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The Bleeding Hearts Show

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Saturday 14th September 2019

I paced around the technical area and looked up at the screen. Into the 92nd minute. It was now or never. “How many now, JD?”

“This’ll be 37,” came the reply from behind me.

Uche Ikpeazu had once again put his considerable frame to good use by winning a free-kick, just to the left of the D, about 22 yards from goal. Definitely within our Italian maestro’s range.

Ending my patrol, I thrust my hands into the pockets of my tan coloured overcoat and watched on as the referee waved away protests from the visiting team, decorated the ground with his shaving foam and made sure the wall was the requisite distance from the ball.

This took a good minute or so to settle everything down and all through the rigmarole Riccardo remained completely inscrutable, gaze fixed on the ball, hands on hips in a near catatonic state.

The man in black was finally happy with everything, paced back to watch on with the rest of his with the whistle pursed in his lips and then blew. Riccardo took a deep breath before taking five steps to address the ball. The contact was true, perfect in-fact. The ball left the ground, arced over and around the five-man wall and looked destined for the top corner.

Owain Fon Williams, who had been terrific for our opponents, stopping nigh on everything we’d sent his way, flung himself at full stretch high to his right but was unable to get near the strike. Everyone was about to leap into the air to celebrate the winning goal when the ball clattered off the inside of the upright and bounced back into play. Suddenly those hands that were about to punch the air in celebration clutched at heads, once again in anguish and desperation as they head been so often throughout the afternoon.

I’d even turned away to pound the dugout in frustration so didn’t see what happened next. It was only when the Tynecastle roar went up a split second later that I turned around to see Uche wheeling away in jubilation and the ball in the back of the net.

“What the f*ck just happened?!” I yelled as bodies and, I think the modern parlance is ‘limbs’, flew past me in jubilation.

“UCHE, he’s won it!” JD screamed into my face before taking it in both hands and directing it to the big screen where a replay was showing him reacting quicker than anyone else and slamming the loose ball into the net for the winner from about 3 yards out. It took a moment for it to sink in. We’d done it. At bloody last, we’d done it!

Edited by he_2

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Saturday 14th September 2019 - Radio Interview with BBC Radio Scotland

“Congratulations, Jones. A win that makes it three matches unbeaten and lifts you up to fifth in the table. How are you feeling?”

“To be honest, it’s been a complete mix of emotions. When the free-kick hit the upright I had my head in my hands in despair, so I didn’t see Uche’s follow up. Going from that to absolute elation within a split second was quite the roller-coaster. Now, though, sitting here, it’s a composite of delight, pride, relief and vindication.”

“You were on top for much of the game, yet really struggled to break Hamilton down. Had you settled for a point?”

“No, absolutely not. Had the ball not run kindly for Uche we’d be sat here having a very different conversation. I’m told we had 38 efforts at goal and scored twice, that’s not a conversion rate that fills me with a great deal of pride.

“I have to give credit to the way Hamilton defended. They got bodies in front of shots and their keeper was outstanding, he deserved better than that last minute, but we’ve got to be a lot more clinical in front of goal because that very nearly cost us two points today, and it arguably did at Kilmarnock last week.”

“Today saw Uche move onto five goals for the season, whilst Conor Washington has seven to his name already. Some would argue that goalscoring isn’t an issue?”

“I think it’s 19 goals in our ten matches so far, so almost two per game which, on the face of it isn’t too bad. If you continue at that rate over a full season you’ll probably end up doing okay. But when you look at the number of chances we’ve spurned then we’d be even better off than we are if we took even one in ten of those missed opportunities.

“Besides which, almost half of those goals have come against lower division opposition. Our approach play since the second half of the Motherwell cup-tie has been excellent. I’ve been delighted with the way we’ve passed the ball, the way we’ve pressed to regain possession as high as we can and some of the movement has been outstanding at times. It’s just that ruthlessness in the final third that we need to work on, as much as anything to relieve some of the pressure on the back four.”

“You admitted to a feeling of vindication this afternoon, what’s behind that?”

“If you look at the start on paper since arriving here, I think it’s six wins and a draw in my first ten games as manager. Most would say that’s an impressive beginning to live in the hot-seat, but the truth is that today was the first time I’ve managed to gain victory over an SPL side in an 11v11 contest.

“Sure, we flew through the group stage of the League Cup, but then we lost our first two league matches against Rangers and Aberdeen followed by the cup exit at Motherwell. The win at St Johnstone was aided by the early sending off and then there was the point at Killie last week. Today we’ve finally beaten a side on an even footing and that’s proven to myself as much as anyone else that I can do it at this level.”

“So, you’ve harboured doubts about your ability to manage at this level?”

“I think most people, regardless of their level of self confidence have doubts at times and I’m no different. Particularly as a 20-year old managerial novice who finds himself in nigh on unchartered territory. It’s good to know that I can win at this level and I can now put one or two of those little nagging doubts at the back of my mind to rest.”

“Riccardo Montolivo’s influence seems to be growing following a steady, if unspectacular start to life at Tynecastle. How pleased are you with his performance today?”

“I thought he was excellent. He’s been very good since he joined the club but today you saw him really begin to assert himself more creatively which is what I want from him. His ball in for Uche’s first goal was pinpoint, wasn’t it? And then the free kick was delicious.

“People expected him to come in and immediately begin to boss games given his background but there has to be a recognition of just how difficult the transition from Italy to Scotland is. It’s a new climate, a new culture, a new language and he hasn’t played for the best part of eighteen months – although he was involved at Milan last season he never made it off the bench - so of course it’s taken him a little time to settle down and truly begin to influence things.”

“Does his influence reach further than just on the pitch?”

“Of course, absolutely it does. The guy’s won 66 Italian caps, you don’t gain that level of experience by accident. The younger lads like Andrew (Irving) and Ant (McDonald) are learning so much from him on the training pitch. Not just from Ricci, but guys like Glenn Whelan and Chris Berra as well. You forget because he kind of goes under the radar a little, Glenn’s someone that has 90-plus international caps to his name, almost 300 games in the Premier League south of the border. If you’re a youngster and you can’t learn off guys like this then you need to have a long hard look at yourself.”

“Looking forward, you host Motherwell next week before travelling to Parkhead and then St Mirren before the October international break. What are you hoping for out of those two games?”

“To come away still in a job!” (laughs).

“Seriously, though, all three matches will be difficult. Motherwell have already beaten us at Fir Park in the League Cup, although I saw enough from us in the second half to think that we can get something from that one here at Tynecastle. Celtic away, well, that’s a daunting prospect, of course. But I’ve learned a lot from our defeat against Rangers and we’ll go there looking to give a good account of ourselves and see if we can come away with something.

“We know our season isn’t going to be defined by how we perform against the Old Firm but by results against the likes of Motherwell, Aberdeen, Killie and Hibs, but that’s not to say we won’t be going into the game without a game plan aimed at coming away with something. If we do, it’s probably a bonus, if we don’t then we move onto the St. Mirren game and look to get something out of that one.”

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Okay, so let’s give you, the reader, a little more background into what you’ve inadvertently stumbled into here.

My name is Jones Patterson. Quite what possessed my beloved parents to give me a surname as a first-name I haven’t managed to unearth, but I always seem to bring to mind (my own if no-one else’s), Forbes McAllister, the restaurant critic shot inadvertently by Alan Partridge with his own antique shotgun in the final episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You back in the mid-1990s.

In July 2019 I was appointed as manager of Scottish Premier League side Heart of Midlothian, one of two SPL clubs based in the capital city, Edinburgh. My appointment raised eyebrows to cartoonish levels. I won’t go into too much detail right now but being 18 months out of my teens when the job was offered certainly offended some sensibilities and tried others. There were plenty of doubts about my ability to do the job from the fans, from the press, from players and as I’ve already alluded too, within my own mind as well.

Originally, I was offered a two-year deal to take me through to the end of the 2020/1 season but I knocked that back in favour of a contract just for the one season. That way if things went spectacularly breasts-up, then it wouldn’t cost too much in the way of finances for either party to terminate the agreement. The reputational cost of failure to either or both parties would be a lot more difficult to calculate.

The squad I’d inherited looked reasonable on paper and fully capable of achieving the target of 4th place in the League (and with it, most likely, a place in Europe) as well as progress in both cups. It was somewhat unbalanced with a lack of natural right-sided midfielders, but the mix of younger players and experienced struck me as well balanced with the aforementioned Glenn Whelan, Christophe Berra and Steven Naismith providing plenty of top-flight experience both sides of the border.

There were a couple of interesting looking loanees at the club as well with Manchester United’s Portuguese goalkeeper Joel Perreira joining his cross-city rival Ryo Meshino who had joined from Manchester City, whilst 22-year old centre-half John Souttar looked to have a very bright future ahead of him, albeit probably not at Tynecastle, and had made his full Scotland debut in a 4-0 defeat against Belgium.

In an attempt to address the squad’s imbalance I looked hard and long at trying to get someone in via any means possible to play on the right side of midfield. I looked at players available for loan, nothing that fitted what we were after. I looked at players transfer-listed and there were none. I looked at players available on a free and had preliminary conversations with Ben Marshall’s agent. Marshall had just left Norwich following the Canaries’ promotion to the Premier League, however the discussion was rather short-lived as it quickly became apparent that we simply didn’t have the resources to be able to get his client in. Not even when I said I was more than happy for him to use us as a short-term shop window to get himself games and minutes and a stepping stone to the level he wanted to play at.

Pat Nevin, the precocious former Chelsea, Tranmere and Kilmarnock winger and renowned indie DJ came in as a Director of Football with a promise to be able to control the musical output within the dressing room (he just about beat Brazilian legend Rivaldo to the role – genuinely), but even with his knowledge of the game, none of his recommendations fitted what we were looking for.

It was during this hopeless search that I became aware of the availability of Riccardo Montolivo, the former Italian international midfielder who had just been released by AC Milan. A veteran of more than 450 Serie A appearances with Atalanta, Fiorentina and the Rossineri, Ricci had failed to make an appearance during the 2018/9 season and was apparently considering retirement. Bringing someone of his quality on board was an absolute no-brainer as far as I was concerned and having made a few phone calls to people’s whose opinions mattered, I was persuaded to try my luck and get him in. I rated our chances at no better than 5%, thinking that he’d be way out of our wage bracket.

How wrong I was. Our first contact with his agent saw us come away encouraged in so far as our approach wasn’t dismissed entirely out of hand which I’d half expected. Later that afternoon I had a call back saying that the player was interested in finding out more and so, by the evening I found myself in the chairwoman’s car driving back to Tynecastle with Montolivo and his representatives to discuss what we could offer him.

Myself, Ann (Budge, the chairwoman) , Nevin, Montolivo, his agent and a translator were sat in the boardroom for a couple of hours, talking, looking at spreadsheets and finances, massaging budgets and finding some extra wriggle room in the wage budget to offer him £4k per week. A number of sidebars later and we’d managed to shake hands on a 1-year deal with no option for a second year.

Just imagine. A 34-year old Italian international midfielder with more than 60 caps to his name for £200k per year. I know these things are all relative but that felt like a good deal for us. The club would benefit enormously from a bit of added exposure as well as on the pitch from his undoubted quality and experience. In addition, we had four League Cup group matches in which we could ease him into action and help him gain match sharpness, a kind of extension to our pre-season programme.

And thank the lord too. With the squad entirely out of kilter balance-wise, it meant that I had the opportunity to play around a bit with formations during the League Cup campaign without jeopardising league points and try and find something that would work as a bit of a bodge, if not actually provide us with some degree of threat. Afterall, many sides had made it work without natural width, or with one flank providing more of an outlet and threat than the other. The great Inter Milan side of Helenio Herrera, who is widely considered to be the king of pure Catenaccio and then later of the excellent Italian side that was denied the 1970 World Cup by an even better Brazil side, were both somewhat lopsided and as asymmetrical as a New Romantic’s haircut. Time would tell if I’d be able to join them.

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You’re not here to read about this, that and the other, you’ll be wanting to know about the football. The action on the pitch.

Things began with the League Cup. We’d been placed in Group B alongside Alloa Athletic, Arbroath, Cowdenbeath and Elgin City so we were clear favourites to progress into the knockout phases. However, it didn’t matter in the slightest how things appeared on paper, football is played on grass (sometimes synthetic) and it was results on there that mattered.

17th July 2019: Heart of Midlothian v Alloa Athletic (League Cup)

Venue: Tynecastle

Att: 12,073

We began at home to Championship side Alloa Athletic in front of a healthy 12,000-plus supporters, many of whom were keen to see Riccardo Montolivo in action. He’d finally put pen to paper on contract that morning and we’d received clearance from the SFA that he was available for selection that evening. I’d left the decision to him, if he felt fit and able then I’d happily select him on the bench and give him 20-25 minutes or so by way of introduction to the fans. He gave me the green light and that was that.

We lined up in an attacking lopsided 4-3-3 formation with Jamie Walker being asked to play in a slightly unfamiliar wide-right midfield role whilst Ryo Meshino played in a more advanced position wide on the left. Glenn Whelan was given a brief to sit in midfield, break things up and keep it simple in possession, whilst Sean Clare was given an attacking midfield slot buzzing around behind the twin strike-force of Uche Ikpeazu and Conor Washington. Defensively Michael Smith was given licence to get forward from right-back and Aidan White was given the same freedom from left-back. Can you picture the mess of a formation? I certainly hoped it would work better on grass than it looked on the magnet board.

It was a pretty uneventful opening 20 minutes or so, Conor Washington forced a good save from the visiting goalkeeper and the same goalkeeper made a right Horlicks of coming out to claim a long and deep free-kick from Sean Clare, clambered over John Souttar, got nowhere near the ball and it bounced into the net. Of course, as is the way these days, grumble grumble, the decision went the way of the goalkeeper even though if anything, he’d fouled my centre half.

What’s that? Maroon tinted specs? Pack it in!

The opener arrived on 37 minutes when a ball down the left flank from White found Meshino, cutting out the Alloa right-back in the process. As the Japanese winger flew forward and cut into the penalty area, he had the wit to square the ball for the supporting Uche and the former Cambridge man had the simplest of tasks to slide the ball home for 1-0.

HALF TIME: Heart of Midlothian 1-0 Alloa Athletic

I was more than content at half-time, we’d been in control and passed the ball nicely whilst keeping Joel Perreira well protected defensively. It was simply a case of ‘more of the same’ as far as I was concerned after the break.

Washington and Meshino both squandered decent opportunities in the opening stages of the second half and ten minutes into the second period I introduced Montolivo to a rapturous reception.

The second goal arrived a couple of minutes later. Meshino drove a cross in from the left after some patient passing and then a killer pass from Souttar and it rebounded back off Washington’s rear end. It fell to a Jambo shirt and was worked back into midfield where Montolivo and Whelan exchanged passes not once, not twice, but thrice. It then went back to Aidan White who knocked it inside to Craig Halkett. The centre half looked out and then pinged a lovely ball over the top for Washington to run onto. He rounded the goalkeeper and although his first effort clipped the heel of a covering defender, he managed to tuck home the rebound from the acutest of angles much to everyone’s delight.

Sean Clare went close with a more authentic free kick that the goalkeeper did superbly to tip over the top and Washington spurned another chance in the closing stages but before that we slacked off and very nearly were made to pay in the final ten minutes when Alloa had a couple of efforts – a header that went over the top and then a through ball that required a good save from Perreira. That little period aside we had been good. Not great, but good and a comfortable 2-0 win was secured.

As managerial debuts went, this was more than adequate. I took a moment after the game to acknowledge the fans who, whatever their misgivings about my appointment, had given the side nothing but backing.

FULL TIME: Heart of Midlothian 2-0 Alloa Athletic

Team: Perreira, Brown, Souttar, Hackett, White (Mulvaney), Whelan, Walker (Montolivo), Clare, Meshino, Ikpeazu (MacLean), Washington

Goalscorers: Ikpeazu 37, Washington 59

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20th July 2019: Cowdenbeath v Heart of Midlothian (League Cup)

Venue: Central Park

Att: 3,829

 

It had been a good start and I was keen to extend it three days later when we travelled north to Central Park to meet Division 2 side Cowdenbeath. Managed by Gary Bollan, the former Rangers and Dundee United full-back, they had also been the previous club of a few Jambos legends such as Craigs Levein and Gordon. There would be no room for sentiment though, we there to win.

I made half a dozen or so changes to the line-up and shape with Loic Damour sitting in midfield and Ricci Montolivo making his first start. Jamie Brandon came in at right-back and Christophe Berra replaced Craig Hackett alongside John Souttar. Jake Mulraney gave us a little more natural width down the left flank in place of Ryo Meshino.

We began well, Mulvaney breaking into the penalty area in the 8th minute but unable really work the goalkeeper especially and went on to control possession pretty well, peppering shots at goal (albeit not particularly good ones) at regular intervals.

The opening goal came on 21 minutes when Sean Clare spread a lovely ball out wide to the left flank for Mulraney to run onto beyond the home full-back. He took a couple of touches on the run to get the ball under control before cutting the ball back to Conor Washington who fired a first time effort left footed from about 12-yards out and buried it beyond Maciej Dabrowski in the Miners’ goal.

Three minutes later, some lovely patient build-up, which showed why Cowdenbeath are sometimes nicknamed the Blue Brazil ended with David Cox being played through with a simple ball over the top, Joel Perreira was swiftly out to narrow the angle and made a good save to maintain our lead.

A five-minute flurry of action was brought to a close by Washington, who climbed above his marker to head Loic Damour’s cross goalward. Dabrowksi was completely beaten but the crossbar wasn’t. The ball thudded against it and then landed just on top of the net.

After that we once again settled down, got into a pattern of passing and probing for openings but despite a couple of reasonable efforts, were unable to force another goal before the break.

HALF TIME: Cowdenbeath 0-1 Heart of Midlothian

I was quite content at the break, urged the boys to look for a second goal earlier rather than later to try and get the game down and then see the game out. If more goals came, fine, but whilst it was 1-0, we were always open to a goal against from a set-piece or moment of magic. I wanted us to be professional.

The opening stages of the second period were fairly quiet and followed the pattern of most of the game up until that point with us fully in control, but never really threatening to get out of second gear.

Just as the hour mark came and went the warm Scottish afternoon was enlivened a touch by a superb second goal. 19-year old midfielder Andy Irving, who had not long replaced Loic Damour, picked up a pass inside his own half from Aidan White and switched the ball beautifully to the right flank where Jamie Brandon was flying up from right-back. He took a touch and then fizzed a low, driven cross across the 6-yard box which Mulraney arrived right on cue to caress into the back of the net beyond the exposed Dabrowski. The goal elicited a fist pump and shouts of praise on my behalf, the football leading up to the goal had been exactly the kind of thing I was wanting us to provide, a real thing of beauty.

Five minutes later, Montolivo rattled the frame of the goal with a super drive from just outside the D, and as time ticked by, Mulraney again found himself through on goal but saw his effort well blocked by Dabrowski before sub Steven MacLean headed a Montolivo cross just over the bar with the aid of the top of the woodwork.

The performance was exactly what I’d been after. Professional, fully in control for the most part and, most importantly, had put us in a position where a win against Elgin City would probably see us qualify for the knockout stages.

FULL TIME: Cowdenbeath 0-2 Heart of Midlothian

Team: Perreira, Brandon, Souttar, Berra, White, Damour (Irving), Montolivo, Clare (Walker), Mulraney, Ikpeazu (MacLean), Washington

Goalscorers: Washington 21, Mulraney 61

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24th July 2019: Heart of Midlothian v Elgin City (League Cup)

Venue: Tynecastle

Att: 11,412

 

Believe it or not, this was the beginning of Elgin’s 20th season as a Scottish League club, having joined the SFL at the turn of the millennium. The original home of the famed marbles that have for so long been disputed after being pilfered for display in the British Museum (not really, of course) the former Highland Leaguers came into the tie having lost both matches so far, albeit only on penalties to Arbroath at the weekend following a 2-2 draw.

The game provided me with another opportunity to mix things up a bit. In came 17-year old full-back Aaron Hickey for his first appearance of the season at left-back, Michael Brown returned at right-back, Glenn Whelan replaced the rested Ricci Montolivo, Jamie Walker replaced Sean Clare in the central attacking midfield role and 16-year old striker Jay Charleston-King got a senior debut up front alongside Conor Washington.

Inside the first minute we very nearly fell behind when a lovely ball split Souttar and Berra and saw Shane Sutherland with a run in on goal. Once again Joel Perreira came to the rescue, narrowing the angle and making a good block from the Elgin striker’s effort.

We looked disjointed and sloppy in the first twenty minutes and I had to be more vocal than I usually am on the bench to try and cajole the boys into some degree of action. Finally, Jamie Walker, who had been our brightest spark so far, carrying the ball well, fired a shot from just inside the penalty area that thundered off the crossbar and away from danger and as if a switch had been flicked, we were in business.

Washington fed the ball in to Walker who, with a burst of speed and cheeky little piece of skill, flicked the ball between a couple of defenders and ran around the other side of them, burst into the box and fired a left-footed strike beyond the wrong-footed keeper to give us the lead.

Further chances went begging, Mulraney and John Souttar the guilty parties before Mulraney picked up a pass deep from Walker, turned and ran at the penalty area. As he cut outside onto his left-foot he drove a superb low strike from the edge of the penalty area which fairly beat the dive of Daniel Hoban in the Elgin goal, and into the back of the net.

A minute into stoppage time a clearance fell nicely for Damour on the edge of the penalty area. He laid the ball into the path of the overlapping Michael Smith and the right-back’s cross was picture perfect for Washington, on the edge of the 6-yard box to turn into the back of the net.

HALF TIME: Heart of Midlothian 3-0 Elgin City

There wasn’t much for me to say at the break aside from ‘Just keep on keeping on, lads.’ It really was that simple. Apart from the first twenty minutes we had been excellent and the expectation was very much that this was going to be a case of how many, rather than ‘can they come back?’

That question was emphatically answered within two minutes of the restart. An Elgin counter-attack from one of our corners broke down when Aaron Hickey intercepted a pass and shifted the ball to Damour, he found Walker who sent a delicious ball over the top and found Washington inside the penalty area. Shifting the ball onto his right foot, Hoban made a superb save from the Northern Ireland international’s first effort but the rebound fell perfectly for Washington to tuck home his third goal of the campaign to make it 4-0.

Midway through the period Walker was again involved, this time collecting a pass from Whelan before feeding substitute Ryo Meshino. The on-loan Manchester City man came in off the flank, running away from goal beat a man before turning sharply and cutting in towards the penalty area. From the edge he fired in a low shot which arrowed across Hoban and into the bottom corner to complete our nap hand for the evening.

Five minutes later and Glenn Whelan was denied when his free kick looked destined for the top corner, but Hoban at full stretch produced a magnificent save and four minutes after that, Meshino picked up another pass from the irrepressible Walker, cut inside and fired a low shot that struck the base of Hoban’s left hand post and then went just out of play for a goal-kick.

With 11 minutes remaining Walker very nearly capped his virtuoso performance with a Dennis Bergkamp-esq goal, as a ball forward from Berra dropped over his shoulder and with his back to goal, he pirouetted and struck the ball as it dropped with the outside of his boot but unfortunately fired it over the top.

The win took us into the knockout stages with a game to spare, something I was really pleased about since the game with Arbroath would give me an opportunity to work on something a little tactically ahead of our league opener against Rangers a week later.

FULL TIME: Heart of Midlothian 5-0 Elgin City

Team: Perreira, Brown, Souttar, Berra, Hickey, Damour (Bozanic), Whelan, Walker, Mulraney (Meshino), Charleston-King, Washington (MacLean)

Goalscorers: Walker 22, Mulraney 35, Washington 45+1, 47, Meshino 66

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Friday 26th July: Player’s Lounge, Tynecastle.

“Jesus, Patsy, what the merry hell is wrong with you?”

“Calm down, Macca, I just want to try it out before the Rangers game, give the boys a chance to understand the system.” I tried to explain. Austin MscPhee, my second in command, and Jon ‘JD’ Daly were sat at a corner table in the player’s lounge at Tynecastle talking discussing our upcoming tie with Arbroath and the change of shape that I wanted us to undertake. “We’ve qualified, we’re in the knockout stages, we’d be stupid not to give it a try whilst the pressure’s off.”

With a home game against Rangers the following week kicking off the league campaign, I favoured changing things around a bit. Adding an extra man into the heart of midfield and going with one up front, keeping the attacking midfielders wide on the left and in the inside right channel, but then having three men centrally behind them, one of whom would just shield the back-four. On top of that, I wanted us to change our mindset from one of trying to dictate possession to sitting back and soaking things up before looking to hit on the break. I was advocating the use of this new system against in our final League Cup group match and was meeting some stiff resistance from my vocal number two.

“You’re running scared!” He said, tucking his long blond hair back behind both ears.

“I’m not running scared at all!” I countered.

“He’s running scared!” He said again, this time looking at JD. “Do you think he’s running scared?”

The former Stockport, Dundee United and Gers frontman took a moment and a sip of his beer before talking. “I can understand the gaffer’s thinking,” he began, “Stevie comes with a big reputation, they’ve invested heavily in the summer and look dangerous on paper don’t they? Defoe, Brewster, Kent added to Morelos, Davis and co. Even that Aribo kid looks a prospect.” He paused again, taking another sip of his ale. I could sense a counterpoint coming at me, headlong. “But I agree with Macca, Jones. You go out there with a negative mindset, concede early and then you’re fighting an uphill battle because you need a goal.”

“The fans ain’t gonna take us rolling over and having our tummies tickled against the auld firm.” MacPhee added. “Trust me, Patsy, you lose 3-0 but have a go at them, they’ll be disappointed but respect you for at least trying to match them and not show them too much respect. They hate that, don’t they, JD? Just watching their boys sit off the Glasgow sides.” The coach nodded in agreement. “You hold them to a 1-0 defeat by sitting off them for 90 minutes and trying to hit on the break, you’re gonna get booed off.”

I took a swig of my beer, draining the dregs. “Another?” I asked. The other two nodded. I got up and walked behind the bar, removing three bottles from the fridge and leaving a £20 note on top of the previous one under the cash register as payment. Walking back to the table I removed the tops with my club crested bottle opener.

“This isn’t running scared.” I said, taking up the thread again as I sat down and handed the bottles around. “If you’re telling me to try and out-football Rangers, that isn’t going to happen. We’re decent, but we’re they’re better than us. They’ll pick us off at will. I’d much rather we stay compact, soak up the pressure, let them have the ball in front of us and then look to break with the pace of the Jamies.”

My assistant was shaking his head. “We made that mistake against Rangers last season, four times we did that, didn’t learn our lesson and lost the bloody lot!” he said aghast. “3-0 twice at Ibrox, 2-1 here in a game which should have been nearer 5-1 and then 3-1 here at the end of the season. The sides that got something against them were those that pressed higher up the pitch. Yes, they’ve got quality in the final third but defensively, they ain’t all that. Aberdeen, Killie last season, pressed high and beat them. Killie, they were brilliant each time, won two and drew two. Got in amongst the Gers and they couldn’t deal with it. You sit back, you hand them the initiative from minute one.”

I looked at JD.

“I agree with Macca, gaffer. They’re good if you sit off them, they have plenty-a guile, they’ll break us down.”

“As for doing it tomorrow, that’s just ridiculous, Patsy.” MacPhee stated. “Honestly, those travelling fans ain’t gonna like it one iota. They wanna see their side giving it a go, especially against lower-league oppo.”

I swilled the contents of my bottle around for a moment, considering my response. I’ll be honest, I was in two minds, I could see the merit of their arguments and there was a part of me that wanted to carry on as we had been doing, with the proactive, positive mindset, looking to control and dictate as much as we could. But my natural instincts that leant towards caution, towards self-protection were overwhelming.

Putting the bottle back on the table, I looked up at MacPhee, then JD and then back at MacPhee.

“We’re going my way tomorrow and next week.” I said finally, with more assurance than I really felt.

“For fu-,“ MacPhee started, exasperated.

“Wait a second!” I interrupted, holding a placating hand up. “We’re going my way tomorrow and next week, if we get our arses tanned then I hold my hands up, mea culpa and we change things next time around.”

“Publicly?” MacPhee asked.

“What do you mean, publicly?”

“You’ll hold your hands up and say you got it wrong publicly?”

A sip from the bottle, holding my assistant’s gaze.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Well, okay then.” He replied, sitting back in his chair, his body language screaming reluctant resignation at me.

On my head be it.

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Saturday 27th July 2019: Arbroath v Heart of Midlothian (League Cup)

Venue: Gayfield Park

Att: 2,123

 

A beautiful summer’s afternoon on Scotland’s east coast greeted us, the warm balmy weather suiting a round at nearby Carnoustie as much as an early season dead rubber in the Scottish League Cup against second tier side Arbroath in a game that would pit maroon on maroon.

Or it might have done if our kit manager, Kenny, had forgotten to pack our away strip but mercifully, the elder statesman of Tynecastle knew his onions (and more importantly, his football kits!)

The tactical change had been explained the previous evening to the players, I couldn’t really tell how well it went down with them, almost to a man their expressions were entirely inscrutable.

I’d made a handful of personnel changes as well, Craig Halkett replaced the rested John Souttar, Aidan White returned at left-back in place of Aaron Hickey and Aussie midfielder Oliver Bozanic made the third central midfielder with young Jay Charleston-King stepping down and back into the youth-team for now.

We were denied a dream start when Conor Washington found himself clear on goal from White’s adroitly judged long ball from back to front, however his effort lacked a bit of power and Darren Jamieson made a smart, if comfortable save, holding onto the ball.

The boys seemed to make the adjustment to the new shape pretty well. Of course, asking them to sit deep and soak up pressure meant that we had less of the ball and created less as an attacking force, but we also kept the hosts at arm’s length defensively. That was until the 41st minute when a free kick into the box found its way to the far post where Steven Doris met it with an effort. Joel Perreira saved it and a Jambo boot hoicked it clear of danger.

Seconds later, another ball forward from White once again sent Washington scampering clear on goal, but with all the time in this world, and probably the next, to pick his spot, he seemed to persuade himself out of a couple of options and Jamieson was able to make another smart save.

HALF TIME: Arbroath 0-0 Heart of Midlothian

I was reasonably content at the break, Austin, however really wasn’t. I’ll give him his dues, in front of the players he gave the impression that he’d fully brought into the tactical tweak and backed me to the hilt. It was vital to have the united front. Yet, after the players had trooped out for the start of the second half, he placed a hand on my arm to stop me exiting the dressing room.

“This is crap,” he said. “The boys aren’t enjoying what they’re doing.”

“You think so, do you?” I replied.

A nod.

“What happens today is irrelevant.” I said. “Couldn’t matter less. It’s all about building towards next week.”

“You couldn’t be more wrong, Patsy.” He picked up his binder from the physio’s couch ready to head back out. “You’re getting them into a negative frame of mind, a reactive frame of mind. It’s not going to work. Mark my words.”

“We’ll see about that,” I responded, putting an arm around his shoulder. “I have a feeling we’ll be fine. Today and next week. Come on,” I beckoned for him to go through the door before me. “You’ll see.”

I’ll be honest, it was fairly turgid stuff. But I wasn’t too disappointed by that, I would take turgid and dour in a week’s time if it meant taking something off the Gers.

On 62 minutes an Omar Kader free kick was swung over to  the far post where it was met by an unmarked James Murphy who was just unable to keep his header down and was unfortunate to see it thunder down off the crossbar and into the arms of a grateful Perreira.

“Jesus!” Austin breathed to my right on the bench.

“That’s nothing to do with the shape,” I said, quietly. “That’s someone crapping out on their responsibility!” He looked non-plussed.

With five minutes remaining, the ball was swept out wide to the left by Andy Irving and Aidan White collected it. Advancing towards the penalty area he hit a strike from just outside. Jamieson looked to have it covered but it took a wicked deflection off a maroon shirt and ended up in the back of the net. As White wheeled away in delight a whistle cut short his celebrations – Conor Washington had been adjudged to have been offside and interfering with the goalkeeper’s eyeline, the goal was chalked off and with it, any little sense of pyrrhic vindication dissolved.

Washington squandered a third one-on-one chance in the closing stages and the goalless draw meant a first ever penalty shoot out in my fledgling career. Success would give us an additional second point from the afternoon’s exertions.

Michael McKenna (Arbroath): The first penalty of the afternoon saw Arbroath’s midfield general step up and coolly beat Joel Perreira. 1-0.

Sean Clare (Hearts): Our first spot kick was taken by our attacking midfield substitute. With abundant confidence he simply rifled the spot kick low into the bottom corner to Jamieson’s left. 1-1.

Luke Donnelly (Arbroath): The hosts’ striker went the same way with his spot kick as the first two penalties. Perreira went the other way and that was 2-1.

Conor Washington (Hearts): Our leading scorer continued his luckless afternoon in front of goal. Never looking confident, he hurried his effort and Jamieson sealed his triumph in their personal battle emphatically with an excellent save. 2-1.

Mark Whatley (Arbroath): No sooner did the hosts have the advantage, and Joel Perreira wrestled it away from them. There wasn’t a lot wrong with the midfielder’s effort, it was powerful and well directed, but the Portuguese goalkeeper plunged to his right at full stretch and produced a magnificent save. 2-1.

Glenn Whelan (Hearts): Level pegging as the Irish midfielder buried his effort low into the bottom corner of the net. No chance for Jamieson. 2-2.

James Murphy (Arbroath): The midfielder who was denied by the crossbar in the 90 minutes went the same way as Whatley and the outcome was the same too. Perreira with a quite brilliant low one handed save from a penalty that didn’t look to have too much wrong with it. 2-2 and advantage Hearts.

Craig Halkett (Hearts): Advantage extended as centre-half Halkett sent Jamieson the wrong way. 2-3.

Colin Hamilton (Arbroath): The pressure was, to be fair, pretty small given that there was nothing at stake in the fixture. Hamilton chose to go the other way from his side’s three previous spot kicks but once again Perreira guessed correctly and produced another fine save to secure the extra point. 2-3.

FULL TIME: Arbroath 0-0 Heart of Midlothian (2-3 on penalties)

Team: Perreira, Smith, Halkett, Berra, White, Montolivo (Irving), Bozanic, Whelan, Walker (Clare), Meshino (Mulraney), Washington

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With the big SPL kick-off looming ever larger the week was spent preparing. Preparing for the visit of Rangers, preparing for the visit to Aberdeen that followed, assessing the squad and identifying strengths and weaknesses and working with Pat and the recruitment team to begin the trawl through the UK and Europe to identify suitable talent that could take us forward.

Make no mistake, the target was a top four place and European football next season. Yet my own personal goal was to finish best of the rest behind the Old Firm. Achieve that, and there’d be a basis from which to build. Fail to achieve that and I would find myself on the scrapheap, no doubt, with Hearts a laughing stock and their fans taking needless levels of ridicule at work, at home and elsewhere.

With football management comes responsibility, you’re appointed the guardian of something that dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands – millions in some cases – of people care passionately about. Supporting a football club is a way of life, part of someone’s identity and whilst you’re the one given charge of that club’s fortunes, there’s an enormous level of responsibility to treat it as you would a member of your own family. Of course, every manager, every coach, every player has their own career and personal ambitions that they aspire to achieve and that brings with it a level of selfishness, but the moment one loses sight of that bigger picture – the good of the football club – questions need to be asked.

That was firmly in my mind throughout all of my sessions on the training pitch and in the little hub at the training ground that I’d created to house the scouting and analysis team, somewhere that I’d made almost ‘top secret’, allowing only a select band of personnel access to and making sure that all staff contained within signed a privacy agreement that prevented them from discussing targets, or players that were being looked at with anyone that didn’t have the requisite level of clearance, or outside the confines of those four walls. I wouldn’t allow leaks to the press, anything that appeared in the media concerning transfers was nothing more than tittle-tattle, bored journos with nothing better to do with their time than to pull stories out of thin air.

Likewise, the running discussion between myself and Austin about the approach for the curtain raiser remained between the two of us. Of course, I sought the opinion of other coaches as well as, and if I am brutally honest, looking back, the tide of opinion was in Austin’s favour. In the final 48-hours prior to the match, I did consider going back to 2 up front and abandoning the extra man in the middle of the park. But then I thought that’d show myself to be indecisive, weak minded, easily swayed – all of those things, and many more besides running through my head.

I knew I was being examined through a magnifying glass given my inexperience, my tender years, my background, my upbringing, questioning how and why I’d made such a breakthrough into a big job at the age of 20. Any hint of dissention, disunity would be put through the microscope and whilst I personally didn’t care what was printed either on screen or parchment, by a pundit or armchair warrior, I didn’t want to slip up and affect the club’s name any more than it had already been by my appointment.

As it happens, looking back now the appointment of Pat was arguably the best I ever made. Increasingly in those first six weeks or so when the spotlight was Stasi-esq in its intensity on me, he was able to sit me down (often with one of his mixtapes on in the background and over a couple of craft beers) and give me a perspective from the other side. Why the media were so keen to get an angle, so keen for me to fail – simply because it would sell papers, provide ammunition for radio phone-in shows and such like.

“In most cases it’s nothing personal,” he told me over a drink the night before the Rangers match, as we sat in the bar of the Caledoian Waldorf Astoria Hotel before he went off to DJ and I went off to a sleepless night in bed. “Just keep in mind, journalists and pundits don’t have jobs without some level of sensationalism. Believe it or not, Chris Sutton isn’t the miserable sod he makes out on the radio or television – at least not always – but he’s harvested that persona because it makes people listen.”

“Or switch off!” I countered, with a resigned chuckle. “I understand what you’re saying. I mean, personally I always wanted more insight when listening to or watching football and some are better at that than others. But I realise that’s not necessarily what sells.”

“It’s really not, pal” Pat laughed. “Listen, some of those scribes will be out to get you, 100%, and they’ll revel anytime you fail. But, look, most of them will be wanting to write good news stories at the end of the campaign.”

“A rags to riches story?” I asked, half facetiously. “Triumph in adversary, overcoming the odds, all that nonsense?”

“In a manner of speaking, yeah. The son of African immigrants who stepped off a boat when he was 6 without a word of English, devoting himself to learning about football, getting a top job in the SPL at an age at which half of all professional players have made their first-team debuts, wanting to better himself all the time – what’s not to love about that? It’s a made for good news story.”

I probably looked fairly non-plussed at this stage, so Pat pressed on. “I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, it’s how our media works. One or two of the bitter hacks will hate everything about you, so what, they’re just jealous that every time you speak to them you’re the one sat at the top table with plenty of space, microphones and dictaphones everywhere and they’re still scrabbling around with their pencils and spiral bound notebooks at the age of 60. Just remember, pal, everyone upstairs at the ‘castle has your back, all of your staff have your back. We’re in this together.”

I appreciated that. I appreciated all the support I’d had in the few weeks I’d been in the hotseat. Yet I knew that the coals were only just getting up to temperature. In less than 24 hours they’d be white-hot and if I failed to meet the grade, it’d be my flesh that would be slapped on top. I sincerely hoped that wouldn’t be required!

 

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Sunday 4th August 2019: Heart of Midlothian v Glasgow Rangers (Scottish Premier League)

Venue: Tyncastle

Att: 20,099

Live on Television

Nigh on a full-house and a live television audience for my league managerial debut. Not to mention the visit of British footballing royalty in the shape of Steven Gerrard in the opposing dugout. I’d gone out to welcome the Rangers team coach and shake the hands of everyone as they got off at the entrance to the ground. There were one or two ‘jovial’ pieces of ‘banter’ thrown my way from early-comers who had come to try and get a glimpse of their heroes, I pretended I hadn’t heard them.

“Welcome to Tynecastle, Steven.” I offered my hand which my opposite number drily accepted.

“Thanks, down here is it?” he asked.

I nodded and pointed the way down the corridor to where the dressing rooms were. “Second door on the right.” I replied, shaking the next man off the coach’s hand, their number 2 and another classy midfielder, Gary McAlllister. I won’t lie, it was tempting to grab a slip of paper off reception and ask the two former Liverpool men to sign their autographs, thankfully my mask of professionalism didn’t slip.

***

Five minutes before the 1pm kick-off and the players were lined up in the tunnel. I was a little further behind them, around the corner waiting for Steven to finish his quick pre-match interview for live TV. As soon as he’d shaken hands with the reporter, I slipped in and waited for what felt like an interminable 70 seconds whilst they dissected my opposite number’s words in the studio and then handed back to the young lady with the microphone, Leah Young, who didn’t exactly radiate warmth, it has to be said.

LY: So, Jones, you’ve given Glenn Whelan the armband this afternoon in the absence of Christophe Berra, why is that?

Me: Well, Glenn comes with tonnes of experience and I know that I can rely on him to set the tone for us this afternoon. With him comes leadership, I know he’s the right man to lead us into the game.

LY: You’re without Aidan White, who failed a late fitness test. How will that affect the side?

Me: Obviously losing Aidan is a blow, but we’ve brought young Aaron Hickey into the side and he’s got plenty of quality as I’m sure he’ll show over the next couple of hours.

And that was that, abruptly Leah passed back to the studio and turned her back on me. Shrugging my shoulders and smiling ruefully I turned around and followed the team down the tunnel into the arena.

Nothing will ever quite match the first time you walk out into the blazing sunshine as manager of a club for the first time, the roar of the crowd almost pressing down upon you, the flash of the photographer’s lenses going off at a thousand miles an hour as you shake your opponent’s hand and make your way to the dugout. Sure, managing at somewhere like the Camp Nou gives you an even more intense feeling, but that first time – like so many first times – it can’t ever be matched.

So when the game began, I was in quite a daze and took a couple of minutes just patrolling the technical area, barely watching the game, just in order to compose myself. Slowly but surely, the game settled into a pattern where Rangers were dictating possession and we had them at arm’s length in the opening dozen or so minutes and I regained my focus.

Just in time, too. In the 14th minute Aaron Hickey committed a needless foul on Ryan Kent down by the by-line on the Rangers right. Their midfield schemer Steven Davis sent the free kick in to the far post where the tall Swedish centre back Filip Helander rose above John Souttar to head home from all of three yards out and give the Gers the ideal start to the new season.

That really shook us and although Glenn Whelan and Ricci Montolivo did their damndest to get us a foothold in proceedings again, it was no surprise when Matt Polster was given time and space to send the ball into the box from the right flank and Kent, this time coming in off the left flank, had eluded the attentions of Michael Smith to calmly stroke the ball beyond Joel Perreira and inside the post.

Just about a quarter of the game gone and we were 2-0 down. 2-0 down and absolutely floundering.

Connor Goldson headed onto the roof of the net from another Davis free kick delivery before on the stroke of half-time, James Tavernier curled a delicious free kick just over the angle of post and bar and Kent led a counter attack from one of our own corners before slamming a strike from an acute angle into the side netting. The whistle brought some respite and relief. We could easily have been 4-0 down.

HALF TIME: Heart of Midlothian 0-2 Glasgow Rangers

As tempting as it was to rant and rave at the break I chose to remain constructive. Get half a yard closer to them, have a bit more bite in the challenge and just find some possession to begin with. String a few passes together and then look to build. Austin and JD delivered a few more specifics before the buzzer went and we were able to look to salvage some pride.

Six minutes into the second half and that looked like a forlorn hope. A left wing cross was headed away by Souttar, but it fell beautifully for the Gers’ on-loan Leicester midfielder, Andy King, who adjusted neatly 25 yards outs and fired a wonderful first-time volley beyond Perreira who didn’t have a prayer of keeping the ball out.

3-0 down and this was turning into a very chastening league debut.

Then, all of a sudden, we began to do what I’d asked at the break. A few passes were strung together and lo-and-behold, we looked like a decent side. Montolivo and Smith built nicely down the right flank and the latter’s cross found Ryo Meshino unmarked at the far post. His first effort was superbly saved at full stretch by West Foderingham and then the rebound, which just needed lifting over the prone goalkeeper to bring us back into the match, was drilled against his body. A terrible miss and the danger was cleared.

Less than a minute later and the on-loan Japanese winger was released by a slick Aaron Hickey pass behind Tavernier. Faced with a choice between a shot at goal and a ball across the box to Uche Ikpeazu, the Manchester City man went for goal and Foderingham did well to turn the effort over the bar.

Heartened, I made a few changes but didn’t change the side’s shape. With 17 minutes remaining, a Montolivo corner was headed a couple of inches over the top by substitute Conor Washington and then in stoppage time, the Northern Irish international striker seized upon a slack back-pass by Goldson and should have scored, Foderingham once again made a terrific stop to maintain his clean sheet.

The final whistle went and as I stepped out of the dugout to shake Steven’s hand in congratulation, I noticed that the ground – apart from the away end which was absolutely bouncing – was a third empty. There was a resigned feeling around and although, mercifully, no boos, any applause from behind me in the main stand did sound almost sarcastic.

I wasn’t going to do that slightly pathetic thing of pointing to the degree of control we had in the final 35 minutes, the game was done and dusted by that point. Even if we had scored once – even twice – you got the feeling that Rangers would swiftly go through the gears again and punish us. We had been outplayed and outclassed, not a good feeling at all. Whilst I’d expected nothing more than a point at the absolute best, the chasm between us and them concerned me. The only bright spot was that not everyone we’d meet were going to be as good as Glasgow Rangers were on that, my managerial league debut.

FULL TIME: Heart of Midlothian 0-3 Glasgow Rangers

Team: Perreira, Smith, Halkett, Souttar, Hickey, Damour (Irving), Montolivo, Whelan, Walker (Clare), Meshino, Ikpeazu (Washington)

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Table as at 11th August 2019

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

GD

Hibernian

1

1

0

0

5

2

3

3

Glasgow Celtic

1

1

0

0

4

1

3

3

Hamilton Academical

1

1

0

0

3

0

3

3

Glasgow Rangers

1

1

0

0

3

0

3

3

St Johnstone

1

1

0

0

3

1

3

2

St Mirren

1

1

0

0

2

1

3

1

Kilmarnock

1

0

0

1

1

2

0

-1

Livingston

1

0

0

1

1

3

0

-2

Motherwell

1

0

0

1

2

5

0

-3

Aberdeen

1

0

0

1

1

4

0

-3

Heart of Midlothian

1

0

0

1

0

3

0

-3

Ross County

1

0

0

1

0

3

0

-3

 

Saturday 3rd August 2019

Hamilton

3

0

Ross County

Motherwell

2

5

Hibernian

St Johnstone

3

1

Livingston

 

Sunday 4th August 2019

Hearts

0

3

Rangers

Celtic

4

1

Aberdeen

Kilmarnock

1

2

St Mirren

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Posted (edited)

Sunday 11th August 2019: Aberdeen v Heart of Midlothian (Scottish Premier League)

 

Venue: Pittodrie

 

Att: 20,961

 

The blustery east-coast of Scotland. Quite a nice part of the world, a nice mix of barren and beautiful. Aberdeen, the Granite City, certainly isn’t one of the more beautiful places you’ll ever visit – grey buildings as far as the eye can see – but being by the sea is rarely not good for the soul.

After the debacle at Tynecastle the previous week, it was vital to me that we got something under our belts from our visit to Pittodrie. A point, all three, it didn’t matter, just something. A second consecutive defeat was unthinkable even at this embryonic stage of the season. I needed something to ensure that the confidence and good-feeling I’d built up during the group stages of the League Cup wasn’t undermined.

However, with Aberdeen also smarting from a 3-goal hammering at the hands of one half of the Old Firm on the opening weekend, I reverted to the two up-front, Loic Damour dropping to the bench and Conor Washington coming in alongside Uche Ikpeazu up front. Christophe Berra came in alongside John Souttar at centre-half and Aidan White was fit to return at let-back in place of Aaron Hickey.

We started so sluggishly. Our hosts were first to everything and we never got going. The only surprise was that it took as long as 8 minutes for them to break the deadlock. A free-kick routine that actually, when I looked back at the highlights and video, was very simple in its execution had a couple of us staring round in bafflement whilst Niall McGinn and Craig Bryson weaved their simple spell. The former then sent a delicious ball in from the left flank that isolated White at the back post and allowed Jon Gallagher the simplest of tasks to place a side-footed volley beyond the exposed Joel Pereira.

Any hopes I had that we would be sparked into action by that shock were completed misguided. We remained very much second best to everything, in spite of my increasingly animated touchline encouragement. I was trying to remain positive, remain proactive; to encourage and cajole rather than berate and belittle. When only the assistant’s flag saved us from going 2-0 down on 26 minutes when James Wilson, the Dons’ on-loan Manchester United striker, was adjudged to have been offside following up Bryson’s 25-yard thunderstonker that came back off the post, I bit my tongue so hard I actually drew blood.

I was already composing a bit of a half-time volley to launch in the boy’s direction when Pereira made a fine save from Sam Cosgrove, who had broken our offside trap (which had as much bite in it as a pot of low-fat yoghurt) ten minutes before the break. Yet, all of a sudden, that all changed on the stroke of the interval.

Finally, we managed a spell of possession, worked the ball from back to front without it leaving the ground, working triangles and having players running off the ball to create angles. It ended with White being released down the left-hand side and delivering a ball into the box for Washington, who for once had got the run on his marker, to meet first time and direct beyond Joe Lewis into the back of the net for the most unlikely of equalisers.

That changed my volley somewhat into something I could at least let hit the floor before launching.

HALF TIME: Aberdeen 1-1 Heart of Midlothian

 

The equaliser gave me a chance to go in positively, to tell the boys to forget the opening 44 minutes and focus on the good, the last 55 seconds or so in which we’d looked a good side. That sounds flippant, it wasn’t how I delivered the pep-talk. ‘Experts’ and pundits will have you believe that a goal before half-time changes everything, at this fledgling stage of my career I still believed that horsedump. It’s not true.

Within 90 seconds of the restart we’d failed to take two opportunities to get the ball properly clear from the danger zone and only a fine block by Pereira by his near post denied Shay Logan either a goal, or a chance to roll the ball across the six-yard box for a waiting striker to tap-in and that set the tone for most of the second half.

The red shirted hosts came at us, almost in waves and with less than five minutes of the period complete, Michael Smith failed to get tight to Aberdeen’s marauding left-back, Greg Leigh, and his deep cross once again eluded my own marauding full-back, White, leaving Gallagher another side-footed volley that he despatched beyond the exposed Pereira to restore their advantage.

I might as well have spent half time reciting nursery rhymes.

Cosgrove headed over the top and then, with twelve minutes remaining, the same player cleared a header from substitute Steven MacLean that had hit the crossbar just as it looked to be dropping for Washington to tap-in in what was our only chance of the half. From that clearance the Dons broke with far more purpose than we showed throughout the encounter and Gallagher’s pull-back for McGinn saw the winger force a decent stop from Pereira.

He saved again from McGinn in stoppage time and we came away losing by just the one. I didn’t say so in my post-match comments, but we were flattered by that result. I certainly didn’t hold back in the dressing room – only a two-minute, one-man inquest – but by jiminy, I gave the boys both barrels.

FULL TIME: Aberdeen 2-1 Heart of Midlothian

Team: Pereira, Smith, Berra, Souttar, White, Montolivo, Whelan, Walker, Meshino (Mulraney), Washington, Ikpeazu (MacLean)

Edited by he_2

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Table as at 11th August 2019

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

GD

Glasgow Rangers

2

2

0

0

5

0

6

5

Hibernian

2

2

0

0

6

2

6

4

Hamilton Academical

2

1

1

0

3

0

4

3

Glasgow Celtic

2

1

0

1

4

2

3

2

St Johnstone

2

1

0

1

3

3

3

0

Kilmarnock

2

1

0

1

2

2

3

0

Motherwell

2

1

0

1

6

7

3

-1

St Mirren

2

1

0

1

4

5

3

-1

Aberdeen

2

1

0

1

3

5

3

-2

Livingston

2

0

1

1

1

3

1

-2

Heart of Midlothian

2

0

0

2

1

5

0

-4

Ross County

2

0

0

2

0

4

0

-4

 

Friday 9th August 2019

St Mirren

2

4

Motherwell

 

Saturday 10th August 2019

Livington

0

0

Hamilton

Ross County

0

1

Kilmarnock

 

 

 

 

Sunday 11th August 2019

Hibernian

1

0

Celtic

Aberdeen

2

1

Hearts

Rangers

2

0

St Johnstone

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Tuesday 20th August 2019: Motherwell v Heart of Midlothian (Scottish League Cup 2nd Round)

Venue: Fir Park

Att: 6,746

A nine-day break in action before our 2nd round League Cup visit to Motherwell afforded plenty of time on the training ground to work on things. Double sessions during the week, really working the boys hard before some team-building over the weekend with paintballing and a couple of escape rooms. It was enjoyable watching some of the squad having to use their brains a little during the latter exercise from the safety of the CCTV control room, enjoying tea and ginger nuts.

I gave them Sunday off and then had them in on Monday morning for a couple of hours light prep ahead of what I hoped would be a bit of a release from our troubled beginning to the league campaign. We as a management team had discussed options for giving a couple of those that hadn’t really featured a bit of a chance to stake their claim and by and large agreed that there was no harm in doing so. Although I’d been set the target of reaching the last 4 of the competition, I wanted to see whether the likes of Jamie Brandon, Jake Mulraney, Sean Clare and Steven MacLean could make more of an impact than those they replaced had managed to up until now. Young Andy Irving was also given a chance in midfield to impress as Ricci Montolivo had been allowed time to head back to Italy to begin the process of moving his family into a newly rented house just outside the city.

From the outset there was more energy about the group. Not a great deal improvement in quality in the early stages, but certainly more intensity, which was half of the battle. After former Spurs and Aston Villa man Alan Hutton sent a warning shot from 25-yards across our bows (or more accurately, over the crossbar) as the clock ticked 11, we failed to heed the warning.

Five minutes later, Richard Tait recovered a partially cleared corner wide on the right and sent a deep beyond the far post. Casper Sloth, belying his much-loved but rather lazy namesake, leapt and sent what, even I had to admit, was a stunning looping header over the diving Pereira and just inside the far post to open the scoring. Although I was furious that he’d been left unmarked – again, just like Jon Gallagher at Aberdeen – the header was quite outstanding.

Midway through the half, Chris Long latched onto a long-ball out of defence, turned John Souttar all too easily and having done the hard bit, shot wastefully wide of the post before some defending that could only be described as Monty Python-esq, when Jamie Brandon allowed a corner to not only bounce in the six-yard box, but also over his head, allowed Alan Hutton to fire a powerful effort goalwards – this time, thankfully, Souttar showed rather more strength and repelled the strike with his torso. 30 seconds later, Sloth fired over the top.

We were rocking, no question, completely unable to put anything together as an attacking force and reliant on increasingly brave defending to keep ourselves afloat in the tie.

Out of nowhere, we finally got hold of one of our clearances and Washington was able to lay the ball into the path of Sean Clare, just inside his own half. The attacking midfielder put on the afterburners, outpaced the two covering defenders and tried to curl the ball around Trevor Carson and into the bottom corner from just inside the penalty area. The goalkeeper did superbly to get down and a big strong right-hand to the effort, pushing it wide of the post.

That had me up applauding and urging the boys to pick up from there. Whilst that didn’t quite happen, we did at least begin to pass the ball a bit better and stem the incessant flow of Motherwell attacks for the rest of the half.

HALF TIME: Motherwell 1-0 Heart of Midlothian

Again, it was a more genteel half-time team talk. Not going in ranting and raving but focusing on one or two ways in which I felt we could be a little better going forward. All the post-mortems around the goal could wait, positivity and belief, that’s what I had to instil into the boys if I could.

Within 20 seconds of the restart, a long ball forward by Irving picked out MacLean, he took the ball down expertly, turned his creaking frame and played in Conor Washington. The former QPR man took a touch and fired a shot that looked to be headed towards the top corner before Carson, at full stretch, pulled off a superb fingertip save to divert the ball just over the angle of post and bar.

“That’s more like it,” Austin said next to me. “Much better, eh boss?”

“It is, Macca, it is. Just need to keep that going.”

I made a couple of substitutions early in the second half, Loic Damour in place of Glenn Whelan to give us a little more pace in midfield areas and Ryo Mehsino out wide in place of the ineffectual Jake Mulraney. In the 68th minute the latter substitute cut nicely infield off the left-flank and picked out Washington with a lovely ball. Once again the striker worked himself space for the shot at goal, but once again he found Carson equal to the effort and the goalkeeper made a good block.

We were the better side in the second half, but Motherwell defended well. They managed the game professionally, ran the clock down when they were able to and time ebbed away, second by second, minute by minute.

Just as I thought we were done for, Clare knocked a ball forward that Uche, who had replaced the hard-working MacLean with 20 minutes remaining, leapt and headed on for the onrushing Washington. He made his way unchallenged into the penalty area before slotting the ball underneath Carson and into the net. He wheeled away towards the corner flag and I was up, out of the dugout in delight.

“Offside!” came a voice from beside me. It was JD.

“What?!” I exclaimed, cutting short my celebrations abruptly. I looked across at the smug flagsman stood with his arm erect on the opposite side of the pitch. “Oh, for fu-“

“Indeed, Patsy, indeed. Life’s a sod.”

That flag (which, to be fair, when I saw the video was 100% correct, Conor was a good yard offside when Uche headed the ball on) took the wind out of us completely and the hosts were able to see out stoppage time without any further headaches.

The whistle went to bring the tie to an end and I went across to shake hands with Stephen Robinson, my opposite number.

“Hard luck, Jones,” he said. “You deserved better in that second half.

I treated the Ulsterman to a rueful smile. “Maybe, but you fellas bossed the first half so I can’t have too many complaints. Well done and good luck for the next round, Robbo.”

“Thanks. Appreciated. You’ll be up for a drink before you go?”

I nodded before turning and walking across the turf to shake hands with the players and encouraging them to show their appreciation for the travelling support. Credit where it’s due, in spite of us now losing three on the bounce, the supporters had been superb in sticking with the lads. We really needed to treat them to a win, sooner rather than later, to arrest this awful start to the campaign and get ourselves on track. Failure to do that and, well, knives would soon begin to be sharpened.

FULL TIME: Motherwell 1-0 Heart of Midlothian

Team: Pereira, Brandon, Berra, Souttar, White, Irving, Whelan (Damour), Clare, Mulraney (Meshino), Washington, MacLean (Ikpeazu)

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Posted (edited)

It was the morning after the evening before, if that makes any sense. The boys had Wednesday off. With a Friday night visit to Perthshire and St Johnstone looming large, it was important for them to rest and recover.

There was no such luck for me, though. I didn’t get into bed much before 2am and I was up again just five hours later to get myself into Tynecastle to review the video with Gary MacArthur and Alex MacLean, the data analysis guys or ‘geek squad’, as they’re fondly known within the dressing room, and Austin came along as well. That began at 8:30 and then at 11, I had to be upstairs to face the music and fall-out from the Motherwell defeat as I’d been summoned to a ‘cuppa and a chat’ with Ann Budge.

I met her in one of the sponsor’s lounges, high up in the heavens overlooking the pitch. She was sat on a sofa at the back of the lounge with a steaming pot of coffee on a tray on the table in front of her and she invited me to sit down.

“Shall I pour?” She asked.

“Thank you,” I replied. “Black please.”

“Help yourself to a biscuit, Jones.” I did as I was bid, choosing a ginger nut from the selection that was wide, but perhaps couldn’t be described as being extensive. “Did you know that we’re both Pisces?”

The question took me aback a little. “I had no idea,” I confessed. To be honest, I didn’t even know that I was Piscean at that point in time.

“Yes, your birthday is 24th February isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“Mine’s the 21st. Not that I think there’s much in astrology, but I do enjoy little coincidences from time to time like that.” She poured some milk from a white porcelain jug into her cup and began to stir it with a spoon, the clink of stainless steel on china filling the otherwise slightly stilted and awkward silence. “Now then, let’s get down to business, shall we? How do you think things are going?”

I took a sip of my coffee and winced as it singed my mouth. It was too hot, but I just wanted a moment to gather my thoughts before talking. I ended up speaking at some length about how I had been extremely disappointed by results so far but that I’d seen some green shoots in the second half at Motherwell. Acknowledging that I’d probably got things wrong tactically against Rangers I was planning to go with the same system at St Johnstone but was working on a Plan B if we came unstuck again. There was no faulting the effort of the boys, or their willingness to take things on board, we just needed a little more time for things to gel.

And that was my honest opinion, there was no need to sugar-coat things, or try and dress things up. I’d always had little time for people that used differing levels of bull to cover up their own inadequacies, if I was going to fail, I was going to do so with dignity and, I hoped, humility. Self-awareness goes a long way.

Ann listened to all of this, taking a few notes on her iPad as I spoke and topped up my cup as I droned on.

“Clearly,” she replied once I’d concluded my piece, “we’re disappointed with the way things have gone so far this season. I wanted to reassure you that there’s no pressure on you at this stage from myself or the rest of the board. We recognise its early days and we want to give you time and space to get things right. Obviously, if we get to the end of October and things haven’t improved, we’ll have to be having a rather more serious conversation.”

“If we get to the end of October and things haven’t improved I think I’ll be saving you the bother of that conversation, to be quite honest,” I said, with a self-deprecating chuckle.

Ann smiled, warmly. “You seem to have a degree of self-awareness, that’s good. Now then, we have a week or so until the transfer window closes. We don’t have a lot of wriggle room in the budget, did you want to bring anyone else into the club?”

I’d thought long and hard about this and had discussed it at length with my backroom team. They knew the league better than I did and were confident that we had the quality. There was no problem with numbers, we were well covered in all positions. “To be honest, Ann, although I expect the supporters will be living in hope of us brining one or two faces in, I’m happy with what we’ve got. If something comes up that’ll improve us, is affordable and provides outstanding value for money that might change, but I’m not going to actively look to bring anyone in.”

“Are you on Social Media at all?”

I laughed. “Good grief, absolutely not! Crikey, there isn’t enough money in the world to make me inhabit that particular toxic wasteland.” I shook my head, still laughing. “I rarely go online unless I absolutely have to,” I continued. “I’m certainly not someone who’s going to be Googling my own name. Oh no, I avoid all media whether online, in print or on television as much as I possibly can.”

“That’s a wise policy,” Ann replied. “It can be a bit lawless out there sometimes. I learned that lesson very quickly when I got involved with football.”

“Oh, I bet there was plenty of misogyny flying around!”

“Indeed, there was and,” she said, suddenly adopting a more reflective tone, “there sadly still is.”

Edited by he_2

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A fairly positive meeting, all told, and as it turned out, probably the highlight of my working day. I felt from the moment I got the job as though I’d been entrusted with something special and I didn’t want to let anyone down. Whether that was Ann and the board, my coaching team, the players or the fans, I felt a real sense of responsibility. The fear of letting people down was one I held anyway, not just in football, but through life in general. Thankfully for me, I was able to use that as a motivational tool rather than something that might end up overwhelming me. Yet, as reassuring as it was to receive the backing of Ann, I was fully aware that things needed urgent improvement. As they currently stood, I was letting people down and I needed to do better.

After an afternoon spent working at Tynecastle on my own, setting up a half hour debrief with the package of video snippets provided to me by the geek squad for the following morning that largely focused on our apparent inability to defend the far-post (five out of six goals conceded had come at the back stick from balls into the box), finalising training plans and also making sure everything was in place for the visit to St Johnstone, I encountered an episode that brought home to me just how much people cared.

I’d just come out of the main entrance to the ground and was walking across to the car when a middle-aged guy approached me with his teenage son in tow.

“Hey there, pal, are you Jones Patterson?” He was wearing a jacket whilst his boy had an away shirt on.

“Oh, hi there,” I said. “How are you doing?” I offered a handshake.

“Why dinnae ya’ f*ck off oot of our club.” The man snarled at me, ignoring my proffered hand. “Ya’ nothing short of embarrassing, oot of ya’ depth, pal.”

“Well, hang on a sec,” I began, quite unable to keep my shock out of my voice.

“Nae, I ain’t gonna ‘hang on a sec’,” he retorted, mimicking my obviously non-Scottish accent. “This here club means a lot to us and we ain’t havin’ it.”

“Having what?” I asked, trying to keep my bewilderment out of my voice.

“Bein’ a laughin’ stock aroond the place. Bad enough with Nanna in the boardroom, havin’ a wee A-Level student in the dugoot too? Ain’t havin’ it!”

At this point, he was getting quite close to me, his face perhaps no more than a foot or so away from my own, his fingers jabbing threateningly towards my chest.

“Everything alright out here?” came a voice behind me. I turned around and saw Ralph, one of the security guards striding towards us in his hi-vis jacket.

“Yeah, fine,” I said, relieved. “This gentleman was just wishing us luck for Friday evening.” I tuned to the pink-faced well-wisher and offered my hand once again. “Thanks for your support,” I said cheerily.

Looking up at Ralph, who was 6’7” tall and about the same wide, the man reluctantly shook my hand, his son following suit. “Aye, go well then.” He said, almost under his breath as he walked away, pausing only to shoot me a look so icy, it could have frozen Medusa.

As I reflected on that episode in the hotel bar after dinner that evening, although I’d felt uneasy and yeah, intimidated and threatened by the guy, I could understand where he was coming from. Looking in from the outside, it did seem pretty strange, a 20-year old being given the top job in the SPL. It was either a move of immense bravery or utter stupidity and, I was well aware that the odds were overwhelmingly in favour of the latter at this stage.

Supporters are proud, they don’t want their clubs to be used as guinea-pigs for outlandish new ideas. More often than not, when offered the choice of three years of Gary Megson in charge or a 20-year old who had all his badges but never so much as sniffed the linament from another man’s thigh in a professional dressing room, they’d go for Megson every time. Yet another reason why I needed to get a result and get one soon.

I was half-watching my city-side neighbours Hibs beating Ross County 4-1 in their 2nd Round League Cup tie in the bar, quietly with a (non-pint) glass of wine. “Good game?” The voice was female, and somewhat familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. I looked round and saw the figure of one of the semi-regular journalists that attended press conferences.

“Depends on your point of view,” I replied. “For Hibs, so far so good. For me, less so.” She chuckled. “I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name.”

“Kara,” she said in her soft lilting Scottish tones. “Kara Warwick.”

“Ah yes, of course. Sorry, I remember now. Do you want to join me?”

“Are you sure you want to do that? Mix with one of the enemy?” She asked in mock surprise. I must have had an idiotically blank look on my face. “It’s not the done thing, you know.”

“What isn’t?” I asked.

“Managers mixing with the press without the knowledge of your press officer.”

The penny dropped. “Ah, I see. Haha, no, I think we’ll be alright. Come on, take a seat.”

She sat down on the stool to my right, facing the screen. She was tall, with a neat bob-cut that she tucked behind her ears every now and again, perhaps in her mid to late 30s. “You’re not covering this one then?” I asked, nodding at the screen.

“Oh, no. I cover Hearts and Rangers mostly.” She replied. “And Scotland too.”

“Who for?”

“I’m freelance but have a couple of decent retainers. Four Four Two, the Daily Record,” she noticed my eyebrow arch at the mention of the red top tabloid but ignored it “and the Edinburgh Evening News, plus odds and ends here and there.”

“How long have you been doing it?” I asked, eyes fixed on the TV.

“Since I left Uni, my first job was with The Scotsman, been freelance for about six years now. Ooh, good effort.” She said as a strike from distance flew narrowly wide of the target on the big screen. “How are you finding life north of the border?”

“It’s great,” I replied. “I love the city, the people are overwhelmingly friendly.”

“And the job?”

“On or off the record?” I asked, slightly guardedly.

She laughed. “Off, no recording device here, or notebooks.”

“It’s been challenging. Fun, but challenging. Results haven’t quite been what I’d hoped for, clearly, but we’ll be okay.”

“How on earth did you end up becoming a manager so young?”

I told her about my upbringing, how my parents were second generation immigrants from Antigua and they had encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do, so long as I was finding myself a vocation. How from a very young age I’d loved football, not playing, but watching, analysing, understanding tactical nuances here and there. As soon as I’d been able to they’d supported me in educating myself as a coach. “An unusual pathway, I know, but it’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

“How did you end up at Tynecastle then?”

I turned away from the screen as Hibs netted their third goal of the evening to muted cheers across the bar. “It’s going to be another tough day at work for the Jambo fans tomorrow by the looks of things.” I paused to finish my drink. “Sorry, Tynecastle. Yes. I was in the same UEFA B class as Glenn Whelan. He put my name forward, put in a good word for me and effectively got me the interview.”

“And the rest was down to you, eh?” She said with a smile.

“Well,” I chuckled. “Yeah, I guess so, to an extent. That and the benevolence of Ann Budge.”

“Ah, yes. Ann. She’s great isn’t she? I was the first to interview her when she took over there. Lovely woman, she’ll have your back if you deliver.” She drained her own glass. “Keep her onside, Jones.”

I picked up my empty and pointed to her own. “Can I get you another?”

“Ach, why not. Same again.”

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Friday 23rd August 2019: St Johnstone v Heart of Midlothian

Venue: McDiarmid Park

Att: 7,265

Live on Television

We were less than six minutes in when it finally happened. A balmy Friday evening in Perth, perfect for football yet better for the culmination of a 50-over cricket match, truth be told. Still, it was football I was interested in on this occasion and less than six minutes in.

Michael Smith produced an excellent tackle midway inside his own half to not only dispossess Matty Kennedy as he looked to break towards our penalty area, but also came away with the ball. He sent Jake Mulraney, who had been quite fortunate to keep his place if I’m honest, down the left flank. He cut inside as he entered the penalty area, got a lucky ricochet off a defender before shooting. Zander Clark blocked the effort but Uche Ikpeazu had been following up as all good strikers ought and was on hand to slide the ball home to give us the lead.

For the first time in my managerial career, I was tasting the sweet elixir of having the advantage in a league match.

And it lasted for all of 97 seconds, for after that amount of time had elapsed, Jason Holt swung in a free kick from midway inside our half, on the right-hand side and Madis Vihmann rose highest at – yup, you’ve guessed it – the far post (he was at least being challenged this time!) to thump his header beyond Joel Pereira and level things up.

Ten minutes later, and an extraordinarily eventful period for the Estonian centre-half was capped. He’d already been cautioned when he cynically body checked Jamie Walker six or seven yards outside his own penalty area to break up a counter-attack and was instantly shown a second yellow before the inevitable red. Moments before, Pereira had produced a marvellous save from a Stevie May drive yet now it felt as though the pendulum had swung in our favour.

That was a feeling that firmed up two minutes later, a Montolivo cross was headed away but Glenn Whelan picked up the loose ball. He had Walker outside him to his right, and his pass was perfectly into the attacking midfielder’s path. He took a touch and then fired a low drive across Clark and just inside the far post to restore our lead. It was a really well executed finish.

On 32 minutes, Aidan White released a ball over the top for Mulraney, who looked a good three-yards offside, to gallop onto.

“He’s gotta be offside!” I exclaimed, wondering where the whistle was.

“The left-back, he’s played him on,” Austin countered at my side.

And so he had, Callum Booth was a good four or five yards deeper than his defensive colleagues and had allowed my Irish winger to make the most of his stay of execution as he thumped an emphatic strike high beyond Clark into the top corner. 3-1 up and in absolute dreamland.

Or so we thought.

With three minutes remaining White received the ball back after taking a throw-in and with plenty of time and space to send a cross into the box where Conor Washington about ten yards out rose highest and sent a superb header beyond Clark into the bottom corner of the net. 4-1 and surely, that was game over.

It would have been a minute or two after that had Washington shown more composure to finish beyond Clark, instead his effort was tame and straight at the goalkeeper whose relieved expression was visible to me some 60-yards away.

HALF TIME: St Johnstone 1-4 Heart of Midlothian

“Outstanding, boys. I know they’re a man down but you’ve put them to the sword in that first half.” I told them at the break, just about managing to keep my emotions in check. I was proud as punch, man advantage or not. “If we get another goal, that’s got to be game over, try and get something to kill the game. Well done boys.”

If we needed a wake-up call we received one shortly after the restart when a Callum Booth corner to, yes, the far post, was met by Stevie May, but his header glanced off the outside of the post and wide. “How many times?!” I muttered just audibly enough for Austin and JD to discern. “The sodding far post, every time.”

Wake-up call served, it was also observed. Two minutes on and Mulraney picked up a headed clearance from a Montolivo clearance. He took a touch and then from 20-yards, sent a pearler of a strike, off his weaker right-foot, high beyond Clark and into the top bins, to use the modern vernacular. It was a magnificent strike, the best goal of the lot to complete our nap hand and the Irishman peeled off to celebrate in front of a packed away end.

After that, the urgency understandably left our play and we chose to control rather than dictate. Midway through the half I took of Mulraney, who received a well-deserved ovation from behind Clark’s goal. “I was sniffin’ me hat-trick, gaffer.” He said as he collected a tracksuit top. “Never got a treble before in me life.”

“Sorry, Jakey,” I replied, high-fiving him. “Maybe next time, mate.”

Little of note happened until the closing stages. May, who had been excellent for the hosts ploughing a lone furrow up front, clipped the top of the crossbar with a strike from 30-yards that beat Pereira, and then in stoppage time, a Booth free-kick was met by a towering header that looped over Pereira from former Sunderland man, Greg Halford.

I was absolutely delighted after the game. My first league win, five goals in the process. I knew some would point to the early sending off and of course that had an impact on proceedings, but we were full value for that three points and nothing or no-one was going to stop me celebrating. I could look forward to the rest of my weekend without any degree of worry.

FULL TIME: St Johnstone 2-5 Heart of Midlothian.

Team: Pereira, Smith (Brandon), Halkett, Souttar, White, Montolivo, Whelan (Damour), Walker, Mulraney (McDonald), Washington, Ikpeazu

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Table as at Sunday 25th August 2019

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

GD

Glasgow Rangers

3

3

0

0

8

0

9

8

Glasgow Celtic

3

2

0

1

9

2

6

7

Hibernian

3

2

0

1

8

5

6

3

Kilmarnock

3

2

0

1

4

2

6

2

Aberdeen

3

2

0

1

6

7

6

-1

Hamilton Academical

3

1

1

1

3

3

4

0

Heart of Midlothian

3

1

0

2

6

7

3

-1

Ross County

3

1

0

2

2

4

3

-2

Motherwell

3

1

0

2

6

9

3

-3

St Johnstone

3

1

0

2

5

8

3

-3

St Mirren

3

1

0

2

4

10

3

-6

Livingston

3

0

1

2

1

5

1

-4

 

Friday 23rd August 2019

St Johnstone

2

5

Hearts

 

Saturday 24th August 2019

Celtic

5

0

St Mirren

Hibernian

2

3

Aberdeen

Kilmarnock

2

0

Livingston

Motherwell

0

2

Ross County

 

Sunday 25th August 2019

Hamilton

0

3

Rangers

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Saturday 31st August 2019: Kilmarnock v Heart of Midlothian

Venue: Rugby Park

Att: 11,631

It’s astonishing just how much of a difference a win can make around the place. Not just amongst the players and coaching staff who, all of a sudden are showing much more exuberance and willingness to undergo the less palatable side of training, but the non-playing staff as well. The catering staff at the training ground, the admin staff at Tynecastle, even Ralph, the big security guard was all smiles after our successful visit to Perth.

All of which made prepping and selecting the side for the visit to Kilmarnock all the easier too. It’s easier to leave players out of the side on the back of a win when you want to go with an unchanged side, it’s less easy when you’re losing games and feel you have to justify yourself to someone as to why they’re finding themselves on the bench, yet again.

So, the trip to the ill-named Rugby Park came around with Kilmarnock sitting in 4th place having taken 6 points out of their possible 9 so far. On the quiet, I’d filed this match under ‘one I need to get something from if I have any pretensions of hitting my targets’ but I wasn’t sharing that with anyone outside my own consciousness.

The hosts, keen to make it three wins in a row, began well. Gary Dicker split our back-four with a lovely through ball and Eamonn Brophy was only denied by a good save from Joel Pereira, pushing the striker’s powerful effort around the post. On the quarter hour mark, Pereira denied Brophy once again when the striker was released by a ball that bisected our centre-halves once again, this time from full-back.

At the next break in play for treatment, a couple of minutes later I called John Souttar over.

“Aye, boss.” He said, taking on some water.

“You and Halkett, you’ve got to get closer together, you’ve been split twice by balls over the top. Just drop two or three yards and stop leaving those massive gaps for Brophy to nip into. Okay?”

“Aye, boss, got it.” He said, spitting a mouthful out onto the pitch before trotting off to speak to Craig Halkett, his defensive partner for the afternoon.

Lo-and-behold, we tightened up. Not only that, but from Killie’s next attack, Michael Smith blocked a Niko Hamalainan shot and then from the rebound, sent a ball up the line that found Conor Washington. I always kept two forwards up around halfway when defending for this very reason – Washington took the ball down, turned inside and sent a ball in towards the edge of the penalty area where Uche Ikpeazu took it down on his chest, held off the challenge of Dario Del Fabro and thumped the ball beyond Laurentiu Branescu into the top corner of the net to give us the lead.

That advantage lasted the best part of twenty minutes as both sides settled into quite an even tit-for-tat encounter that was quite absorbing to watch. After a period of a minute or so pressure from the hosts in which they worked the ball patiently, probed with a ball into the box that we repelled only for them to begin again, eventually Hamalainan got a couple of yards space on the left flank and sent a low cross into the box that was met by Chris Burke, who buried a first-time effort beyond Pereira and into the bottom corner of the net to bring the sides level.

As the half moved into a third minute of two minutes stoppage time (yes, I know it’s a minimum), Aidan White found a little space down our left flank and his cross was glanced narrowly over the top by Jamie Walker, the ball clipping the roof of the net on its way behind. No sooner had he put his head in his hands and the official brought a good even first half to a conclusion.

HALF TIME: Kilmarnock 1-1 Heart of Midlothian

The second half was 155 seconds old when things unravelled slightly. Once again, patient build-up from the hosts saw the ball worked into their Dutch creater-in-chief, Mohamed El Makrini. I’ve seen the highlights a number of times, and how he managed to thread the ball through to Brophy, I still don’t know, but he did and this time the Scottish striker drove the ball low and hard first time beyond Pereira and into the bottom corner of the net.

I’ll give the boys their dues, heads didn’t drop and they kept trying to pass the ball. Not with a great deal of success at first, but slowly and surely they began to carry a little more of a threat. In the 65th minute, Glenn Whelan knocked a ball wide for substitute Ryo Meshino down the left. He galloped onto it, cut inside and then out before squaring the ball across the penalty area, behind Uche but right into the path of Washington. The Ulsterman didn’t take a first touch, had he done so the change would have gone, instead first time left-footed he swept the ball beyond Branescu, off the inside of the post and then agonisingly across the line before the Romanian goalkeeper could get back to scoop it away. The goal was given (we didn’t have goal-line technology or VAR) and we were back level.

The game restarted and we switched off. Didn’t lay a glove on the hosts as they passed the ball with apparent impunity, Smith stood watching as Liam Millar peeled off him and sent a cross in to the near post where it was met by Brophy, no more than 4-yards out. I think we were all expecting the net to bulge but somehow, inexplicably, he put it wide. I’m no footballer, as we’ve established, but I’d have even backed myself in that situation. Possibly even Boris Johnson.

And thank goodness he did miss, because had he scored we would have lost the game. Aside from an effort from Washington that wouldn’t have counted anyway because he was flagged offside, we created little aside from a few efforts from distance in the final 25 minutes. Neither did they, admittedly and I came away from things pretty content to have a point with us and, created what could now legitimately be described as an unbeaten run.

Handshakes all round then, points shared and off into the tired drudgery of the first international break of the campaign.

FULL TIME: Kilmarnock 2-2 Heart of Midlothian

Team: Pereira, Smith, Halkett (Berra), Souttar, White, Montolivo, Whelan, Walker, Mulraney (Meshino), Washington, Ikpeazu (MacLean)

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Table as at Sunday 1st September 2019

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

GD

Glasgow Rangers

4

3

1

0

8

0

10

8

Glasgow Celtic

4

3

0

1

12

3

9

9

Aberdeen

4

3

0

1

9

8

9

1

Hibernian

4

2

1

1

9

6

7

3

Kilmarnock

4

2

1

1

6

4

7

2

St Johnstone

4

2

0

2

6

8

6

-2

Heart of Midlothian

4

1

1

2

8

9

4

-1

Hamilton Academical

4

1

1

2

3

4

4

-1

Ross County

4

1

1

2

3

5

4

-2

Motherwell

4

1

1

2

6

9

4

-3

St Mirren

4

1

0

3

5

13

3

-8

Livingston

4

0

1

3

2

8

1

-6

 

Friday 30th August 2019

Hibernian

1

1

Ross County

 

Saturday 31st August 2019

Celtic

3

1

Livingston

Hamilton

0

1

St Johnstone

Kilmarnock

2

2

Hearts

St Mirren

1

3

Aberdeen

 

Sunday 1st September 2019

Motherwell

0

0

Rangers

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July / August 2019 Stats and Records

Results

Date

Venue

Opposition

Comp

Score

17/07/2019

H

Alloa Athletic

LCGB

2-0

21/07/2019

A

Cowdenbeath

LCGB

2-0

24/07/2019

H

Elgin City

LCGB

5-0

27/07/2019

A

Arbroath

LCGB

0-0*

04/08/2019

H

Glasgow Rangers

SPL

0-3

11/08/2019

A

Aberdeen

SPL

1-2

20/08/2019

A

Motherwell

LC2

0-1

23/08/2019

A

St Johnstone

SPL

5-2

31/08/2019

A

Kilmarnock

SPL

2-2

 

*won 3-2 on penalties

Appearances

   

League

League Cup

Total

   

A

S

G

A

S

G

A

S

G

Pereira

Joel

4

0

0

5

0

0

9

0

0

Washington

Conor

3

1

3

5

0

4

8

1

7

Souttar

John

4

0

0

4

0

0

8

0

0

Whelan

Glenn

4

0

0

4

0

0

8

0

0

Walker

Jamie

4

0

1

3

1

1

7

1

2

Smith

Michael

4

0

0

3

0

0

7

0

0

White

Aidan

3

0

0

4

0

0

7

0

0

Mulraney

Jake

3

0

2

3

2

2

6

2

4

Ikpeazu

Uche

4

0

2

2

1

1

6

1

3

Montolivo

Riccardo

4

0

0

2

1

0

6

1

0

Berra

Christophe

1

1

0

4

0

0

5

1

0

Halkett

Craig

3

0

0

2

0

0

5

0

0

Meshino

Ryo

2

2

0

1

1

1

3

3

1

Clare

Sean

0

1

0

3

1

0

3

2

0

Damour

Loic

1

1

0

2

1

0

3

2

0

Brandon

Jamie

0

1

0

2

0

0

2

1

0

Hickey

Aaron

1

0

0

1

0

0

2

0

0

MacLean

Steven

0

2

0

1

3

0

1

5

0

Irving

Andy

0

1

0

1

2

0

1

3

0

Bozanic

Oliver

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

1

0

McDonald

Andy

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

 

Record

 

Home

Away

Total

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

P

W

D

L

F

A

P

W

D

L

F

A

SPL

1

0

0

1

0

3

3

1

1

1

8

6

4

1

1

2

8

9

League Cup

2

2

0

0

7

0

3

1

1

1

2

1

5

3

1

1

9

1

Total

3

2

0

1

7

3

6

2

2

2

10

7

9

4

2

3

17

10

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I guess we were luckier than most, we had almost a full squad around during the break for training. John Souttar was away with the Jocks, Aaron Hickey with their Under-21s and Conor Washington with Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland. We arranged a couple of behind closed doors games with Dundee United and Raith Rovers which kept the boys match fitness up and allowed us to work on a few different things.

The transfer window shut with young right-back Cammy Logan leaving for St Johnstone for a nominal fee (about £15k), and five young lads heading out to lower league sides on loan. One, Leo Watson, was a left-back who went to Clyde for the rest of the season and who I had high hopes for. Only 17, he had all the attributes to make it in the SPL, he just needed experience and to develop physically. I’d earmarked him as one to keep in mind for the next couple of years and bringing through the ranks.

Outside of the job, I took a little time out to finally get myself some more permanent accommodation and found myself a decently appointed and furnished bachelor pad in Murrayfield, within sight of the rugby stadium, but that felt like outside the autumn internationals and six nations time would be pretty quiet.

It was only a one-bed place but it was spacious. There was a decent sized living area with a couple of sofas and two lovely leather armchairs, a nice big LCD TV on the wall and plenty of storage space for my myriad volumes of World War Two histories, books by Jonathan Wilson, David Winner, Michael Calvin and so on. Plus films, cases and cases of DVDs weren’t going to have to simply live on the floor. There was space in the corner next to the little balcony for a small desk and a laptop to live, a quick trip to IKEA sorted that one, and a glass-topped coffee table that already had some interesting looking books held within.

The kitchen was open plan and was separated from the living room by a breakfast bar, against which were four pretty comfortable bar stools. A four-ring gas hob, a double gas over and grill underneath and again, plenty of cupboard space and a SMEG fridge-freezer. I bought myself a Tassimo, a microwave, a blender and a couple of extra pots and pans as well as a little digital radio.

Into the master bedroom, there was a small bookcase which I quite liked, I bought another lazy chair for the corner along with a footstool so I could lounge around in the bedroom should I want. The queen-sized bed left me just enough space, I wouldn’t quite be able to upgrade to a king, that could definitely wait though. A nice big wardrobe and chest of drawers to complete so we can go across the hallway (which was mercifully nice and light) into the bathroom.

Not much to say here, a bath and shower combo, loo (obviously) and nice big sink. All gleaming in white and chrome taps sparkling with a huge mirror that spanned the width of the room and some natural light coming in through the large frosted window.

Being able to take a little time to get settled in was a godsend, much more so than if I’d tried to move during a run of games. I was no great fan of international breaks at this stage in my career, I felt they needlessly interrupted the flow of the season and, having just gotten our campaign up and running belatedly, I won’t pretend I wasn’t a little anxious as to what the impact the break might have upon us, would we be able to pick up where we’d left off and extend our unbeaten run, or would the break without competitive football set us back to square one.

Looking back, when I had the full quota of players back with me and I could really start preparing for the home match with Hamilton, I was a little over-intense, a little angsty and pernickety when it came to training. I got too bogged down in tiny details and overcomplicated things. It took an intervention from Austin and JD on the night before to uncoil me somewhat, remind me that I could only affect so much and that I had to trust the boys once they crossed the white line onto the field of play. I was in danger of overloading them not only with too much information, but also contradictions as well. They were right, of course, and after a little initial pushback, things began to dawn on me and I agreed to take a little step back. Whether or not any of the players had spoken to Austin or JD, I don’t know to this day. They may well have done, but I know that my two lieutenants wouldn’t have approached me if they didn’t feel it was warranted. They would have quelled anything at source.

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Saturday 14th September: Heart of Midlothian v Hamliton Academicals (SPL)

Venue: Tynecastle

Att: 18,801

Finally, after four consecutive matches on the road we were back at home, back at Tynecastle where we were able to lower the portcullis, raise the drawbridge and begin to build a fort. Or, so I hoped. Hamilton Academicals, managed by Brian Rice, who after beginning his career down the road at Easter Road with Hibs had gone on to make a decent career for himself south of the border with Forest, Grimsby, West Brom and stoke. Upon his return to Scotland, he played for Falkirk, Dunfermline and Clyde. After many years as number 2 or coaching with the likes of Airdrie, Morton, Hibs and St Mirren – even a spell in the Middle east with Al-Khor – he took up the reins as number 1 for the first time at the brilliantly named Fountain of Youth Stadium in January.

The media had them down to finish bottom of the pile, with only a 5,500 stadium and miniscule budget by comparison to us, never mind the Old Firm, anything less than relegation would be a huge triumph for the Accies. Perhaps to underline the disparity between the two sides on the day, whilst I was able to field an international centre-forward who had once been part of a rumoured 7 figure fee when he moved from Peterborough to QPR, leading the line for the visitors was Mickael Miller who, I’d last come across about 18 months previously when I was finishing a bit of coaching experience with Enfield Town of the Bostik League (as it was then) and he was on the bench for Carshalton Athletic. If memory serves, he came on and levelled things up quite late on that day.

There was one change to my ranks with Christophe Berra returning for Craig Halkett, who had been ruled out after picking up a groin strain in training. So, the club skipper took his place alongside John Souttar at the heart of defence.

After the intervention from Austin and JD, I deliberately cut a more relaxed figure in the run up to kick-off, keeping the pre-match talk quite light and choosing to watch the warm-up from the touchline, rather than getting too involved myself. I won’t pretend it wasn’t very difficult not to launch myself into things and intervene where I thought things weren’t quite going right, it was, but I felt I had to try and be a little more dispassionate where possible.

In the 9th minute, a corner was well dealt with and cleared towards the halfway line where Uche Ikpeazu was favourite to pick up possession. He was found to be on his heels however, and Brian Easton nipped in front of him to gather the ball and then chip a ball into the penalty area. It looked to be routine enough as Joel Pereira came out to gather, but George Oakley not only challenged the keeper, but beat him to it and delightfully nodded it over the Portuguese stopper into the empty net. Such an ugly goal to concede from our point of view.

We responded in the right manner, on the front foot. Three minutes later, Souttar swept a lovely crossfield pass into the path of Aidan White. He fed the ball inside for Mulraney who, rather than shoot, cut it back for Washington, but the strike from 8 yards out wasn’t powerful enough and Owain Fon Williams was able to fall on the ball and smother.

In the 25th minutes, sloppy play in our own defensive third saw Michael Smith dispossessed and Oakley feed the ball through in behind Souttar for Miller. The young former Carshalton man tried to tuck the ball left-footed beyond Pereira but the goalkeeper stood up well and made an important block. Although we were largely dominating, I wouldn’t have wanted to be chasing a two-goal deficit, I didn’t fancy our chances of pulling that back.

The first half was in the second additional minute at the end of the period when we won a corner. Ricci Montolivo swung it into the heart of the penalty area where it was met by Uche, who had done well to get the run on his marker, and he thumped a header inside the near post for the equaliser. Just what we needed before the break and, to be honest, just about warranted on balance.

FULL TIME: Heart of Midlothian 1-1 Hamilton Academicals

If I thought, again, that the goal just before the break would see us step things up after the resumption and killed off the Accies, again I was very quickly brought up short on that score. Pierre-Daniel Nguinda intercepted another sweeping Souttar pass destined for White and took it upon himself to gallop forward into the space left by my full-back. He fed the ball inside for Marios Ogkmpoe and he unleashed a superb strike from fully 30-yards which had Pereira flying at full stretch. Mercifully, for us anyway, it shot just over the angle of post and bar. Had it gone in, all bets were off on goal of the season.

On 54 minutes, a flowing move that began with a short goal kick down our left flank ended with Mulraney playing in Washington on the angle, the Northern Irishman’s left footed effort was scuffed, though, and ended up well wide of the target without Fon Williams being unduly worried. From the goal kick, Michael Smith picked up possession just inside the Accies’ half and slid a neat ball into the path of the onrushing Uche. The big striker found himself through on goal and tried to slip it beyond Fon Williams at the near post, but the Welsh keeper spread himself and made a good stop.

As the hour mark passed, we were really beginning to ramp up the pressure. Another errant goal-kick saw White, this time, collect the ball and send it through to Mulraney down the left. He got to the by-line and stood the ball up to the far post where, from no more than 5-yards out, Uche was unable to keep his header down and his effort ended up in the crowd behind the goal rather than in the back of the net as it should have done.

Two minutes later and sub Anthony McDonald, who I brought on to provide extra width, had a shot blocked, the rebound was worked to White whose first neat touch beat the last defender, but he then drilled his effort a yard wide of Fon Williams’ right-hand upright. Five minutes further on and another flowing move from back to front saw a lovely ball from left to right by Walker, who had been switched to the left-flank, was caressed into the path of Uche by McDonald. This time, the striker elected to fire across goal but Fon Williams at full stretch produced a marvellous save, pushing the ball wide of the far post.

We were on the verge of rampancy, without the comfort of goals.

The barrage continued for the next 25 minutes, without reward. As our efforts became increasingly desperate so the accuracy diminished. That was until a defender was adjudged to have climbed all over Steven MacLean in the second minute of stoppage time bringing us to where this tale began.

I paced around the technical area and looked up at the screen. Into the 92nd minute. It was now or never. “How many now, JD?”

“This’ll be 37,” came the reply from behind me…

FULL TIME: Heart of Midlothian 2-1 Hamilton Academicals

Team: Pereira, Smith, Souttar, Berra, White, Whelan, Montolivo, Walker (Meshino), Mulraney (McDonald), Washington (McLean), Ikpeazu

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Table as at Saturday 14th September 2019

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

GD

 

Glasgow Rangers

5

4

1

0

12

1

13

11

 

Glasgow Celtic

5

4

0

1

15

3

12

12

 

Aberdeen

5

4

0

1

10

8

12

2

 

Motherwell

5

2

1

2

10

9

7

1

 

Heart of Midlothian

5

2

1

2

10

10

7

0

 

Hibernian

5

2

1

2

9

9

7

0

 

Kilmarnock

5

2

1

2

7

8

7

-1

 

St Johnstone

5

2

0

3

6

9

6

-3

 

St Mirren

5

2

0

3

8

13

6

-5

 

Hamilton Academical

5

1

1

3

4

6

4

-2

 

Ross County

5

1

1

3

3

8

4

-5

 

Livingston

5

0

1

4

2

12

1

-10

 

 

Friday 13th September 2019

Aberdeen

1

0

St Johnstone

 

Saturday 14th September 2019

Ross County

0

3

Celtic

Hearts

2

1

Hamilton

Livingston

0

4

Motherwell

Rangers

4

1

Kilmarnock

St Mirren

3

0

Hibernian

 

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Friday 20th September 2019: Heart of Midlothian v Motherwell (SPL)

Venue: Tynecastle

Att: 19,804

After having an initial 6-week break between league home matches in the league, all of a sudden we only had to wait six-days before our next one arrived, this time against our League Cup conquerors, Motherwell. Our records up to this point were near enough identical, Stephen Robinson’s side were above us in the table purely because they’d conceded only 9 goals so far compared with our 10. It was sure to be another closely fought contest as, indeed, if the early table was anything to go by, it looked as though the season as a whole would be.

Half the division were sat within a point of each-other between 4th and 9th place so far, Aberdeen were so far holding onto the coat-tails of the Old Firm five points ahead of ourselves and Motherwell and it remained to be seen whether they were going to be a level above the rest of us or whether we’d be able to rein them in over the coming weeks and months.

I’d received some good news in the run-up to this fixture, with the return to full fitness of former Scottish international, Stevie Naismith. The forward had been out with a cruciate ligament rupture and spent an awfully long time getting himself back to this point. After long consideration and chats with the player, Ivan Brenkel (the club doc) and head physio Karen Gibson, it was agreed that he’d be given a place on the bench for the game. He’d certainly looked sharp enough in training, and there was no questioning his enthusiasm to get back into action, we just needed to manage him and his body through the next few weeks and get him fully match sharp.

His return certainly strengthened our hand and gave us plenty more options in an attacking sense, I was extremely excited to see how he would get on.

Craig Halkett had recovered from his groin strain and was the only change from the starting XI that had eventually overcome Hamilton, Chris Berra dropped to the bench where Stevie replaced Anthony McDonald. Sean Clare was also currently out injured, having turned his ankle in training he was likely to be out until after the October international break.

I hadn’t said anything about gaining revenge on Motherwell for our League Cup exit before the game, instead I focused on us extending this little unbeaten run. Three games was good, but only hinted at a fair run of form. Turn that into four matches ahead of our visit to Parkhead the following week and we’d have some real confidence to take into that one.

The beginning to the game was fairly similar to the previous week, against the Accies. In the 6th minute an attack floundered when Jamie Walker was well tackled and Jake Carroll sent a long ball forward. Halkett misjudged the flight of the ball and Chris Long, anticipating the error found himself with an opportunity. He took it fairly early, from 20 yards or so and Joel Pereira made a spectacular save, pushing the ball over the crossbar.

Liam Polworth delivered the corner which Halkett got his head to, under pressure from Mark O’Hara, however the ball went up rather than away and as it dropped, Carroll readjusted himself supremely well to strike it left footed on the volley, low beyond the unsighted Pereira and into the bottom corner of the net.

Again we responded in the right manner, but I was deeply unhappy at us having to go a goal behind to kick-start things. Michael Smith produced a decent challenge on the right flank to win the ball and sent a lovely pass in behind for Mulraney to charge onto. Just as he pulled back his left peg to shoot, out of nowhere Declan Gallagher appeared and made an incredible challenge, 10-yards out that if he’d got wrong, would have seen him dismissed and a penalty awarded. Even I had to stop myself from marvelling at the defending.

Mulraney, who was on one of his better and more productive days, crossed from the left and saw Walker arrive at the far post, only to glance his header extremely narrowly over the angle of post and crossbar, before another raking ball in behind by Smith found Washington, this time, who did everything right before being denied by a brilliant save from Trevor Carson, getting a strong hand to the strike and pushing it over the bar.

In the 38th minutes, Montolivo got a second chance to send the ball in from the left after his original corner had failed to beat the first man. This time he went lower and Mulraney, nipped in at the near post and guided the ball beyond Carson to bring things level with his 5th strike of the campaign so far.

I was absolutely delighted, up off the bench, fists clenched, hands clapping and lauding the boys. It was no less than we deserved.

As the half moved into added time, we very nearly came a cropper again though, something that would have undone all of our hard work and necessitated a swift re-draft of my half-time words. A long ball out of defence caught Souttar out, Halkett was a little slow to react and Devonte Cole latched on to it. He got into the penalty area and shot low, left footed. The ball was definitely headed inside the far post, but Pereira got down low and made another excellent save to tip it past the post and behind for a corner.

We managed to survive that and got back into the dressing room still level.

HALF TIME: Heart of Midlothian 1-1 Motherwell

The game turned eight minutes into the second half. We had started well, playing with confidence and knocking the ball around assuredly. One spell of possession down our right flank all got too much for Charles Dunne, Motherwell’s left wing-back and as Smith received the ball from Walker, the Motherwell man lunged in two footed, over the ball and took Smith out. The moment he’d done it, he knew what was coming. His head was already in his hands as the red card came out and the rush of blood to the head saw him take the long lonely walk across the pitch with the baying catcalls of the Tynecastle faithful ringing in his ears.

We exacted even greater punishment from the free kick which was swung in by Glenn Whelan towards the far post. Jamie Walker rose highest to head it goal-wards but Conor Washington made sure by diverting it from no more than a yard over the line and into the net to give us the lead.

Tynecastle was absolutely bouncing now, things were very much in our favour now although we definitely needed to add at least one more goal to feel comfort. I brought Stevie Naismith on for Uche with half an hour remaining, hoping that his more subtle guile might give us a little more in trying to unlock the impressive Motherwell defence. With a quarter of an hour remaining, his lofted through ball released Mulraney into the penalty area, but the strike was mis-directed and went harmlessly wide of the post.

Then, with three minutes remaining, sub Aaron Hickey hit a strike from 20 yards that ricocheted off a couple of Motherwell bodies into the path of Washington, on his own in front of goal. He struck a good volley on the turn but found Carson equal to it, the goalkeeper holding onto the ball expertly as he dived to his left.

It looked as though we were going to not exactly limp, but struggle to a 2-1 victory, despite being in complete control for the final 35 minutes, following Dunne’s dismissal. In the final minute of the 90, though, the ball was patiently worked out to the right flank by Montolivo to Smith. The full-back cut inside and then squared it to Naismith. Taking a touch and then shooting with the minimum of back-lift, Carson seemed a little surprised. He got down a little slowly and could only succeed in pushing the ball into the net off his forearms. Naismith was off celebrating like a whirling dervish and who could blame him, I couldn’t have been happier for him and hearing his name being chanted by nearly 20,000 home supporters out of love and respect made my hairs stand on end.

That was three points safely bagged.

There was still time for another substitute, Loic Damour to work himself some space just inside the penalty area and strike a low shot that Carson this time did a lot better to push away. Unfortunately for him, though, he only did so into the path of Washington who gleefully slammed the ball into the empty net from 6-yards out for his 9th goal of the season, our fourth of the match and ensured that we would leapfrog our opponents into 4th place in the table.

“Hard luck today, Robbo,” I said to my opposite number as I shook his hand after the game. “That sending off completely changed the game.”

“Thanks, Jones. You outplayed us today, looked a much better side than a few weeks ago. I’m off to go and nail one of my boys to the cross and then I’ll be up to sample your own hospitality.”

I chuckled at his admirable humour and gallantry, relieved that it wasn’t I that was going to have to go and tear a strip off one of my players for a moment of hot-headed idiocy. Instead I could go and revel in another three points gained and a fourth match unbeaten. Having waited a while to really feel as though I was settling into the job, now I couldn’t think of anything I’d suit better.

FULL TIME: Heart of Midlothian 4-1 Motherwell

Team: Pereira, Smith, Halkett, Souttar, White (Hickey), Whelan (Damour), Montolivo, Walker, Mulraney, Washington, Ikpeazu (Naismith)

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Table as at Sunday 22nd September 2019

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

GD

Glasgow Celtic

6

5

0

1

17

4

15

13

Aberdeen

6

5

0

1

12

8

15

4

Glasgow Rangers

6

4

1

1

13

3

13

10

Heart of Midlothian

6

3

1

2

14

11

10

3

Hibernian

6

3

1

2

12

9

10

3

St Mirren

6

3

0

3

10

13

9

-3

Kilmarnock

6

2

2

2

7

8

8

-1

Motherwell

6

2

1

3

11

13

7

-2

St Johnstone

6

2

1

3

6

9

7

-3

Hamilton Academical

6

1

1

4

4

8

4

-4

Ross County

6

1

1

4

3

10

4

-7

Livingston

6

0

1

5

2

15

1

-13

 

Friday 20th September 2019

Hearts

4

1

Motherwell

 

Saturday 21st September 2019

Aberdeen

2

0

Hamilton

Livingston

0

3

Hibernian

Ross County

0

2

St Mirren

St Johnstone

0

0

Kilmarnock

 

Sunday 22nd September 2019

Rangers

1

2

Celtic

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Remaining mindful still of the advice JD and Austin had provided me, the week in the run-up to our first visit to Glasgow of the season was rather more relaxed than the run up to Motherwell. The boys were clearly in high spirits given our good form and we deliberately kept the sessions relatively low-key and relaxed. Informal, almost, until the Friday morning pre-match briefing when the masterplan to outwit Celtic was unveiled.

Not so much of a masterplan, really, just to keep doing what we’d been doing by and large for the previous four matches. Well aware that we were likely to struggle for possession and spend a lot of time defending, it was emphasized that when we had the ball, we’d need to take care of it. I wasn’t too worried on that count, with Glenn and Ricci in the middle of the park, the other point that I tried to hammer home was the need to take any chances that came our way. It felt as though keeping things a little lighter on the training pitch had led to a little more attentiveness during the half-hour Powerpoint and video presentation, it might have been my imagination and some kind of pseudo-placebo feeling.

The afternoon saw the media press conference and, if I was expecting something of a circus ahead of one of our biggest matches of the season, well, I was very much mistaken. One camera, and although there were plenty of microphones and tape recorders on the desk, only three reporters were in attendance.

Afternoon all! Busy today, I see!

Peter Genchev: Ha, yes. That’s right Jones. Slim pickings today, for some reason most of our colleagues are more interested in talking to the guy down the M8 on the greener side of the city this afternoon.

Oh, I see. Well, beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose. Who wants to kick things off?

Kara Warwick: I will, if that’s okay with everyone else? Good. Jones, how important do you think the good team spirit at Hearts has been to this recent run of form.

It’s been crucial, clearly. Happy players are confident players, we’ve looked to take a little bit of pressure off of their shoulders, allowed them to start to play with a bit less fear and more freedom and it’s paying dividends. The boys are, to a man, very happy at the moment, enjoying their football and it’s showing.

KW: You must be concerned that losing tomorrow will have a calamitous effect on morale and confidence?

Absolutely not, no. I don’t think we’re expected to get much of a result at Parkhead which means we can play without expectation. If we lose, we move onto St Mirren next week fully confident that we can get something from that one. However, if we get something tomorrow then that only adds to confidence levels ahead of next week. It’s a no-lose situation.

KW: Riccardo Montolivo has been getting plenty of attention in the press having settled in so well at Tynecastle since his move. How do you think he’s going to react to the interest?

He’s an experienced hand, he’ll be used to this kind of thing from the Italian press who, with the greatest respect, make you folk look like pussy cats. He’ll take it in his stride and although he’s aware that his status and past puts pressure on him to perform, it’s clearly something he’s thriving on at the moment.

KW: Moving onto Celtic, would you agree that Odsonne Edouard is likely to provide you with the main threat tomorrow?

Odsonne is a class act, that’s obvious, but if we spend too long concentrating on his threat then we’ll be overlooking the other outstanding players at Neil’s disposal. They’ve got loads of quality and if Odsonne is kept quiet, the chances are someone else will step up and provide that threat instead.

PG: Who do you see as Celtic’s main threat being then, Jones?

James Forrest.

KW: Why have you picked him out?

He’s consistent, reliable, the type of player every manager dreams of having available to him. He can play out wide, through the middle, as a winger or inside forward, come in off either flank and is always a huge goal threat. He provides much of the ammunition for Odsonne, so we need to find a way to keep him as quiet as we can.

PG: You seem to favour a game dictating possession as does Neil Lennon at Celtic. What is your opinion of their style of play?

I love the way Neil sets his sides up to play. They pass the ball as well as anyone, patiently, in little triangles and have players that can pop up in little pockets of space, which makes them hard to play against.

PG: How do you intend to counter that? Are you expecting a match where you see little of the ball?

We’re going to have to make sure we’re physically fit and press them with intensity, don’t let them settle but get in amongst them and disrupt their rhythm. Then, when we do have the ball, we have to make sure we use it as well as they do and don’t just hand possession back to them.

PG: It sounds like you’re worried about the strength of the opposition ahead of tomorrow. Does that give Lennon and his side a psychological advantage over you and your team?

Absolutely not, no. My appreciation of his playing style isn’t a resignation of defeat at all. I recognise that they’re a good side and that we’re going to have to play well to get something from the game, but I have every confidence that my players will be able to step up to the challenge and do so.

PG: Michael Smith has a number of standout attributes and many onlookers feel that he is a key man that could make a difference tomorrow. Do you share those sentiments?

He’s a good player. He’s been excellent so far this season and I fully expect him to carry on in that same vain. He’s reliable, consistent and hopefully he can help us onto getting a good result.

A moment of silence, save for the scribbling of biros on recycled paper.

Ellie Ogilvie (Hearts Press Officer): Anymore for anymore?

The three reporters looked at each-other and shook their heads.

Okay, thanks for your time, folks.

I got up from the table, excused myself as I squeezed past Ellie next to me and taking care not to knock over the sponsor’s board behind me as I’d done twice before I wandered around to the reporter’s seats and sat down in the front row.

“Hey Kara,”

“What is it?” She replied coldly, not looking up from her note taking. Peter Genchev was busily collecting microphones and a couple of dictaphones from the table whilst the other reporter, who had remained silent throughout, James Boyle, slunk out of the room with the single cameraman.

“Is this normal?”

“Is what normal?” Her tone reeked of impatience.

“This.” I swept my arm around. “No bugger turning up to the press conference.”

She sighed, heavily, stopped scribbling and looked up at me for the first time. “Believe it or not, Jones, you’re small fry compared to Celtic right now. They’re on the back of beating Rangers, Neil used to manage your cross-city rivals, no-one really gives a crap about you and Hearts right now. You’re not the story.”

“So, everyone’s there then?” I asked, simply.

“Pretty much. Everyone except us three makeweights and Leah.”

My brow knotted in confusion.

“Leah Young, you know, the Sky Sports girl. Her Dad’s in hospital so that silent assassin sat back there,” she nodded her head to where Boyle had been sat, “is deputising. He’ll be doing the tunnel interviews tomorrow.”

“Ah, okay. Useful to know. Thanks.”

She reached down to put her notebook and pen in her bag and collected her jacket off the back of the neighbouring chair. “Anything else?”

“Actually, one more thing,” I said in my best Columbo voice. She rolled her eyes at me in another sign of impatience. This was a very different woman to the one I’d shared a drink with a couple of weeks before. “Why aren’t you at Parkhead if that’s where the story is?”

“Never you mind,” she retorted sharply. “Now, if that’s everything, I’ve got to try and turn your answers into something vaguely interesting for my editors.”

“Shouldn’t be too difficult,” I said, standing up.

“You really have no idea, love,” came the reply, thickly laced with disdain.

It was best to leave that one there, so I bade her farewell and made my way to my office to make a couple of important phone calls.

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Saturday 28th September 2019: Glasgow Celtic v Heart of Midlothian (SPL)

Venue: Parkhead

Att: 60,411

Wow, 60,000 people. That’s a noise that has to be heard at pitch level to be believed, even in the half-cocked atmosphere of a game against Hearts. I stood there, at the mouth of the tunnel moments before kick-off and hairs stood on end. They were singing Fields of Athenry, the Celtic fans, one of those classic, not to be missed footballing experiences and yeah, I felt emotional. Until that point, I’d not been remotely overawed by the surroundings, the occasion – none of it. I was feeling calm, sanguine, reasonably confident even that we’d acquit ourselves well and at the very least have our fans leaving with their pride in-tact.

Of course, I’d accentuated the positive to my unchanged starting XI, focused on the perceived weakness in behind their back four and urging them to press from the off. I knew we’d have to be good to get anything from the game, but I genuinely had a belief that we could. Now, it might well just be pie in the sky thinking and I really took care to keep my words to the boys grounded in reality, but we’d come a long way in a shortish time since our thrashing at the hands of Rangers. A very long way indeed.

The Bhoys served notice of their intentions as early as the fifth minutes, Michael Smith gave the ball away cheaply and Ryan Christie wasted no time in released Edouard through the middle. The gap between our two centre halves was cavernous yet thankfully, as Pereira came out to narrow the angle, the French striker drove his low shot narrowly wide of the post.

Eduard then struck an angled shot straight at Pereira after skinning Craig Halkett with a neat bit of skill, trickery and pace before he headed wide from Mikey Johnson’s left-wing cross, getting in front of John Souttar to win the ball.

On 20 minutes, the hosts went desperately close to taking the lead when Souttar’s block from a Johnson shot rebounded to Christie and his effort beat Pereira but rebounded off the base of the near post. As it did so, it hit the goalkeeper on the back, thankfully it was a gentle enough ricochet to allow Souttar to get back and hack the ball off the goal-line.

Pereira made a much more orthodox – and brilliant – intervention when Edouard was once again released by a smart ball from Christie, taking the effort from just outside the penalty area, Pereira at full stretch pushed the ball emphatically over his crossbar from a powerful drive.

With ten minutes of the half remaining, Edouard turned provider, receiving the ball from Christie and squaring for Forrest. The man I’d marked out as Celtic’s main threat before the game very nearly delivered a damning indictment upon my judgement as his measured effort beat the dive of Pereira but came back off the same post as Christie’s earlier effort. This time Michael Smith was able to get the rebound clear of danger.

Finally, in the first half, one of a number of promising attacks in our attacking third broke down as the final ball delivered was lacking and Celtic broke. Once again Edouard was released, this time by Forrest and as he’d done at the start of the period, with only Pereira to beat, he shot wide.

Usually deadly in front of goal, the Frenchman’s aim was strangely but mercifully awry.

HALF TIME: Glasgow Celtic 0-0 Heart of Midlothian

I knew we were fortunate to get in goal-less at the break. We’d done okay, we’d played well enough up to the final third but every single attack had floundered at the crucial moment. Were it not for a combination of good goalkeeping, errant finishing and the woodwork, we’d be staring up at a mountain going into the second half. Still, I accentuated the positives and praised the boys for sticking with it. Privately, I wondered how long we could hold out, a goal for the hosts felt inevitable.

11 minutes into the second period and once again, a promising attack came to nothing and Celtic began a patient build-up. Initially down the left, then back into midfield and down the right. They’d worked us perfectly because the right full-back, Moritz Bauer had so much space as he got to the by-line. His cross was perfect for Edouard who finally, from four yards out, sent a rocket header into the roof of the net beyond the helpless Pereira.

The next twenty-five minutes or so was all hands to the pump. Pereira had to collect a few crosses and save a few comfortable shots as Celtic threatened, but never managed to cut loose, and whilst it was only 1-0 there was a nagging feeling around the place that we weren’t quite out of things. A set-piece, a well-timed run in behind and there who knew. We’ve all seen those games where one side should be out of sight and then get caught with their trousers around their ankles.

You could feel the tension rising with each passed up opportunity around the stadium, you could almost see the belief rising in my boys’ eyes. With just over ten minutes to go, Aaron Hickey lofted a ball from just inside the Celtic half that dropped just behind their back four. Conor Washington was onto it in a flash and, from twelve yards out and the ball still bouncing, simply lofted it beyond Fraser Forster into the corner of the net.

1-1! Ten minutes plus stoppage time to go, could we hold out? Never mind that, could we go on and nick something?

7 minutes to go and Uche does really well to use his strength and get a ball in from the right flank. The defender fails to clear it properly and as it drops, Jamie Walker from 8-yards out can’t quite get enough power on his effort and it’s straight at Forster.

Less than a minute after that and Walker dispossesses Julien in the Celtic left-back position. All of a sudden it’s 3-on-Forster. The ball is shuffled inside for Uche and with Washington square and with a gaping net in front of him, Uche chooses to go for glory himself and Forster makes a superb low save. Washington is apoplectic, rightly so, I’m not far behind him. A simple 5-yard square pass and it’s 2-1 to us.

Just. An. Ounce. Of. Common. Sense.

Final minute of the 90 and Hickey cuts a cross back to the edge of the box where fellow substitute Loic Damour meets it with a bullet header. Sadly, it’s straight down the throat of Forster who holds on comfortably.

Fifteen seconds later and Forster’s mammoth kick downfield finds Johnson in behind, only Pereira to beat. The shot is a good one, the goalkeeper’s save twice as good, getting down low to block with a strong left hand and allowing Souttar to clear.

A couple of minutes later and the whistle went to bring a sterling piece of entertainment to an end. We’d been out-thought, certainly, for the opening 75 minutes but then had the chances to snatch all three points in the final quarter of an hour. Even then, we were indebted to our goalkeeper for a remarkable late save to preserve a point for us. All in all, I was absolutely delighted with our efforts and the point. Not many sides would manage that at Parkhead this term.

FULL TIME: Glasgow Celtic 1-1 Heart of Midlothian

Team: Pereira, Smith, Souttar, Halkett, White (Hickey), Whelan (Damour), Montolivo, Walker, Mulraney (Meshino), Washington, Ikpeazu

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Table as at Sunday 29th September 2019

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

GD

Aberdeen

7

6

0

1

15

9

18

6

Glasgow Celtic

7

5

1

1

18

5

16

13

Glasgow Rangers

7

5

1

1

17

5

16

12

Heart of Midlothian

7

3

2

2

15

12

11

3

Kilmarnock

7

3

2

2

10

8

11

2

Hibernian

7

3

1

3

14

13

10

1

St Johnstone

7

3

1

3

7

9

10

-2

St Mirren

7

3

1

3

12

15

10

-3

Motherwell

7

2

1

4

11

14

7

-3

Hamilton Academical

7

1

1

5

4

11

4

-7

Ross County

7

1

1

5

4

13

4

-9

Livingston

7

0

2

5

4

17

2

-13

 

Saturday 28th September 2019

Celtic

1

1

Hearts

Kilmarnock

3

0

Hamilton

Motherwell

0

1

St Johnstone

Ross County

1

3

Aberdeen

St Mirren

2

2

Livingston

 

Sunday 29th September 2019

Hibs

2

4

Rangers

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Friday 4th October 2019: St Mirren v Heart of Midlothian (SPL)

Venue: Simply Digital Stadium

Att: 8,023

Another opportunity to sparkle live on television under the Friday Night Lights in Paisley arrived as quickly as the game at Parkhead had disappeared into the distance. The boys were dead on their feet after their exertions at Celtic, but I’d had to keep the relentless pressure on. “Get a result Friday night, and you’re not expected in until Thursday next week.” I’d told them midway through the week when they were really struggling. With a 14-day break after this one until we hosted Hibs in the first Edinburgh derby thanks to international football, a little down time wouldn’t hurt, so long as we were able to extend our unbeaten run to six matches.

Stevie Naismith, who’d tweaked a calf in the run-up to the Celtic match, was ruled out on a precautionary basis, but Sean Clare was able to return after recovering from his knock sooner than expected so he was in contention for a place on the bench.

The Saints, where Sir Alex continued to cut his managerial teeth before moving onto Aberdeen, were on a good run of form themselves, unbeaten in their last three matches including an impressive 3-0 win over Aberdeen. I didn’t know if Jim Goodwin had offered his charges a similar break to the one my boys were looking at, I rather hoped that if he had then the focus from my lads would render it moot, anyway.

I made a couple of changes, Chris Berra replacing Craig Halkett at centre half and 17-year old Aaron Hickey coming in at left-back following an impressive 20-minutes at Celtic Park in place of the below par Aidan White. Otherwise, it was very much as you were.

For once it was us that made the strong start, Michael Smith cutting out a St Mirren ball forward and finding Jamie Walker in midfield with his header. Walker turned and sent a raking ball out to the right flank for Ikpeazu. He rode one rugged challenge as he marauded down the flank and cut inside, then stood the ball up to the far post. Oskar Buur headed the ball away ahead of Conor Washington, but only as far as Mulraney, who drove towards the by-line. Buur, trying to recover, clipped the winger’s ankles as he surged beyond him and the penalty was as stonewall as you’d ever find.

Jamie Walker was the designated spot-kick taker, having won a pre-season shoot-out tournament in training and he justified that success by coolly sending Vaclav Hladky the wrong way to give us a 4th minute lead.

The response from St Mirren was strong, defensively they made a couple of important interventions before a mall forward from Kevin McAllister released Jonathan Obika in behind Berra. Pereira came out to narrow the angle and as the former Tottenham youngster looked to slip the ball beyond him, got down with a strong left hand to push the ball wide of the post for a corner kick. From the corner, Obika managed to meet the delivery but headed well over the top.

Mulraney was then denied by an equally impressive save from Hladky before the pendulum swung inextricably in our favour.

Uche had the ball on the right touchline when Sean McLoughlin dived in with a robust challenge and appeared to win the ball. There was too much force in the tackle for Andrew Dallas’ liking and the Saints centre-half found himself instantly dismissed with a straight red card. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think the challenge was a foul, never mind worthy of further sanction but, it’s the official who needs to ensure the safety of those on the pitch and if his judgement was that the challenge was too much, then that’s all that matters.

That was the signal for plenty of huff and puff for the rest of the half, but precious little quality from us. Mulraney fired straight at Hladky, but it was all very ponderous otherwise.

HALF TIME: St Mirren 0-1 Heart of Midlothian

At the break I did get into the boys a little, not losing by cool, but being perhaps a little more assertive than usual, trying to express the need to increase the tempo of our passing a little, to make better runs off the ball, create space, let the ball do the work – all of that old spiel that coaches spend their lives trying to get into the heads of the gaggle of 8 and 9 year olds who then just chase after the ball anyway on a Sunday morning.

Three minutes after the restart, and a more incisive diagonal ball from Smith found Mulraney chasing in behind Buur, the Saints right-back. He took a touch to get the ball into the penalty area and then fired low, across Hladky into the far corner of the net to double our advantage.

“Much better, much much better!” I exclaimed, clapping my hands. “More of that lads, Come on!”

Deaf ears. That’s what fell on.

Again, we huffed and puffed, but there was little urgency or conviction from us. I wanted us to go for the jugular, put our opponents to the sword and show a ruthless streak. Remaining calm, on the outside, anyway, I sat and watched things progress. I could feel it coming, and so it did with 12 minutes remaining, McAllister getting onto Junior Morias’ lay-off and firing into the net off the underside of the crossbar to halve the arrears.

That had me up off my seat. “Right, switch on NOW!” I yelled, my hands cupped to my mouth. “Sort it out, up the tempo. Not good enough!”

That worked much better, efforts were redoubled, the ball moved at a faster pace, our passing was crisper and our movement more intense. It paid off when Washington received the ball with his back to goal just inside his own half, he turned and found Sean Clare who in turn played in Mulraney whose finish, once again, was unerring. Hladky had no chance at all.

That sealed the points, we hadn’t been at our best and once again, fortune had favoured us. “We got there in the end,” I said to the boys as they began to get changed. “We need to be better going forward but go and have a break, enjoy some time with your families and we’ll get cracking on the derby Thursday morning. Well done, boys.”

FULL TIME: St Mirren 1-3 Heart of Midlothian

Team: Pereira, Smith, Souttar (Halkett), Berra, Hickey, Whelan, Montolivo, Walker (Clare), Mulraney, Washington, Ikpeazu (McLean)

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Table as at Sunday 6th October 2019

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

GD

Aberdeen

8

6

1

1

16

10

19

6

Glasgow Celtic

8

6

1

1

20

5

19

15

Glasgow Rangers

8

6

1

1

20

6

19

14

Heart of Midlothian

8

4

2

2

18

13

14

5

Hibernian

8

3

2

3

15

14

11

1

Kilmarnock

8

3

2

3

10

9

11

1

St Johnstone

8

3

2

3

8

10

11

-2

Motherwell

8

3

1

4

12

14

10

-2

St Mirren

8

3

1

4

13

18

10

-5

Hamilton Academical

8

1

1

6

4

13

4

-9

Ross County

8

1

1

6

5

16

4

-11

Livingston

8

0

3

5

5

18

3

-13

 

Friday 4th October 2019

St Mirren

1

3

Hearts

 

Saturday 5th October 2019

Hibs

1

1

St Johnstone

Livington

1

1

Aberdeen

Motherwell

1

0

Kilmarnock

 

Sunday 6th October 2019

Ross County

1

3

Rangers

Celtic

2

0

Hamilton

 

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Whilst the players and coaching staff were all off enjoying their new-found freedom for a few days, I enjoyed a quick flight back home south of the border to see my parents and brother, before heading back up on the Monday morning to catch up on admin that I hadn’t had a chance to go through.

There were coaching reports to review, scouting reports to read and then categorise into ‘thanks but no thanks’, ‘hmm, maybe…’, ‘hell yeah!’ and finally ‘chance would be a fine thing!’ There were a few dozen to read, some video clips to watch and decisions to be made. The main one that caught my eye was for a young lad at Chelsea, that could play at either full-back called Tariq Lamptey. He was out of contract in the summer, so even though we’d have to pay a fee for him, I wouldn’t have thought it would be much. I made a call to Pat and asked him to make sure that he was being monitored closely between now and the end of December, at which point we’d be able to approach him if he didn’t sign a new deal at Stamford Bridge.

That all took the best part of a day, then on the Tuesday afternoon I attended a fans’ forum at Tyncecastle organised by the Independent Supporters Association. It was an opportunity for me to talk to 100 or fans, about what I’m trying to do here, how I think things are going and what the future holds. It was an opportunity for the supporters to judge me at close quarters, to ask me questions and find out reasons why I’d made certain decisions or why, for example, investing in the squad isn’t likely to be able to happen in January. As with any group of people, you’ll never please everyone, but I think on the whole, it all went okay. Certainly, I’m pleased the evening took place on the back of half a dozen matches undefeated rather than six without a win though!

Thursday and Friday were fairly light days on the training ground, some gym work, a few 5-a-side competitions, a penalty shoot-out competition in which Jamie Walker once again reined supreme and a working on a few set piece ideas that, if I’m honest, I had to can since they looked much better in my head than they did in action.

I gave the boys the weekend off again and spent a good few hours at home watching videos of Hibs’ first eight league matches, making notes and identifying their apparent strengths that we needed to be aware of and weaknesses that I felt we could exploit. More than any other game, I knew this one meant the most to the supporters. Bragging rights at work and in some places, at home, were at stake. The rivalry was every bit as keen as the Old Firm, albeit with less media glare on it. Trouble was mercifully rare at the matches, but make no mistake, there was no love lost between fans of the two clubs.

Come Monday morning and it was time to get down to serious business. We began by going through some clips of Hibs that the Geek Squad had put together and with the spiffy interactive touch-screen that would make Andy Gray, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher amorous, Austin took the boys through three things to be fully aware of with Hibs, and three things that we felt we could exploit. They would be six points that would be hammered home to them throughout the week and that our training sessions would largely focus upon.

The focus from the boys was good, they knuckled down and worked hard. Of course, there was still space for banter and mickey taking, especially when Glenn Whelan had a shot ‘at goal’, but they were taking on board what we were looking for and commitment levels were spot on. JD, Austin and I took time out with individuals every so often just to give them a little bit of extra information regarding their immediate opponents, how we felt they might be able to get an edge or just something to be aware of – for example, the tendency of Swiss target-man Florian Kamberi to try and bully his marker when jostling for flick-ons, but how he prefers to receive the ball into feet or onto his chest, lay off and spin in behind. So, then using Uche as a pseudo-Kamberi, we were able to try and work on some ways of countering that whilst being aware of the runners from midfield. It wasn’t the most exciting of work, but with patience and hard work, hopefully it’d pay off.

On Thursday morning, the day before the big derby, the players weren’t expected in until 2pm for an hour and a half session. I was in my office, looking at some reports on some of the Under 19s when the phone rang.

“Jones, It’s Leah Young.”

“Oh, Leah, hi. What can I do for you?”

“Our sources tell us that Manuel Pellegrini is very interested in signing Aaron Hickey in January.”

A pause.

“Well?” She prompted.

“Well what?” I asked.

“What’s your reaction?”

“Who’s your source?”

“You know I can’t tell you that,” she laughed. I rolled my eyes.

“Presumably, if I was to find myself with absolutely nothing better to do and switched onto your silly news channel, the words ‘Sky Sources’ would appear on the red bar at the bottom alongside BREAKING in capital letters?”

“We’re not breaking the news until we have your reaction.” She replied.

“It’s not news, though.” I said.

“Sure it is”

“It’s not, news has to have some basis of fact attached to it, not someone putting two and two together. West Ham might be watching Aaron, I don’t know, maybe his agent is touting him around, I don’t know. What is irrefutable fact is that the boy is under contract here. We’ve no contact with any club about him so anything that goes out on the airwaves to the contrary is just tittle-tattle.” I enjoyed being able to use ‘the boy’ in relation to Aaron since he was one of the few lads that was younger than I was, everyone else was either in ‘Uncle’ or ‘Grandad’ territory by comparison.

“So, that’s a no from you?” She asked.

“Well deciphered.” I responded, sarcasm at mild levels.

“Got it, thanks Jones. See you tomorrow.” There was half a second’s pause before her tone switched from business to something more casual. “By the way, thank you for the flowers, card and tickets for my Dad.”

“Oh, it was nothing.” I replied. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s improving, thank you. Still in intensive care but stable. It was really thoughtful of you.”

“I’m pleased to hear it, I hope he makes a speedy and full recovery. It’s good to hear you’re back at work.”

“Thanks, Jones.” Another heartbeat’s pause, then back to business. “See you in the tunnel tomorrow then.”

I chuckled lightly.

“See you there.”

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The next afternoon, as the boys congregated in the player’s lounge for the pre-match meal I pulled Aaron Hickey to one side and sat down with him on one of the sofas.

“Aaron, how are you doing?” I asked.

“Good, boss, thanks. Yourself?” The young full-back replied.

“I’m good thanks. Listen, I just wanted to say that I’ve been really impressed with your efforts in training over the past few weeks. Your attitude has been excellent and you’re really showing signs of improving all the time.”

A coy smile came over his face. “Thanks, boss, that’s good to know. I’ll keep doing my best to work hard and impress.”

“Keep doing what you’re doing and your playing time will only increase. You’ve got a bright future ahead of you and I really want to be someone that brings lads through the ranks into the first team so there’s an opportunity here for you to become a real trailblazer for other youngsters, not to mention a favourite with the supporters.”

“Cheers, boss. I appreciate that.”

“Top man, you’re on the bench today, I want Aidan’s pace to help deal with the threat of Daryl Horgan, but your chance will come. Go on, get some grub and I’ll catch you later.”

He skipped off, a little spring in his step.

I didn’t know who Sky’s sources were, I knew enough by now to know that agents knew when they had a saleable asset under their wing and that they wouldn’t be adverse to touting them around, drum up some interest from time to time – I had plenty of them doing to me with free agents, players who were unsettled elsewhere, promising youngsters from the Championship or below and whilst I knew that football was a dog-eat-dog world, I really wanted to try and maintain as moral a stance as possible. Whether or not that’d be possible in the long run, I didn’t know – I might just be passing myself off as hugely naïve. Time would tell on that count.

After the pre-match meal, the boys had an hour’s down time where they were free to do what they wanted – listen to music, go for a wander, do some stretches or a little gentle ball work, sit down and read, have a nap – then we congregated in the changing room and I announced the eighteen man squad for the afternoon.

Stevie Naismith was still unavailable and Steven MacLean had also picked up a tweak in training, so there was a call-up to the first-team squad for the first time under my tenure for 22 year old forward Craig Wighton, the former Dundee man whose professional goal-record stood at approximately 1 goal every 10 games. Someone on the coaching staff, who shall not be identified by name, cruelly described Craig as a ‘false 9’ on the basis that ‘he’s more likely to score in a monastery than on the pitch.’

Aside form that, it was pretty much as you’d expect line-up wise.

Whilst the boys got stuck into their pre-match routines, I wandered out for a look at the pitch and bumped into Jack Ross who was chatting to Jocky, the groundsman on the perimeter track at the mouth of the tunnel.. Jack, the young former St Mirren and Sunderland boss, was someone I’d got a lot of time and respect for. He’d taken the Hibs job after losing in the League 1 Play-Off final with the Mackems, a 94th minute winner for Charlton doing for him.

Ross was well known around these parts having spent 15 months as boss of the Under 19s here at Tynecastle between 2014 and 2015 and clearly a popular figure still.

“Aye, here he is,” Jocky said as I approached. “A wee man with almost as much class as yerself, Jacko.”

“Almost?” I enquired with mock incredulity.

“This fella here,” Jocky replied, pointing at Jack, “he know how to pick a bottle of scotch. Yer’ve got a something to live up to, wee man.”

“Jack, it’s good to meet you.” I said, offering a handshake to my opposite number which he gladly accepted.

“Jones, hello. You too.”

“I’ll be off,” Jocky said, hoisting his pitchfork over his shoulder with a great effort. “I’ll make a final check on the carpet fer yer both.”

“Quite a character isn’t he?” Jack said.

“Yeah, he’s a great guy, always in high spirits. Seems to live here though,” I said. “Never takes a day off, always here when I get in, still here when I leave.”

“I think this keeps him going to be honest, his wife died four or five years ago, I forget which, but it was while I was here. Really sad time. I think he took a day off and was back the next day.” We both looked at the figure, slightly crooked with age now, forking one or two areas on the far side. “Being here gives him a reason to get up every day.”

We chatted until the players began to filter out for their warm up, about our seasons so far, expectations, other teams we’d come up against before shaking hands again and agreeing to a drink afterwards, once we’d settled down.

The warm-up happened in front of an increasingly warm atmosphere as the stadium filled up. I popped back into the dressing room to put three points on the white board and grab myself a cup of tea.

I’ll be honest, I felt a little more nervous than usual, where I’d normally be sat down calmly on one of the benches at this stage, I simply couldn’t sit still without my leg nervously jiggling up and down. I had to pace, began to sing to myself under my breath, bizarrely choosing a Yo La Tengo track. Nothing like a bit of obscure US Indie to settle one’s heart rate.

Twelve minutes before kick-off and the players began to file back in. I settled them down, went through the three points on the board for a couple of minutes, just re-emphasising everything we’d gone through over the previous four days, wishing them luck and telling them to believe in themselves. Do it for the fans, do it for the club but most of all do it for themselves.

The boys went on to their final pieces of preparation and I went round each one, giving them a high five and wishing them well when there was a knock on the door. Austin opened it.

“Patsy, the cameras are ready for you outside.”

“On my way,” I replied, as I fist-bumped Uche.

Jack Ross was just finishing off his chat with Leah when I arrived, I waited for him to vacate the spotlight before taking my place.

“Nice to see you, Jones,” Leah said, flashing me a half-smile that displayed a dimple in her left cheek. I realised then I hadn’t ever seen her without her stony business-like look on her face. “And thank you again.”

“You’re very welcome,”

“Okay, we’re on in 5,” came a voice from behind the camera.

Leah Young: Jones, it’s derby day. How much do you look forward to playing your local rivals?

It’s my first experience of this or any derby day as a manager, but I’ve been looking forward to it since we played St Mirren. There’s been a buzz at training, there’s a buzz around the city and now it’s down to us to put on a show for the paying and watching public.

LY: How do you intend to seize the initiative against an opponent who, like Hearts, enjoy dominating possession?

I think we’re in for a fascinating contest between two sides that like to try and get the ball down and play. We’ll have to be at our best when we don’t have the ball, make sure we adjust and react out of possession, I think that’s likely to be where the game is decided.

LY: Daryl Horgan is acknowledged as one of the best dribblers in the league. Do you have a plan to stop him?

We are definitely aware of Daryl and the danger he can present. He’s not their only danger but we’ve worked on a few things on the training ground to counter the threat that Daryl and others are likely to pose.

LY: On that, Stevie Mallan comes into the game having been outstanding of late in recent weeks in the Hibs midfield. Do those plans include him?

Of course, and again, not just Stevie or Daryl, but everyone. Hibs, like every side in this league, have plenty of threat and I think we’ve prepared well for all of them.

LY: Thanks, Jones. Good luck.

Thanks.

She turned away, making sure everything had come through okay on-air and I excused myself as the players began to line-up in the tunnel, ready to go into battle.

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Friday 18th October 2019: Heart of Midlothian v Hibernian (SPL)

Venue: Tynecastle

Att: 20,099

It was a full-house, of course, a sell-out and the place was absolutely bouncing. The roar from both ends was deafening and more intense than any I’d experienced so far at Tynecastle. The difference between the atmosphere for this game and the one against Rangers was the air of expectation from the visiting support on opening day. This time, both supporters of both sides sensed the opportunity to win and, more importantly, to get one over their cross-city rivals.

In the twenty minutes between me being outside watching the warm-ups and coming out again, the heavens had opened but as ever, as soon as the whistle went, I blocked out all of the hubbub around me, put on my glasses and watched the action intently.

The opening five minutes were predictably frenetic and ‘playground’ in style. Everyone haring around after the ball and launching into improbably challenges. It all quickly settled down though and a ball in behind Chris Berra saw Florian Kamberi was onto it in a flash. He tried to drill it beyond Pereira and the goalkeeper got down a little slowly, making a half save but taking enough pace off the ball for Souttar to sweep up behind and get the ball clear for a throw-in.

10 minutes later and a left-wing corner was swung into the heart of our penalty area to be met by Adam Jackson, up from the back for Hibs. His header, which was more or less free and from inside the six-yard box was thumped over the bar, though, as he was just unable to get over the effort.

He did rather better in the 26th minute, however, as a Stevie Mallan free kick from the right aimed towards the far post was won by Melker Hallberg and his header back across goal found Jackson with the freedom of the entire six-yard box to tap the ball home from a couple of yards out and give the visitors a deserved lead.

It was the 41st minute before we created anything worthy of the description ‘opening’, Conor Washington crossing from the left and Uche Ikpeazu glancing his header harmlessly over the top. As the whistle went for half-time, we were accompanied down the tunnel by a cacophony of boos and jeers.

“Hear that?” I said, as the players traipsed in, heads down. “I shouldn’t need to say anything to you. They’ve told you all you need to know about that travesty of a first half and what’s required now. Down to you, lads. Austin, JD, Foxy, Paul, Tommy – we spent all week busting our balls to prepare you for this and that’s how you decide to perform. You should be bloody ashamed and embarrassed. Sort it out, I’m off for a cuppa.” And with that I exited the room, slamming the door behind me and went for a little walk to cool my jets a little before the restart.

HALF TIME: Heart of Midlothian 0-1 Hibernian

Things didn’t improve in the opening quarter of an hour of the second period and after Jackson had narrowly planted another free header just over the top I felt compelled to act. Sean Clare and Craig Wighton came on for the totally ineffectual Jamie Walker and the service starved Uche Izpeazu. I felt that Clare was a little more tenacious than Walker and that Wighton would go searching for the ball a little more than Uche, maybe make things happen.

“Make yourselves heroes, boys,” I said as they wandered over to where the fourth official was holding up the board.

Within six minutes, a very dangerous Hibs attack floundered when Daryl Horgan lost his footing just as he was going to deliver from the right-hand by-line. Aidan White picked up the loose ball and sent if forward to Jake Mulraney, midway inside his own have. He knocked it back to White who looking up, saw Washington making a run off the shoulder of Jackson down the inside left channel. The lofted pass was good, Washington’s cross wasn’t. However, Mulraney had busted a gut to get forward in support and picked up possession, dinked past a challenge and stood the ball up towards the penalty spot where Wighton climbed, and managed to loop a header across Ofir Marciano and just inside the post to equalise.

It was the forward’s first goal for the club and greeted by mild delirium in the stands. Not a bad way to silence the doubters, that.

We were much the better side after that for the next twenty minutes and looked by far the more likely side to go on and grab a winner. Shots peppered Marciano’s goal, but not without unduly extending the Hibs keeper. The crowd urged us forward, we’d gotten them back onside with that equaliser. 50/50s were beginning to go our way, loose balls finding themselves at the feet of Claret shirted players.

As the game passed into the 87th minute, Aidan White went on a surge into space down the left flank and then passed it on to Mulraney. The Irishman had plenty of space to get a cross in and Washington flicked it on at the near post. Arriving on the scene at the right time once again was Wighton, and he met it with is head at the far post and bulleted his header into the net. The place erupted on three sides, only behind Pereira’s goal was there stunned silence, everywhere else the place was absolutely jumping.

No matter what happened in Craig Wighton’s life beyond this point, he’d written himself into Hearts folklore with those two headed interventions.

Assuming, of course, we could see out the final few minutes without acting like pillocks.

From the restart, we regained possession but then Jake Mulraney, who had done so much good work to help us overcome our deficit chose this to be the moment at 2-1 up in a derby to unleash an outlandish back-heel inside his own half.. Possession turned over and former Manchester United youngster David Gray found himself able to shoot, very nearly finding Babylon as his effort beat Pereira at his near post but thundered back off the upright and out of play. I breathed a sigh of relief and was heartened to see Mulraney’s skipper, Christophe Berra, launching a volley of invective at his winger’s stupidity to save me the effort. Very nearly a case of say hello, wave goodbye to three points.

Mulraney’s next touch was rather more like it, meeting a cross into our penalty area with the biggest of big boots into row Z as we weathered some intense Hibs pressure. The corner was headed clear by Souttar and we managed to regroup and see out stoppage time relatively comfortably to secure a huge and barely deserved three points.

Not that the fans cared, the reception at the final whistle couldn’t have been more starkly different to that which had greeted half-time. I shook hands with Jack and commiserated with him. “We got away with that.” I confessed.

“Ah, you have to take your chances,” Jack said. “Your sub did, our boys didn’t.” I could tell he was deflated and understood fully. We’d ridden our luck, hadn’t played well aside from that 20-minute spell between our two goals and come away with the three points that kept us in fourth for a little longer.

I decided to let the boys enjoy the moment, choosing to congratulate them for turning things around and picking up the points rather than dwelling on the less pleasing aspects of the performance. That could wait for Monday morning. I did make a special effort to speak to Craig, congratulate him on his efforts and goals that turned the game. “Hopefully that’ll give you a bit of confidence now.” I said.

“Thanks for giving me the chance, boss. Aye, hopefully that’ll kickstart me here now.” He was wearing a smile as wide as the Forth and who could blame him, he’d not had the easiest of starts to his career at Tynecastle, failing to score in more than a year since joining from Dundee. A good lad with a great attitude, I really hoped this would fire him onto bigger and better things.

With that, I took my leave and made my way down to the press room to face the cameras and questions from the waiting scribes. The final ball-ache before going upstairs and rubbing shoulders with the sponsors and sharing a glass of wine with Jack.

FULL TIME: Heart of Midlothian 2-1 Hibernian

Team: Pereira, Smith, Souttar, Berra, White, Whelan, Montolivo, Walker (Clare), Mulraney, Washington, Ikpeazu (Wighton)

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Table as at Saturday 19th October 2019

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

GD

Glasgow Rangers

9

7

1

1

23

7

22

16

Glasgow Celtic

9

7

1

1

22

6

22

16

Aberdeen

9

6

2

1

17

11

20

6

Heart of Midlothian

9

5

2

2

20

14

17

6

Motherwell

9

4

1

4

14

15

13

-1

Kilmarnock

9

3

3

3

11

10

12

1

Hibernian

9

3

2

4

16

16

11

0

St Johnstone

9

3

2

4

9

12

11

-3

St Mirren

9

3

1

5

14

21

10

-7

Livingston

9

1

3

5

7

18

6

-11

Hamilton Academical

9

1

1

7

5

15

4

-10

Ross County

9

1

1

7

5

18

4

-13

 

Friday 18th October 2019

Hearts

2

1

Hibs

 

Saturday 19th October 2019

St Johnstone

1

2

Celtic

Aberdeen

1

1

Kilmarnock

Hamilton

1

2

Motherwell

Livingston

2

0

Ross County

Rangers

3

1

St Mirren

 

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Saturday 26th October 2019: Heart of Midlothian v Ross County (SPL)

Venue: Tynecastle

Att: 17,182

Ross County, off the back of both being the first club to be beaten by Livingston and as a result, falling to the bottom of the table, were the next lambs to the slaughterhouse that Tynecastle had become.

Flippancy aside, I shuffled my back a little ahead of the game, two players having played themselves into the starting line-up and a third change coming necessitated by injury. Sean Clare and Craig Wighton unsurprisingly started following their part in the derby success 8 days previously whilst a little more seriously, certainly in the short-term, Ricci Montolivo had suffered a nasty gash on his leg in a challenge with Andy Irving in training and had been ruled out for at least a week, possibly two, just to ensure it didn’t become infected. That provided a rare chance for Loic Damour to start alongside Glenn Whelan in midfield, with Irving himself gaining a place on the bench. The youngster swore blind he didn’t deliberately ‘do’ Ricci, in spite of some firm ribbing from his team-mates.

We started the game full of confidence as, to be fair, did Ross, both sides passing the ball with confidence and an absorbing opening period brought with it the opening goal of the afternoon. Some smart build-up involving Damour, Wighton and then Clare saw the latter send a ball into the box which looked to have given Conor Washington work to do as it sent him a little wide. Our leading scorer made light work of the increasingly acute angle, however, catching Marian Keleman napping a little and firing a snapshot left footed that beat the visiting goalkeeper at his near post to take the Northern Irishman to 11 goals for the campaign.

I wondered if that early sucker punch might wind the visitors, but no, they continued in the manner they’d begun. It quickly became clear why they were struggling though, they had absolutely no end product at all. Michael Gardyne’s strike from the edge of the box that went about six-yards wide was their best effort of the opening half. Every other time they got into a good position, you could almost see the cogs working in the player’s brains and the wrong option was selected.

On the half hour mark, we showed rather more decisiveness as Wighton, who was dropping into the pocket of space just behind Washington turned and played a lovely slide-rule pass for the marksman to run onto. This time, Keleman got down really well to his left to push Washington’s effort wide of the post and keep his side alive. One got the feeling that a second goal for us probably would finish off any threat from the visitors.

So, for all the truth in the fact that Ross lacked quality in the final third, so, for the most part aside from those two flashes, did we. We weren’t great – in control – but not great at all.

HALF TIME: Heart of Midlothian 1-0 Ross County

It was a case of telling the boys to remain watchful but to go all out to get the second killer goal at the break. If we did that, I was sure further goals were likely to follow. The spirit in the dressing room was good, I wasn’t going to unduly upset the apple cart.

30 seconds after the restart and we’d gone close to doing just that, Glenn Whelan unleashed a raking through ball over the top and in behind which once again saw Washington clear on goal. This time his driven effort beat Keleman, but also the goalkeeper’s left hand upright on this occasion too and thudded into the advertising hoarding behind the goal.

And that would have saved us having to endure the next 44½ minutes of absolute rubbish. From the way the game opened in the first 10 minutes or so, I thought we were going to be in for a real treat. That was the high point though, everything else was insipid, uninspired, simply dreadful. The only two positives were a first clean sheet of the league campaign and the fact that what precious little quality there was on show had come from us.

Three more points, a fourth consecutive win and now the unbeaten run was up to eight matches so it felt a little churlish being too critical of the boys, but we’d smuggled a couple of results in the run and I wanted more. I wanted better.

Something to look at once again in training on Monday ahead of the midweek visit to Livingston.

FULL TIME: Heart of Midlothian 1-0 Ross County

Team: Pereira, Smith, Souttar, Berra (Halkett), White, Whelan, Damour, Clare (Walker), Mulraney (Meshino), Washington, Wighton

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Table as at Sunday 27th October 2019

 

P

W

D

L

F

A

Pts

GD

Glasgow Rangers

10

8

1

1

26

7

25

19

Glasgow Celtic

10

7

2

1

23

7

23

16

Aberdeen

10

7

2

1

18

11

23

7

Heart of Midlothian

10

6

2

2

21

14

20

7

Hibernian

10

4

2

4

19

17

14

2

Kilmarnock

10

3

4

3

12

11

13

1

Motherwell

10

4

1

5

14

16

13

-2

St Mirren

10

4

1

5

15

21

13

-6

St Johnstone

10

3