Don Baby Don
Greetings all! The international break is looming, which for some of us means a two-week wait for football we actually care about to re-commence. It’s not that I’m anti-Scotland or in any way unpatriotic, it’s just that Gordon Strachan has done little to reduce my apathy towards the national team; if anything, his latest squad selection has only exacerbated the feeling, with the inclusion of certain players directly contradicting his flimsy reasons for leaving out those more deserving of a call-up.
On that basis, my main concern next weekend is that our own representatives come back free of injury, though Jack Hamilton is unlikely to be involved and with Alan Hutton still seemingly in possession of incriminating information about Strachan, the same may very well apply to Callum Paterson. Our U21 delegates, by contrast, are likely to play more active roles, so the hope will be that John Souttar, Sam Nicholson and Liam Smith make it through their game against Macedonia unscathed. Further afield, Arnaud Djoum and Faycal Rherras will be hoping to make an impression after receiving call-ups to the Cameroonian and Moroccan national sides for their upcoming African Nations’ Cup qualifiers. I wish them all well in their respective fixtures.
This time last year, we went into the international break on somewhat of a downer having had our five-game winning run brought to an end in somewhat controversial fashion away to Hamilton, a defeat that preceded a barren month without a league win. This time round, fortunes are reversed, though we now have to wait and see if we can build on that winning momentum when the same team visits Tynecastle in just under a fortnight.
For some, this is a timely exercise in the virtue of patience, which has underpinned much of the club’s activity since Ann Budge’s takeover. Speaking in May 2014, her mission statement for the club was abundantly clear:
“We must make changes. We must stop thinking short-term. We must put in place a three-five-year plan that will see our commercial activities totally re-vamped…and we must also completely revitalise and re-focus the football side of our club.”
Speaking a year later, after Hearts had won the Championship in record fashion to secure a return to the Premiership, Craig Levein praised Budge’s methodology:
“She’s fair, she’s calm and, most unusually for football, all she’s concerned with is what’s happening in five years’ time, not what’s happening in a year. I’ve spent my life in football and people that run football clubs, all they worry about is what happens tomorrow.”
Despite what has been achieved in the past couple of seasons, the longer term ethos has remained consistent. Unfortunately, the extent to which some supporters and pundits have bought into that ethos has waned considerably in the past six months, with calls for Robbie Neilson to be sacked, players written off after failing to hit the ground running and baseless insinuations from pundits about the extent of Craig Levein’s role as Director of Football.
What all of this has failed to acknowledge, however, is that the club’s restoration is still in its relative infancy. Patience has been, and will continue to be, vital for that process to be successful and the playing/recruitment side of things is no exception. It was fitting, symbolic even, that last week’s resounding win over Inverness and Saturday’s victory away to Partick were greatly influenced by players who had either been written off prematurely by the Tynecastle boo-boys, or in Tony Watt’s case, previous managers.
Take Don Cowie, for example. While he may not have hit the ground running when he first signed back in January, a full pre-season appears to have transformed him into the kind of tireless midfield dynamo we have been crying out for since last season. Against Inverness, he belied his 33 years with one of the most complete and energetic performances I have witnessed from a Hearts player in recent memory, which he capped off with two excellently struck goals. Furthermore, with Alim Ozturk consigned to the bench in recent weeks and Cowie appointed stand-in skipper in his absence, we have seen plenty evidence of the strong leadership qualities we were told he would bring to the squad. In fact, if he was to receive the captain’s armband on a more permanent basis, I wouldn’t foresee many raised eyebrows.
It’s a marked turnaround in fortunes for a player whose arrival in January was met with a degree of cynicism in some sections, which only worsened as he struggled for form and fitness in an already-underperforming Hearts side. Despite those difficulties, Robbie Neilson had always been keen to stress the importance of Cowie’s influence both on and off the park, even if that assessment was greeted with much dubiety by supporters. Neilson, however, does not get enough credit for what has so far been fairly sound judgement when it comes to player recruitment and he certainly merits more trust from supporters than he gets.
The same goes for our striker situation. Last season, it was generally accepted that the departure of Osman Sow was the main contributory factor to our stagnation in the final third which, without suitable replacements available, accentuated the negative style of football that Michael Stewart and Gary Mackay recently implied was a by-product of Levein’s influence at the club.
Those replacements eventually arrived and, despite what Stewart and Mackay had their red-top readership believe, showed enough in the opening few games of the season to suggest our striking problems would soon be a thing of the past. The five goals against Inverness definitely enhanced that cause for optimism, but for Conor Sammon in particular, the game represented a turnaround in fortunes as equally significant as Cowie’s, having also found himself the target of (largely unjustified) supporter criticism a matter of weeks into his Hearts career.
Branded an underwhelming signing before he’d even kicked a ball, the former Killie man found himself the object of derision from the stands when he was awarded the stadium Man of the Match award after scoring his first Hearts goal in the defeat to Birkirkara. It may be that Sammon was an easy and convenient target for collective fan frustration on what was a hugely disappointing night for everyone involved. Nevertheless, when you consider the fury that Juanma’s laziness provoked last season, the ironic laughter was an overly harsh reaction towards a player who had been working tirelessly up front, on his own, without an adequate strike partner, doing the kind of unselfish work the Spaniard has simply never been capable of. Sammon, however, was determined not to let the critics faze him:
“Given my age and experience of good reactions and bad reactions, I’ve learned how to deal with those things. It’s an outside influence. As long as you can remain focused and confident in your own ability, you can handle it. I can take that sort of criticism. Of course you can hear it on the pitch. I’m not oblivious to it. What happens is that it just pushes you on.”
The arrival of Tony Watt also seems to have helped. After a few games familiarising themselves with one another, the pair clicked to considerable effect against Inverness, the former Celtic youngster providing the perfect foil for Sammon’s industrious style of play. Although it was the Irishman who dominated the post-match statistics with a goal and two assists to his name, the value of Watt’s contribution could not be overstated, particularly in the build-up to Sammon’s goal and the second of Don Cowie’s double. In fact, on an even better day, with greater luck, a goal of his own would have been the icing on the cake.
His match-winning goal in the last minute at Firhill on Saturday — the first of his Hearts career after four previous attempts — was testament, therefore, to the determination and renewed focus of a player who arrived at Tynecastle with serious question marks over his attitude and professionalism. When asked about Watt after the Partick match, Robbie Neilson was full of praise:
“We were desperate for Tony to get a goal. That was the reason I kept him on — a player of that calibre, you keep him on the pitch to try and get you something. The movement, the take and the hit for the goal is top drawer. He has to keep working hard. He’s a player who just loves playing football, so that’s what we try and do. We try and keep him on the training pitch, playing and doing the things he enjoys.”
Given the less-than-glowing reputation Watt had built for himself in his relatively short career to date, the decision to sign him on loan from Charlton was a risky one to say the least. Risk, however, is a currency that Hearts have often had to deal in over the past few seasons, particularly when it comes to recruitment. More often than not, those risks have been worth taking and so far Watt has been no exception.
His first Hearts goal, while hugely influential in the course of the game, will hopefully also prove to be a watershed moment in what has so far been a relatively turbulent personal journey for the 22-year old. Assuming he continues to work as hard as he has, he (and those around him) will continue to reap the rewards, which will fully justify the faith invested in him by the Hearts management.
Patience. Trust. Faith. With an entire season ahead of us, some fans should consider applying the same principles to our head coach who, despite having had a relatively fruitful start to his managerial career, has faced waves of dissent whenever things have gone slightly off-course. As much as football is a results-based business, our current regime has made it clear that they operate with more than just the next fixture in mind. What the past six months (our striking situation, Don Cowie’s turnaround etc) have demonstrated is that when patience endures, the results can be worth the wait.
Until next time, I bid you adieu!
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on August 29, 2016.