Endgame

May You Like In Interesting Times, said Confucius. Well, I doubt he was a Hearts fan. As if the two years before winning the Scottish Cup weren't traumatic enough, the two subsequent have taken us up and down and round the bend, so our Oriental pal might have had second thoughts about 'interesting'.

For whatever reason (and the words Pressley and Jackson are a good starting-point for that discussion) Hearts have played some wonderful football since winning the Cup - and how ironic it is that we're not playing as well now as we were this time last year - but for whatever reason (and the words Jefferies and Brown begin that debate) the stop-start, bad-good pendulum of confidence of form has given way to a steady stream of results and a goal-minus tally of 40 from 36 games, which includes two 0-4 reverses from each Glasgow club.

If you think criticism of Mssrs J&B (not my preferred blend, you'll have gathered) is ill-founded, I remember Jim's look of disbelief when a shareholder suggested that neither McKenzie nor Hogarth was up to pressurising Rousset for a first-team place. In the end, of course, this season turned on acquiring Antti Niemi, who would be my player of the season, apart from Pressley, Flogel and Jackson. All goalkeepers make great saves (like Rousset and McKenzie do) but not all goalkeepers don't make mistakes (like Niemi doesn't).

Oh sure, he'll have his off-days, but once he and Pressley understand each other better there'll be fewer misunderstandings against Stenny gyppos and Dundee Arabs and the like. And while we're about it, Billy Brown told shareholders that Gordan Petric would eventually prove a good buy; most of the audience would like him to wave a good bye.

Ah, scraping into Europe, ya beauty! If the Glasgow Herald is accurate, Jefferies said he had 'taken a risk by playing Juanjo from the start but believed his wing play would help his side create more chances.' Well, there's boldness for you! Most of my cash this year has been spent watching Hearts fail to create any sort of chance, with nearly every player unwilling or unable to break out of his designated spot on the park, just in case the opposition gets the ball and - gasp - attacks back! (puts on Pam Ayres voice: 'Ooh, there are lions and tigers and bear out there -mercy mercy me') - now, are they under orders not to get forward? Is that why they keep looking at the dugout? Don't they know that now we've got the best goalie in Scotland now, we're not going to lose if we attack?

Defensive security is one thing, but just as five defenders couldn't stop Hibs scoring three at Easter Road last time out, last week we were treated to the sight of 10-man Hibs giving Hearts a hard time, principally because we were still playing a flat back four against their one up front!

So Hibs had chances to equalise because Hearts were still outnumbered in midfield. As soon as McIntosh was sent off, Naysmith should have stood at outside-left and stayed there - that would have kept McManus occupied - but instead we discovered that the old 8-1-1 formation doesn't guarantee the opposition won't score and had McGinlay not mucked up and made it 2-2 with six minutes to go, the interest rate on the Confucian scale would have gone through the ceiling quicker than it did on Black Monday a few years back.

Nope, if you want to defend, block the midfield, not the defence. And if you're tactically astute enough to play three up front, the ball has to be got forward a lot quicker than Hearts managed. The full-backs have to push up - almost a 2-5-3 - because playing only three in the midfield is a risk. I know shape and position matter, but worrying the opposition's defence is more important than worrying the Hearts manager.

Having finished third, then let us see if we can enjoy a more consistent season next year, rather than the four we often weather in one go.

Two years ago the priority was to finish third again, and have two consecutively good seasons for a change, but by February we were as good as relegated. The positive side this time round is that Hearts are nowhere near the finished article, whereas two years ago there was nowhere to go but down. Cameron got injured, Fulton's brother nearly died, Weir wanted to leave and Adam got a girl's hairband.

New, better players are needed, but Chris Robinson's rather reasonable analysis in the Scotsman, also reproduced on this site, makes it plain we haven't really got the money. I'd like to get Russell Anderson and Gary Holt myself (if only to suggest to all the other clubs that their good players should be thinking of joining Hearts) but despite Severin's loss of form halfway through the season it is worth hoping that some younger players might get the chance to shine in an expanded league where there will be more space to play and room to breathe.

Andy Kirk may well take advantage of Gary Wales's injury: Kris O'Neill is still setting the world on fire, though I fear he's too lightweight and far too clever to operate in the SPL, where for every John Hughes gone, a Martin McIntosh remains. Darren Goldie does look like the real deal. And if a teenage goalie can lift the European Cup, there's no reason why Craig Gordon, Man of the Match in the Under-18 Final, can't be sat on the bench, seeing what the future tastes like.

If there are possibilities elsewhere, Jefferies is certainly casting around for a centre-forward. Earlier in the season McSwegan was making intelligent runs off the ball, leading the line, setting up chances for midfielders who could run into space. For whatever reason (and there are a few theories doing the rounds) he's now standing still waiting for it to happen for him. If it's hard to disagree with his 13 goals from 20-odd games, Hearts' final tally of 47 from 36 says it all. Don't forget, last season proved that selling your top scorer isn't necessarily the road to ruin.

I don't want to be too damning, because very few teams come to Tynecastle with any attacking intention and Hearts often play better away from home (where the support's better, for a start) because the home team disobeys its instincts and tries to attack. Hearts' performance of the season was against Celtic who always come and have a go - usually to some effect. So Hearts are generally at their best when the game is fast, but unfortunately Celtic are even better, which is why we often play well against them and still lose by the odd goal.

So Hearts will struggle against teams like St Johnstone who field a team with all the mobility of 10 dustbins - but not the class - and that's when you have to be patient at the back, work it through the middle or down the wing, and then go for the jugular at 100 deadly mph around their box. Just as a 12-team SPL might encourage Hearts to let rip, St Johnstone might stop resembling some Historical Enactment Society doing their Rorke's Drift.

I still don't see why people talk in terms of taking on Rangers - oh, and Celtic, I suppose. They get more than 50 thou watching them, we get 15 thou at best. SMG gave us 8 million quid, Rangers just got given 40 million. So let's not worry about that.

We'll find, just as two years ago, that blowing away the wee teams can get us to the top of the League, and then we can think about beating the Glasgow clubs then. Hibs fell into the trap this year of thinking We Must Be Good, We've Just Beaten Celtic (yeah right, you and Caley Thistle) and then they fell on their arses against Kilmarnock and Dundee.

At the moment Motherwell feel that they're better than us, and that next season will be reckoning time. That's the sort of attitude that finishing third for two, three, four, five seasons in a row would start to eradicate, and if you can instil some doubt into these shitey wee teams from shitey wee towns that they have the right to beat us, then you've won the game before it's even kicked off.

And finally: A final big fat thank-you to the Under 18s for beating Rangers at Hampden. What a ring that's got to it!

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