotland, took on Berra but failed to get the better of the defender. Berra simply shepherded the ball out of play. It underlined how Berra is still at the top of his game despite the contention of some that he has returned to Scotland because of fading powers.
“People say to me he is losing pace but Michael O’Halloran must be the quickest in the league and he couldn’t get away from him, late in the match where Michael has just come on and Christophe has played 80 minutes,” said Levein. “He has been top drawer for us. He is helping people round about him. He is helping John and the full backs and he is taking responsibility in the captain’s role. We have some defensive rules that we have to stick by and Christophe has bought into them and led by example. There have been a number of occasions where we have been down to ten men, where we have, at least, not lost the game.”
Helping Hearts consolidate is the form of Jon McLaughlin, their very last line of defence. The goalkeeper was required to make just two notable saves on Saturday but they helped secure the point for his side.
McLaughlin’s an especially interesting figure on derby day since his family are mostly Hibees. While he was born in the capital, McLaughlin grew up in the Middle East and then Harrogate so does not find it so strange trying to thwart the side he might once have said he favoured when it came to Edinburgh teams.
“There’s definitely a little more pressure when family ties are involved,” he said. “It’s just the same as the fans go through – they have pals on the other side and they don’t want to get stick when they walk into work the next morning, they want to walk in with their heads held high.
“It’s the same for me,” he added. “I don’t want any cheeky texts from relatives when this one’s over.”
Meanwhile, Levein commented on speculation linking Walker with a January move to Wigan Athletic. The midfielder is in line to start against Hibs tomorrow and the manager doesn’t want further talk distracting a player who’s been free to speak to interested clubs since the beginning of this month.
“I am putting that all to the back of my mind,” said Levein. “The window doesn’t open until the 1st of January and we can deal with that then. There is interest but nothing will happen until the window opens.”