Cohesion comes against County amid crowd trouble

What a difference a month makes. Having been dealt our third defeat in a row by Aberdeen in late September (a butchering that put the Dons nine points ahead of us and prompted talk of an almighty chasm between the two clubs) the unbeaten league run that has followed leaves us only two points behind them and feeling far more positive about life.

Aside from the catastrophic psychological damage a defeat to Hibs has inflicted on Derek McInnes’ men, what the past month has demonstrated is the fickle pendulum effect our league form has had on fan and media expectations. Only a month or so ago, a dip in form provoked an unbelievable amount of vitriol from certain Hearts supporters, who in characteristic knee-jerk, scattergun style saw fit to question all facets of the club — from our centre back partnership to the manager’s own ability — having just spent weeks giving it big licks about challenging Celtic.

When a team experiences the kind of wholesale changes made by Neilson this summer, there are bound to be teething problems in the early stages. Generally speaking, centre back partnerships do not gel overnight, foreign signings do not settle immediately and young players whose most consistent experience of first team football has been at a lower level do not suddenly adapt to the demands of a tougher league.

The early-season winning run may have suggested Hearts were an exception to those rules, and while certain performances were solid enough during that time (Motherwell and Partick in particular) there was certainly an element of good fortune in the other games, which seemed to run out against the likes of Hamilton, Inverness and Aberdeen. Now that the team looks to have found its feet, we find ourselves on Aberdeen’s coattails after their own surprisingly dismal form and the same bold statements are appearing in message boards and papers alike. None of those have come from Robbie Neilson, however, who insisted after the County match that the end-of-season goal remains the same:

“It’s swung a fair bit in the last three weeks. We won five in a row and we’re challenging, then we lost three or four and then we’re worrying about the top six. Now we’re talking about challenging again. We’re far, far away from Celtic. They are a team full of international footballers with experience of winning titles. We’re still a team that’s just been promoted. Yes, we had a great start but then we had a bit of a dip and now we’ve picked up again. Our aim at the start of the season was top six — it’s still the aim and that’s where we want to be. We’re not going to get carried away after back-to-back wins because we went four or five without a result, and that will happen again during the season.”

One conclusion that can certainly be drawn from the last few weeks is that the team is growing in confidence and finding the cohesion that was desperately lacking during the opening round of matches. It was encouraging, therefore, to start the second round of fixtures with arguably the strongest all-round team performance we have seen this season — in especially testing circumstances — against the league’s form side.

When Augustyn received his marching orders after a desperate attempt to cover for Igor Rossi’s slack pass, the prospect of defending a one-goal lead while a man short provoked nervy flashbacks to the 3–2 defeat against Hamilton in late August. Compare the two situations, however, and you can see just how far Hearts have come in that time. Having completely folded after Callum Paterson’s dismissal at New Douglas Park (sparking that poor September form) the reaction to Augustyn’s red card was far more disciplined and stoical.

A young make-shift back line of McGhee, Rossi, Paterson and Liam Smith coped admirably under pressure, maintaining the defensive solidity that has now produced three clean sheets in the last four games. At the other end of the pitch, there was a much greater attacking fluency than in the past few weeks.

Jamie Walker looks like he is now shaking off recent injury problems and put in his best performance of the season, as did Osman Sow, who demonstrated the kind of quality he can produce when he isn’t struggling for fitness. In the middle of the park, Arnaud Djoum was a picture of composure on his home debut, displaying all the qualities of a one-man ‘peak Championship season Gomis/Buaben partnership’ tribute act. With the team performing in all areas of the pitch, Saturday’s display could be a yardstick for this team at its most cohesive. If that turns out to be the case, the pre-season target of a top six finish should be met with relative ease.

Meanwhile, in the build-up to tomorrow night’s League Cup tie against Celtic, Neilson yesterday stressed the importance of the Tynecastle atmosphere in spurring on his players.

“It makes a huge difference to us, having a big crowd behind us. Celtic’s allocation has been cut from what it generally is in the past so we need to make sure that we sell out and really make it a tough environment to come to. The players need the backing and it’s going to be a really tough game. People talk about Celtic having a difficult start to the season but they’re still a top team with top players. We have to make sure that we make it as intimidating as possible for them.”

While the timing of Neilson’s comments is likely to be coincidental from his perspective, the subject of supporter-generated atmosphere is a relevant one nonetheless, given the well-publicised antics of the Section H “singing section” both during Saturday’s match and in the immediate aftermath. However, what was more astonishing than their behaviour was the number of fans who leapt to their defence, playing the “boys will be boys” card and castigating other supporters for opposing any kind of atmosphere.

There seems to be some confusion between atmosphere and mob mentality. Games in Turkey and South America, for example, are atmospheric for all the wrong reasons. Of course, we are miles away from that culture in Scotland — nicking a drum and a steward’s cap is hardly the heist of the century. However, the line still needs to be drawn and boundaries of acceptable conduct established before the problem escalates. Whether that is through a zero tolerance policy or a more educational collaborative approach with the police and social work departments is for the club to decide. There are arguments for both approaches.

Those who back a softly-softly approach argue that outright bans will put off fans of the future. There is also the possibility that some of the members of that group are simply impressionable enough to be led astray by their mates. Educating those individuals about acceptable match-day conduct might rein some of them in, but they would need to be open to it themselves: after all, a ban for some may be someone else’s badge of honour.

What that argument fails to take into account is the number of decent, civilised “fans of the future” who might be put off attending games if they feel unsafe or if their parents are unhappy about exposing them to that kind of atmosphere. On that basis, zero tolerance shows the club is serious about rooting out the problem before it has a chance to escalate, which might lead other potential troublemakers to think twice about their actions.

However the club approaches the matter, the timing could not be worse for such an issue to be making the headlines and what happened at the County game may only be a warm-up for when Celtic’s travelling support comes to town. It remains to be seen whether this provides the weekend’s culprits with a chance for redemption or an opportunity to hang themselves with the rope the club has given them so far.


Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on October 27, 2015.