WHEN you are as steeped in the history of Hearts as Jim Jefferies is, you know that when it comes to the crunch the Tynecastle team have sometimes crumbled. Forty-five years ago this month, for example, they could have become league champions by winning, drawing or even losing narrowly in their final game against Kilmarnock.
What they could not afford to do, in those days when goal average separated sides level on points, was lose 2-0. Older readers will remember the score. Younger ones will not need a second guess.
The prize at stake when the Ayrshire side visited Gorgie on Saturday was a far smaller one, but the context was similar. Hearts needed a point to ensure they got into the top six: if they lost, they would be dependent on St Johnstone failing to defeat Aberdeen yesterday.
The match was not exactly a thing of beauty, and the victory, while deserved, was not as convincing as it should have been. But that did not matter. Jefferies had achieved the principal objective he was given when he began his second spell as manager less than three months ago.
“Sometimes you’ve got to grind out a result,” he said after his first match against Kilmarnock since parting company with them at the start of the year. “And Hearts have not got a good record of doing that, but they did it today. And that shows they’re all working for the cause.”
Statistically, Hearts have improved only modestly since Jefferies took over. When Csaba Laszlo left towards the end of January, they had 28 points from 22 games. They now have 44 from 33.
But statistics, as ever, tell only part of the story. For instance, there was certainly no guarantee that Laszlo’s team would have gone on gathering points at the same rate. Indeed, the Hungarian had run out of steam, and the evidence of his last match in charge, a 3-0 home defeat by Aberdeen, was that the team were also flagging.
Jefferies and his assistants, Billy Brown and Gary Locke, have made a more than modest improvement to the morale of the squad. They now have a good idea of the players they want to be the core of the team next season, and have perhaps identified three or four who have not responded in a sufficiently positive way to the changed environment. By the start of next season they aim to have a reshaped squad which will be capable of consistently better results, and are aware that Vladimir Romanov will demand they achieve more than just scraping into the top six.
Hearts’ majority shareholder took in Saturday’s match, and in a meeting with Jefferies the day before discussed his ideas for next season. “I think they’ve changed a little bit,” the manager said.
“As his statement [released on the club website] said, the emphasis is on players coming in from this country. We’ll try and work closely with him to bring in players at a reasonable price.”
The scale of injuries at the club has highlighted the need for back-up in certain areas, and Jason Thomson’s late failure of a fitness test again forced Jefferies to conduct running repairs to his line-up. But these days, however they line up, Hearts have a coherence about them which was badly lacking earlier in the season.
The first chance fell to Kilmarnock – Connor Sammon headed over when it looked easier to hit the target – but, with Laryea Kingston the dominant figure in midfield, Hearts did not take long to impose themselves. Suso Santana was particularly lively in the first-half, and his willingness to cut inside and have a go paid dividends just after the half-hour. The Spanish winger seized on a rebound after a shot from the right by Eggert Jonsson had been blocked by Garry Hay, and skipped into the box before unleashing a shot into the far corner.
By that time Hearts had been forced into a change when Andrew Driver pulled up with a muscle strain. David Templeton took over, and had some good moments especially after half-time, most notably a break in which he went round Kilmarnock goalkeeper Cameron Bell but then saw his shot from a wide angle blocked.
With a top-six place in the bag, Hearts can look forward to chasing down Motherwell, four points ahead of them, and Hibernian, six clear at present.
“Now we become the hunter,” said Jefferies. “Six points is a big advantage, and we’ve all got tough games, but we’ve no pressure on us. Nobody’s going to catch us, but we can catch someone else.”