Ross Salcedo’s men prepare for an all important fixture. After winning their Scottish League Cup group, the draw has given them a mighty task; it’s an all out Edinburgh Derby.
“Hearts vs Hibs is always a massive fixture”, says Salcedo. “It doesn’t matter the circumstance, how the teams are doing… it’s a fixture that means so much more than anything else”.
Season ticket holder Elliott Clark agrees. “My favourite moment as a Hearts fan will forever be the 2012 Cup Final where we beat them. I remember watching it on a tiny TV in my bedroom in Glasgow and I’ll never forget the goosebumps. It’s just the kind of game that every fan dreams of having over their rivals. We got them 5-1. A cup final at Hampden is always special, however to beat your rivals and smash them like that… it’s a moment I will never beat in my life at a football game”.
With Tynecastle Park up to the brim, the teams go out knowing what’s at stake. It’s more than a cup tie, it’s a must win game. Hearts surprise their local rivals, the much favoured, top tier side, grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck and getting most of the early chances. On the 35th minute, Glenn Middleton picks up a rebound from a Greg Kiltie shot just outside of the box on the left and hit it hard and low. Hibs goalie barely manages to put the tip of the fingers on it but it’s not enough.
It’s Hearts 1, Hibs 0.
The Jambos go into the dressing room in a high mood. Just another 45 minutes and the tie will be theirs; Hibs are nowhere to be found. Salcedo asks not to fall into complacency, but it falls in deaf ears.
Early in the second half, Hearts remain the driving force, but a thundering ball by Drey Wright in the 51st minute from way outside the box catches Craig Gordon by surprise. Just like that, despite Hibs barely having an influence on the game, it was a tie. The goal gave a bit of flight to the away side’s game. After a whole game of barraging their rivals to now affair, Hearts was caught on the back foot. In the 87th minute, a quick Hibs counter found Filipino winger Yrick Gallantes falling to a Cammy Logan challenge inside the box.
“He dived!”, claimed Ross Salcedo from the touchline.
It was to no avail; the referee pointed to the spot with no hesitation. Melker Hallberg put the ball hard and low, out of reach for the Hearts goalkeeper.
“I have to apologize to every fan”, said Salcedo to our interviewers after the match. “It wasn’t what we were after and it certainly wasn’t what we deserved… but we can’t make excuses, it’s no use.”
The Hearts coaching staff is in a meeting. Whilst the players get on with their recovery sessions following that week’s match, the staff plan the next week of training. There’s also another topic on the agenda, specifically brought up by Salcedo.
“Last season our play wasn’t perhaps what we wanted, particularly towards the end of the season”, the gaffer says. “It was a bit disorderly, a bit all over the place. So we feel we can do a lot to improve that”.
“Ross is very clear on the style he wants his team to produce on the pitch, so there’s very little room for compromise with him”, commented Assistant Manager Gordon Forrest to our interviewers. “That has good and bad effects. I think perhaps last season the squad wasn’t ready for it. Perhaps a few of the players didn’t have the required skill sets for it. Steps have been taken to address that”.
“We’ve developed with Ross a profile of the ideal Hearts player”, points out Director of Football Richard Marshall. “I guess you could call it a sorts of ‘Hearts DNA’ of the type of player we want, the type of player Ross needs to carry forward the style of football both him and the board want.”
With arrivals now adapted into the squad, manager Ross Salcedo looks to further develop the style he’s been wanting for his side.
“We’ve agreed that we want a deep sitting midfielder to dictate the game”, says the manager in conversation with his assistant. “I think Finlay is fantastic for that role, and I think that in this situation, where he’s facing non-top tier opposition, it could really help him grow into that role going forwards”.
“Why do you think he’s having a bad time then?”, says Forrest.
“I think he’s not used to it yet… having so much of the ball and so much influence, so perhaps he’s doubting himself, playing it safe when he shouldn’t.”
“We’ll talk to him, let him know he’s got our backing, let him know he’s gotta be more aggressive”, comments the assistant. “Then there’s the issue of the wingers. We need to get them to be more aggressive on the ball, to attack the box”.
“When we decided on our approach going forwards”, commented Salcedo to our interviewers, “we decided we wanted our wing players to be one of the main attacking threats. Our scouting mission was then to find those players. We had a few openings in those spots, a few players leaving after last season, so we decided to make a move. We looked for players that could prove a threat not only assisting and crossing but also cutting inside and looking to score.”
As Hearts’ form in the season continues to fluctuate, finding the key to solve the tactical puzzle seems to be Salcedo’s greatest challenge.
Hearts arrive at the fixture looking to build upon a four matches unbeaten run. They, however, need to win. An unstoppable Dunfermline Athletic has been taking the league by storm and Hearts need the points to stay on their track. In front of them waits a stumbling Ross County, who have been having a terrible time since their relegation last season.
The pressure builds on the squad, but none feels it more so than on the Jambos record signing Finlay Robertson. The former Dundee player spoke to our interviewers on the matter.
“Of course Ross and the rest of the staff back me up but you can always feel the pressure. The way the press talks about you, the way that murmur from the fans follows you around on the pitch… so I know I have to improve for them and for myself.”
“The staff talked to me recently”, says the player, “about what my role on the pitch needs to be. They want me to be the playmaker for the team… he used this italian term, he wants me to be ‘regista’. Like Pirlo or Xavi, you know? He wants me to take the risks, and he trusts me to deliver. So now it’s up to me to go and do it”.
From the get go Hearts look like the dominant force, but struggle to make their advantage on the pitch show in the scoreline. Then, when the first half was drawing to a close, a Robertson long pass found Glenn Middleton just on the edge of the box. With a swift cross the former Rangers set up Conor Smith for an easy tap in. Early in the second half, with Ross County still struggling to make themselves known to Hearts goalie Craig Gordon, a brilliant free kick from Andy Halliday gave the Jambos the definitive lead.
“It’s good to have a match where you feel things went right for you”, says Robertson. “While you’re struggling to make your mark on matches, everyone tells you it’s important not to give up, but matches like this where stuff goes your way make it much easier to deal with those where it doesn’t.”
Less than a month after the Ross County match, Hearts face another key duel for promotion. With Scottish Championship’s unexpected sensation Dunfermline Athletic just one point ahead on the table, Hearts could take the 1st spot with a win.
“We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of last season”, says Salcedo. “It’s vital we take the three points and we take command of the championship. Last season perhaps we missed some key chances to do it. It won’t happen again”.
For season ticket holder Aidan Hill it’s much the same. “Hearts are a top-tier side. Always have been, always will be. So we need to get back to our level. Last season we were awful when the key matches came around. This season we need to win. I don’t care about anything else. I don’t care about deserving it or anything like that. We’ve gotta win it”.
“We know our job”, said Hearts captain Craig Gordon. “We know how the fans feel, we know what we need to do. It’s a vital match. We’ll get it done”. However, the television cameras caught the players feeling quite nervous in the tunnel before the match. Salcedo, intercepted for one final word, simply said “We know what we have to do”.
Right from the get go Hearts become the dominant force. Showing none of the resolve that has characterized them during the season, Dunfermline are quite happy to surrender possession and let the Jambos play their game. The Pars pay for it rather quickly as Liam Boyce slips from the marking of Paul Watson on the far post to score with a header from a corner inside the first six minutes.
A penalty converted by former Hearts striker Chris Wighton was Dunfermline’s second and last shot on target as early as the 24th minute. However, as the Hearts barrage continued, it looked like old demons were creeping back into the scene. A game of close shots and near misses threatened to punish the Jambos once again.
“It was one of those instances where you think ‘Are we gonna fall to the same issues, or are we gonna be strong enough to pull through?’”, said Salcedo to our interviewers in the aftermath. “That’s why we all jumped off our seat when Connor scored…”
In the 82nd minute, with the match in it’s dying embers, Greg Kiltie found Connor Smith with a through ball inside the box. The Hearts Academy graduate then slipped it past the keeper with a fine hit on the first post. The goal came with a huge roar from the away stands, where nearly two thousand Jambos fans celebrated.
“It was a great moment for everyone”, said Salcedo. “A great vindication of what we’re trying to do here”. With the win, Hearts go top to the table. “Sometimes it can seem like your hard work is going nowhere. These matches make it all worthwhile”.