Less than two years ago, Hearts demolished Cowdenbeath 10-0 at Tynecastle in the Ladbrokes Championship. Even allowing for the pitiful opposition – two years on the decline of the Blue Brazil has been so rapid they are fighting for their SPFL status, never mind struggling to stay in the second tier – it was an impressive display from the boys in maroon. Their style of play was based on swift, passing movements which the Fifers just couldn’t handle. The Hearts Head Coach at the time – Robbie Neilson – said he would never resort to the long ball game.
The man renowned for that tackle in the 2006 Scottish Cup final against Gretna didn’t quite stick to that principle after Hearts raced to promotion and a different approach was required for the cut and thrust of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Less than a year after that ten-goal thrashing of the Fifers, Hearts entertained Hibernian in the Scottish Cup. A much-changed Hearts team didn’t quite hit the same heights but had done enough to be two goals ahead going into the final ten minutes of the Tynecastle tie. But they pressed the self-destruct button, meekly surrendered their two-goal lead and were forced to head to Easter Road for a replay. Another uncertain showing allowed Hibs to win the replay – and go on to lift the trophy itself for the first time in 114 years.
Despite leading Hearts to a third-place finish in the league, some say Robbie Neilson’s report card for his time as Head Coach at Tynecastle was stained by that cup elimination. Some fans even hired a plane to fly over Tynecastle weeks later with a banner proclaiming Neilson had to go. No style, no substance they said. He did go – nine months later and, through his choosing, to a club in the third tier of English football.
Now, a little over a year on from that excruciating Scottish Cup defeat, Hearts take on Hibernian once more. Again, it’s in the Scottish Cup. Again, it’s at Tynecastle. And again, the game has been moved to Sunday lunchtime to satisfy the demands of satellite television. But it’s a different Hearts team who take to the field in front of another full house at a rapidly changing Tynecastle this Sunday. Of the Hearts team of a year ago, Neil Alexander, Alim Ozturk, Miguel Pallardo, Blazej Augustyn and Abiola Dauda have all left the club. Callum Paterson is a long-term injury. Jordan McGhee and Gavin Reilly have been put out on-loan at Middlesbrough Reserves and Dunfermline Athletic all season. Arnaud Djoum, Prince Buaben and Sam Nicholson are not certain to start on Sunday. What a difference a year makes.
Neilson’s replacement, Ian Cathro, has endured a difficult start to his Hearts career. Early defeats by Rangers and Aberdeen were compounded when Hearts needed a replay and extra time to knock Gary Locke’s Raith Rovers out of the cup in round four (Locke was shown the exit door by Rovers earlier this week) And a 4-0 defeat at Celtic didn’t help matters. But the timing of Cathro’s appointment meant he could quickly identify what the Hearts team needed. And what they didn’t need. Players left and new players arrived. Nine new faces came to Gorgie, among them international players who have played at the highest level.
Meticulous planning by the new Head Coach meant he knew exactly the kind of players he wanted. And the club have backed him. Two fine performances in the space of three days last week illustrated the promise of this new-look Hearts team. Not only were two victories recorded – a 4-1 hammering of Rangers was followed by a dominate display in a 3-0 win at Motherwell – but it was the manner of those victories which has excited the Maroon Army.
Robbie Neilson may have declared he would never resort to the long ball game but all too often Hearts did exactly that with first Osman Sow, then the hapless Conor Sammon and Bjorn Johnsen being the target men. Against Rangers and Motherwell, Hearts passed the ball. Some may say they passed it too much but, in my view, passing allied to keeping possession is key to playing well. If the opposition don’t have the ball they can’t hurt you.
Not only has Ian Cathro got Hearts playing much more of a passing style but he has the players now who are comfortable doing it. The Greek duo of Tziolis and Avlonitis look so at ease on the ball with Tziolis’ experience giving the impression he could stroll around his own half smoking a cigar while considering his options.
The defence looks tighter with the hugely experienced Aaron Hughes patrolling the back line like he’s been there most of his 37 years. Hearts have suffered with the injured duo of Callum Paterson and John Souttar out of action until next season. But the new-look defence has displayed a maturity that calms the nerves, something that couldn’t always be said of Souttar and, to a lesser extent, Paterson. Struna and Sowah are far from the finished article but they both have a presence in defence which is reassuring to the Hearts support who have seen their team leak goals this season. The departed Igor Rossi never convinced this writer of his defensive qualities.
Now the Scottish Cup derby with Hibs is back on the agenda once again. In the aftermath of that drubbing by Celtic less than a fortnight ago, I was far from confident about Hearts chances, particularly as Hibernian are racing away with the Championship, are near-certainties to return to top flight football next season and re-establishing the Edinburgh derby in the league once again. But after two highly impressive performances against Rangers and Motherwell, hope has risen that Hearts can finally record a victory in the Edinburgh derby (Hibs are unbeaten in the last five)
The noises emanating from some at Easter Road (‘the pressure is all on Hearts, we don’t fear going to Tynecastle, Hearts only defeated an ordinary Rangers team and a ten-man Motherwell’) are signs that some of those of the green and white persuasion recognise this. Ian Cathro has dealt with some of these assertions stylishly – ‘we enjoy the pressure, it’s what we thrive on’ – and there’s little doubt Hearts are relishing Sunday’s clash with their old rivals.
Whatever happens, Hearts look to be back on track with a Head Coach who appears at this early stage to be adhering to his principles. The long-term strategy seems to be stronger than it was under Cathro’s predecessor. There will be setbacks along the way – defeat from Hibs will doubtless have the critics back out in force and will be difficult to take for the Maroon Army – but Hearts appear to be stronger and much better placed to handle these setbacks now than they were this time last year.
Robbie Neilson’s record as a Head Coach in Edinburgh derbies wasn’t particularly impressive. This is Ian Cathro’s first Edinburgh derby as Head Coach but he’s been involved in the Tyne & Wear derby so will know what to expect. Style and substance seem to be his watchwords.
And if he can lead Hearts to victory on Sunday he can expect to feel the love of the Hearts support two days before Valentine’s Day!