The last time that Hearts travelled to Hamilton it took them a few weeks to recover. They became embroiled in a refereeing controversy and left New Douglas Park with their first defeat of the season.
After five wins on the bounce, it heralded a three-match losing streak, but, as they head west on Sunday, they will be fuelled by a hunger for points rather than any longing for retribution.
“I wouldn’t say we have a score to settle, we just want to go down there and win,” said manager Robbie Neilson. “We felt that last time we did enough to win it until the last ten minutes. So we believe we can go down there and win, and that’s what we want to do.”
The final period of that match was overshadowed by the sending-off of Callum Paterson, which infuriated his manager, who was later censured for his post-match comments. But, while the full-back’s red card was later downgraded, the damage had been done by then and the Gorgie side followed that up with losses to Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Aberdeen.
“We had a period that was difficult. We had to work through that,” said Neilson. “Three defeats in a row at a club like this is a big thing but it was a good learning curve for us all, how we get through that and how we believe in the same things we’re doing.
“Whenever you lose you are disappointed but it was a wee bit of a wake-up call and a reality check for us. We got five good results at the start of the season but, to be honest with you, we weren’t really playing that well. We were winning games 4-3 and 2-1. I think we are in far better form now.”
The results in the five games leading up to this weekend’s head-to-head have not reached the heights of that early-season form but the performances have been more impressive, gathering momentum in the past couple of weeks, ousting Aberdeen from the Scottish Cup and then trouncing Motherwell 6-0 last weekend.
Those displays have set a new benchmark and given his players the confidence to pitch their play at that level on a more consistent basis, according to Neilson. Galvanised by competition for places, intensified by the return of Jamie Walker to first-team training, the players are focused on maintaining that form and applying pressure on the teams above them as they aim to finish their first season back in the top flight as far up the rankings as possible.
“We’ve been a bit inconsistent this season but the last two games have probably been our best two performances of the season,” said winger Billy King, who enjoyed one of his sporadic starts last weekend and hopes that, despite not joining the list of goalscorers, he did enough to earn another run out against Hamilton. “We just need to be more consistent, so hopefully we can put in another performance like last weekend’s against Hamilton. Although we were brilliant last week, the main thing is just to win the game. Whether it’s 6-0 against Motherwell or 1-0 against Aberdeen, the main thing is to get a victory. But, if we play like we did against Motherwell, I think we could beat anyone in the league, including Celtic and Aberdeen.”
Six goals by six different contributors and a style of play that perfectly meshed together the much-vaunted athleticism with some sublime technique, they completely overwhelmed the opposition.
Hamilton were on the receiving end of a display like that at Celtic Park in midweek, which left the team perilously close to the play-off spot and manager Martin Canning in need of a vote of confidence from his board.
And while Neilson is hoping to add to the woes, he praised the club for their loyalty to their fledgling manager.
“Very rarely does that happen in football these days, so it is great,” said Neilson. “He’s had a tough time but it takes a while to build a team. It takes a good two years to really set your stamp on it and, 20 years ago, you’d get at least five years in a job. So it’s really pleasing to see that. You need the people above to have faith and they stand by you. Hamilton are doing that, which is great.
“It could go either way on Sunday. They’ve gone through a difficult period but I’m sure Martin will get them through it.
“He has a good squad there and I think they’ll definitely be safe in the Premiership. And I think that was probably Hamilton’s objective for the season.”