Reflections on Hearts (February 2024)

By Anthony Brown

"An air of discontentment hung in the Tynecastle air as shareholders grilled the hierarchy" read the subhead of The Scotsman's article chronicling Hearts' "frosty" annual general meeting on Thursday 14 December 2023.

It is remarkable to recall that just a little over two months ago, the board had to field angrily-voiced concerns about Steven Naismith's suitability to manage the team, the style of play, and recruitment, among other things. At that point, Hearts were sixth in the cinch Premiership, two points off third-place St Mirren and a point behind fourth-place Hibernian, with a game in hand over both sides.

Naismith had just landed the manager of the month award for November after winning four league games in succession but back-to-back one-goal defeats at home to Rangers and away to Aberdeen in early December brought the sense of negativity from the early months of the season rushing back.

Sporting director Joe Savage - who revealed in October that he had been subjected to "personal abuse" from angry supporters - came under further fire at the AGM. "I will take the criticism on board," he said. "Maybe some of the players we've signed have not met the standards we've set. I will take the criticism forward and try to make sure we sign better players who you feel are fit to wear the Hearts jersey."

At various points in recent seasons, chair Ann Budge, chief executive Andrew McKinlay and Savage have clearly been slightly taken aback by the level of criticism aimed at a club that has generally been on an upward curve ever since the ignominy of demotion from the Premiership at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic almost four years ago.

When McKinlay was asked at a press conference immediately after December's AGM if it felt like the vibe of mild crisis around Hearts was at odds with the reality that they were still in contention for the rare feat of qualifying for Europe for a third year in succession, the CEO said: "It does. But it doesn't really matter. Perception is reality. And that is the reality that I'm living in. I don't know how big it is - I'm certainly not suggesting it is tiny - but there is an element of the fans that are not happy with the style of play. But it's a results business and that's how we'll be measured."

Since that awkward, acrimonious pre-Christmas morning in Gorgie, Hearts have won 11 and drawn one of their 12 matches in all competitions to move 14 points clear in third place, within 11 points of second-place Celtic, and into the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup. How McKinlay and Co must wish that untimely AGM had been held over for a month or two.

Hearts’ league form since the opening day of November (P 16, W 13, D 2, L 1) is now befitting of a title contender. Even in the hypothetical instance that all of their points accumulated in August, September and October (granted, a meagre haul of ten) were to be deducted, Naismith's team would still be four clear in third. Incredibly, they currently have the same number of points (51) after 26 games as the hallowed team of 2005/06 had at the same stage before going on to post a 21st-century high of 74 for the season. Despite the slow start, this is shaping up to be one of Hearts’ best league campaigns of the modern era as long as they don't suffer a late tail-off like they had under Jim Jefferies back in 2010/11, or the type of early-spring collapse that cost Naismith's predecessor, Robbie Neilson, his job 10 months ago.

Of the players currently at the heart of this remarkable surge of form under Naismith, Stephen Kingsley is the only one who was not signed under the watch of Savage. Liam Boyce, Peter Haring, Craig Halkett and Craig Gordon were also at the club before the sporting director's appointment in December 2020, but none have been playing regularly recently.

The fact Hearts have not required a major squad overhaul since Neilson was replaced by Naismith last year speaks volumes for the quality of the club's recruitment during Savage's time at the club as well as the current manager's willingness and ability to coach and improve players he did not sign. Seven of the 11 starters from Saturday's impressive 2-0 win over Motherwell plus three of the subs who came on (not including academy graduate Macauley Tait) were brought to Hearts during the previous manager's time in charge. This, allied to the fact they are on course for a third consecutive top-four finish for the first time since Jefferies' first three seasons in charge in the 1990s, would indicate Hearts' football department is - and has been for the past few years - in pretty good order.

While Neilson deserves credit for his part in the recruitment of the majority of the current squad - most notably Lawrence Shankland, who was viewed by many in the summer of 2022 as a likely downgrade on Ellis Simms - Naismith merits praise for getting the best out of players like Kye Rowles, Alan Forrest and Nathaniel Atkinson, who had started to lose their way last season. Beni Baningime and Kingsley - two stars of the 2021/22 season when Hearts finished third and reached the Scottish Cup final under Neilson - are also firmly back in the groove. Even Yutaro Oda, who arrived three months before Neilson departed, has shown glimpses under Naismith - most recently with his barnstorming second-half display against Motherwell on Saturday - to suggest he could yet prove a good signing.

Of the players to join since Naismith took the reins, most have justified their arrival. Frankie Kent has been immense all season while Kenneth Vargas and Calem Nieuwenhof are starting to fly after underwhelming starts. Alex Lowry - who had his moments - was sent back to Rangers when it was established he was not going to start regularly, while Kyosuke Tagawa is the only one yet to ignite at all. Given Naismith's knack of getting the best out of the players at his disposal this season, it would seem folly to write off the Japanese forward just yet, however. The manager is a big advocate of patience, both in-game and in terms of the development of his players and his team overall, and is likely to give Tagawa - signed on a four-year deal - every chance to come good at Hearts.

One of the most impressive aspects of Naismith's tenure so far was how he conducted himself during those difficult months earlier in the season when Hearts were struggling - particularly at home - and his own position was being scrutinised intensely by supporters and media. The disrespectful "project manager" and "cheap option" jibes will no doubt have rankled privately with the former Scotland, Rangers, Everton and Hearts forward, but he always maintained his composure and dignity. Allowing his critics to vent their opinions without feeling the need to bite back, Naismith held a steely inner confidence that his ideas and methods would soon bear fruit and that he would justify the board's faith in him.

Amid the negativity, the level-headed Naismith drew succour from the home performances in Europe against Rosenborg and PAOK, from the mid-September victory over Aberdeen, from the League Cup win at Kilmarnock, and from a couple of promising October matches at home to Hibs and away to Rangers where they had big-game victory in their grasp for long periods before slipping up in the closing stages. The sparks of promise were there all along, even amid a grim start of three wins and just nine goals from the opening ten league games. Now everything is coming together on a far more consistent basis, as the manager hoped it would and told us it would. Notably, his demeanour has remained similar to what it was when his job appeared to be on the line back in the autumn: calm, measured and assured, simply focusing on the next match, the next aspect of improvement, rather than indulging in any bombastic, headline-grabbing boasts. Naismith's humility throughout has been admirable.

Of course, things are not perfect yet. For all that the remarkable away form, the brilliant defensive record, Shankland's stunning strike-rate, the lofty league position, the long-awaited victory in Glasgow (two days after the AGM) and the winning run are all to be acclaimed as signs of progress and prosperity, there is still scope for improvement. As much as Hearts are nine points better off than they were at the same stage last season, they have scored ten fewer goals than Neilson's team had at the 26-game mark last term, although there are indications recently that they are becoming more prolific and slightly less reliant on the talismanic Shankland to win matches.

In addition, in a curious anomaly amid all the recent positivity, they continue to have difficulty in scoring first-half goals, particularly at Tynecastle. In 13 home games in the league this season, they have netted only three times in the first half (against Aberdeen, Hibs and St Mirren, all before Christmas) compared to 15 in the second half. Their last 10 goals at Tynecastle have all been scored in the second half.

That said, it has almost become part of this team's DNA that they use the first 45 minutes for feeling their opponents out before making some mid-game tweaks and then cranking things up after the break. It was notable in Saturday's match against Motherwell that Hearts were generally applauded off at half-time by their supporters even though they had not fired on all cylinders in the first half and were deadlocked at 0-0. In very recent times gone by, such a scenario would have brought an outburst of booing. Even the notoriously impatient element of the Hearts support, however, appear to be buying into the controlled quirks of Naisyball (Season One): Trust the process, we know what we're doing, we'll get there in the end.

And as long as the burgeoning 37-year-old does not get headhunted anytime soon, the smart money would be on Hearts continuing to refine their game and become an even more efficient and effective team as time goes by. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the progress being made under Naismith is that there is now a genuine feeling that they can win at least one of their two upcoming matches away to Rangers and at home to Celtic, and lend some credence to the murmurs - albeit fanciful at this stage - among some supporters about potentially splitting the Old Firm to finish in the top two for the first time in 18 years.

The likeliest outcome to this season, though, is that Hearts remain where they are, in third place, a good distance ahead of their nearest challengers. That would mean that since both Hearts and the wider world were plunged into turmoil in March 2020, the Edinburgh club have won the Championship pretty comfortably and then gone third-fourth-third in the Premiership. For context and comparison, of the two clubs closest to Hearts in terms of stature and budget, Hibs have finished third-eighth-fifth in their last three seasons, while Aberdeen have gone fourth-tenth-third. Both Hibs and Aberdeen - having invested heavily in their squads - are presently in the bottom six, ten points beneath fourth-place Kilmarnock.

By any measure, Hearts - notwithstanding a Brora-sized bump in the road three years ago - have bounced back emphatically since their demotion, and to their credit they have done so using only two different managers. Neilson achieved most of his main objectives by securing promotion and then romping to third in the top flight before losing his way around this time last year, just as back-to-back third-place finishes looked his for the taking. Now Naismith - after a slow start to his reign during which Nick Montgomery and Barry Robson could both feasibly have been perceived as superior alternatives - has picked up the baton and elevated Hearts to a level whereby all sorts of things suddenly seem possible.

Nothing can be taken for granted in this ever-volatile game, but all the signs are that sure-footed Hearts - on course for European group-stage football for a second time in three years - are a club equipped for gradual but sustained growth on and off the pitch. There will inevitably be further defeats (like those last endured back in 2023) and patience-testing periods for all along the way. But at a time when they have just opened up another innovative revenue stream in the form of the impressive Tynecastle Park Hotel, inside the second floor of the main stand, they appear to have their house firmly in order on all levels.