The hearts celebrate when they beat Celtic on Saturday.
Hearts’ victory over Celtic was a thundering way to announce a return to the Premiership and spark euphoric scenes across the district. The result also suggested that Robbie Neilson’s team may have finally banished some of the horrors of last season.
Rewinding just four months to the end of March and Tynecastle Park was surrounded by depression. An elimination from the Scottish Cup at the Highland League Brora Rangers, followed by a home defeat to the Queen of the South, was the low point in a largely soulless and completely fanless campaign.
Would anyone have backed Hearts to beat Celtic at this point? Very unlikely. However, with drastic improvements, a formation change and some major additions, they now look like a different team. It was, in fact, four crucial months.
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The Edinburgh club have unbeaten ten games since Andy Irving scored an own goal on March 27 to give Queens a 3-2 win at Tynecastle. That was just four days after the Brora debacle, leading to demonstrations by fans outside on McLeod Street.
Hearts’ results and performance improved significantly in the intervening ten competitive games – the last five championship games last season as well as the group games of the Premier Sports Cup this season and the game against Celtic.
Difficult tasks are ahead
They have eight wins, two draws and only conceded one goal. That was the equalizer from Anthony Ralston on Saturday, which was irrelevant to the end result. Goalkeeper Craig Gordon set a new club record with 11 straight goals, while a total of 23 goals were looted at the other end in the ten games.
There are still many tasks as difficult as the Celtic one. Hearts are playing for a top six place in the Premiership against most of their rivals in their first five games this season. After a significant turnaround, they can join them on a safe basis.
“It was really important to start with a win,” Neilson told the Evening News. “It’s been a tough start for us this season in the League – Celtic at home, St. Mirren at home, Aberdeen at home, Dundee United away, Hibs at home. These are teams that we expect to push this season so they will be tough.
“We wanted to get three points on the board, get momentum, get the faith going, and muster that energy and enthusiasm. Now we have to do it next week and then move on because we have 37 games left and we have to keep working hard.
“There were some really bad results last season that we were disappointed with. That happens in football and you have to recover from it. Last season it was all about winning games.
“Winning when there are no fans can be difficult. You play against teams that are in prison. If the game on Saturday had been played without fans, it would have ended up 1-1 in my opinion because we wouldn’t have had the support there to give ourselves that extra space.
“You saw the boys towards the end, they were on their feet. If that’s the last season, they don’t have the energy coming from the stands. The last season was done and dusted, we won the championship and took the flag at the weekend.
“Now it’s about the Premiership and about getting as high as possible to the top of the table. Saturday was a good start. I thought there were times against Celtic when we were in top form and then other times when we could have been better.
“It’s just a matter of working away, continuing what we do, continuing to work on the system and trying to iron it out as well as possible.”
This system seems pretty central to the recovery. After the aforementioned defeat of the Queen of the South, Neilson and his coaching staff converted their established four-man defense to a three-man defense. Shay Logan came on loan from Aberdeen to play full-back and help with the initial transition.
He didn’t stay for that tenure, but Alex Cochrane’s full season loan from Brighton and Hove Albion allows the formation to continue. John Souttar’s return from an Achilles tendon rupture and Stephen Kingsley’s regained fitness are critical to the 3-4-3 setup.
Substitutes will also play an important role. With Celtic dominating the ball in the second half of Saturday’s encounter, Neilson introduced Peter Haring to a central midfield position and changed the tactical structure from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2.
His team quickly regained a foothold and won with Souttar’s memorable late header. The slight optimization in a difficult phase of the evening for the hosts had the desired effect.
“Peter allows us this balance,” he said. “He’s sitting there and that suited us, pulling into a three in the middle with Andy Halliday and Beni [Baningime] press on both sides. We also had boycie [Liam Boyce] plays on position 10 and tries to stop Soro when Celtic had the ball.
“It’s good to be able to switch within the system. It was still a chain of three, sometimes a chain of five, but with two strikers. Sometimes you have to do that. You have to be able to adapt to these situations. “
Haring may be asked to re-perform this cameo in the coming weeks if Hearts need to be revived or maybe need to bring out a game. The flexible formation underpins much of the improvement at Tynecastle and points to a brighter future.
Beni Baningime: I didn’t come to Tynecastle for money. Hearts fans made me shiver …