The atmosphere at the end of last weekend’s cup flop at Tynecastle was not one for the faint-hearted. It is not something the Hearts players want to be on the receiving end of again but it served as a decent warm-up for the welcome they are likely to receive at Celtic Park today.
The fact that former Rangers man Jon Daly will be in the dugout following the sacking of Ian Cathro will turn up the temperature, but it is likely to be striker Kyle Lafferty who attracts the real heat.
He team-mate at international level as well as at club, Michael Smith, believes that will only galvanise the 29-year-old. “He loves things like that. He’s probably had it his whole career – I believe he had a builder shouting at him the other day in Glasgow so it’s pretty standard! I’m sure he’ll let the Celtic fans know when he scores on Saturday.
“No-one gives us a chance at all. The players and the people inside the club do but we know it’s not going to be easy, far from it, but we go there with a game plan and hopefully they have an off day.”
At the end of a week that has seen the departure of the manager and a delayed return to Tynecastle due to work on the new main stand, Smith recognises the boost a win or even a draw would give everyone at Hearts.
“It’d be massive,” said the full-back. “The club would get a massive lift from it and the confidence that would come from winning a game like that would be second to none. Every team needs a bit of confidence going into the start of the season.”
The Betfred Cup exit has piled on the pressure to turn fortunes around with a solid start in the Premiership. He says there is a fresh positivity, with Daly, Austin MacPhee and fellow coach Liam Fox making it a priority to inject some fun into training. Smith says they have also stressed the importance of commitment, enthusiasm and work-rate, all of which will be needed today.
“When the manager loses his job and the next guy comes in, you need to put a smile back on the players’ faces. He has done that. We’ve had a bit of fun this week, it’s been good but it’s been intense, hard work all gearing towards Celtic and the boys are really up for the game now.”
The fans will not accept anything less, which became crystal clear to all the new arrivals last weekend.
“I knew there’d be pressure playing here. That’s why I came here – to play in circumstances like that and try to win trophies for such a big club. But the response from the fans on Saturday did shock me and probably some of the other new boys as well.
“They love this club and no matter what goes on, they’re the one thing that remains here. The players don’t remain, the managers don’t remain – they’re the one thing that stays put and we owe it to them to do something this season. We’re going to work our hardest to try to get somewhere this season.
“It needs a change of mentality. We need to go and win games and keep winning games. We need to progress as a team, progress as a squad and I think we are heading in the right direction. The talent we’ve got in this squad is fantastic. Some of the players we have here are international quality, so we need to be performing better on Saturday.”