A barren seven-game rut without a victory, debilitating injury woe and glaring refereeing faults. The past six weeks at Hearts have been demoralising, to say the least.
However, the sound of referee Willie Collum’s full-time whistle signalling the collection of three points against Motherwell on Saturday afternoon dispersed the air of melancholy that had descended on the club.
It was a game that would have left the footballing purists horrified, such was the lack of finesse in a bruising and bloody contest. However, the players and, in particular, manager Craig Levein did not care how it was achieved.
What is even more pleasing for the Gorgie club is that they are still in contact with leaders Celtic, although the reigning champions have the chance to extend the three-point lead they currently have on fourth-place Hearts owing to having two games in hand. Premiership title glory? That dreams lives on, insists defender Michael Smith. “Are we back in it? Definitely,” said Smith. “We’re never out of it. I mean, all the doom and gloom there’s been, we’ve had a bad month. But we’re turning the corner and we’ll see where it takes us in the new year. “It was massive getting the win over Motherwell in a scrappy game. We’ll go into Friday against Livingston looking to get another three points, feeling more confident.”
Discussing potential league positions is one thing, being deployed across a number of roles on the pitch is another, but Smith has proved that he can be trusted wherever he is asked to play by Levein.
The Northern Ireland internationalist is primarily a right-back but he excelled at centre-half on Saturday, having also filled in across the midfield previously.
Smith’s versatility has been important amid an injury crisis that has led to captain Christophe Berra, Steven Naismith, John Souttar, Uche Ikpeazu and now Jimmy Dunne all being sidelined at different times.
Levein singled Smith out for praise after the game and the 30-year-old insists he does not mind helping out where needed. Smith added: “Yes, I’m kind of fitting in everywhere at the moment. And I’m enjoying it.
“Playing beside the two big lads, who just come and win the headers, it makes me look better. They did well and I’m pleased we got the win.
“I’ve played left-back, right-back, centre-back, centre-mid, right-mid… I dunno, striker next week, I think! The manager did say to me afterwards: “Is there any position you can’t play?”
“I’m just thrilled to be part of the team and to be playing in the starting XI. Wherever he wants to play me, I’m happy in there.”
Such consistency has led to Levein opening contract talks with a player who is in the final six months of his current deal and the former Peterborough and Bristol Rovers defender admits he would be happy to continue plying his trade in Edinburgh.
He added: “I’m definitely happy to stay here. There is a lot of time to talk about it, maybe in the next few weeks. But I’m happy, my family’s happy and I’d be delighted if the club want me to stay.”
The only goal of a fiercely contested affair that lacked quality came in the 14th minute when Charles Dunne diverted Olly Bozanic’s cross into his own net in an aerial challenge with Peter Haring.
The battle between fit-again Berra and Motherwell striker Curtis Main was an intriguing contest on its own.
Smith insists Berra’s level of performance is outstanding considering he only just returned from four months out the previous weekend.
He added: “As you can see, Christophe is a massive player for us. He wears his heart on his sleeve, defends for his life.
‘We’re so glad to have him back and we needed him back at this time. It is remarkable that Christophe has come back like this from such a bad injury, playing three games in a week.”
Motherwell were aggrieved that Main’s seventh-minute goal was disallowed after the striker barged into Clevid Dikamona. One positive for manager Stephen Robinson, though, was the return of defender Dunne following five months of injury torment due to a groin problem.
Dunne said: “It was just one of those days where it wasn’t falling for us. For their goal, I think it just came off my shoulder and went in. But I’m delighted to be back out there and get through 90 minutes, and I don’t feel that bad. I just got to keep building on it and try and find some form.”