This summer should have been a difficult one for Hearts. They lost their top scorer late on in the transfer window, as well as their captain and best player to a long-term injury just two games into the new season. Then, right at the end of the summer, the Jam Tarts had their manager hospitalised. All this is what makes their start to the season all the more remarkable.
Five games of the 2018/19 Scottish Premiership season have been played and Hearts sit five points clear at the top of the standings with five wins from five games. So how have they done it? And are they the real deal? How far can Craig Levein’s side realistically go this season?
Saturday’s trip to Fir Park to take on Motherwell was a real litmus test for the Jambos. After an international break which saw a number of key players, including Steven Naismith and John Souttar, involved for their countries, Hearts could have wilted at one of the most difficult venues to visit in the Scottish game. Instead they came away with a 1-0 win.
Some may point out that only one of Hearts’ five straight wins has come against a team currently in the top half of the table. What’s more, the shine of beating Celtic has been somewhat dulled by the defending champions’ form since that 1-0 defeat on August 11, with Brendan Rodgers’ side far from impressive in recent weeks.
Nonetheless, Hearts have to be taken seriously. Five games might not be a large enough sample size to suggest they will be title challengers, but it’s large enough to draw some solid judgements from. Their form hasn’t been an anomaly. The statistics square up with the results they have achieved, particularly in the attacking third where Hearts have gone from averaging the fifth fewest shots per 90 minutes in the Scottish Premiership this season to averaging 1.81 more shots per 90 minutes than Celtic this season.
The Scottish Premiership’s top half hasn’t been this strong in a long, long time.
Hibernian have recruited well after the loss of John McGinn and Scott Allan, with Aberdeen once again set for a good season under Derek McInnes. Rangers’ improvement over the summer has been well-documented, while Celtic, for all their struggles, are still champions in-waiting. Then there’s St Johnstone, who have completely overhauled their attack for the new campaign.
But nobody has come as far as Hearts over just a few months. And in Craig Levein they have a manager who has reinvented himself just as fundamentally as he has his team. As Scotland boss, Levein was derided, even vilified at times. That took its toll on the man, not just on a professional level, but a personal one too.
Levein only returned to football to take on the director of football role at Hearts on the condition that he could remain in the background, so scarred was he by his Scotland experience. His taking up of the manager’s job following the Ian Cathro debacle was surprising to some, such was Levein’s perceived desire to remain a backroom figure.
Since then, though, the 53-year-old has reminded as us all why he was considered good enough to be Scotland manager in the first place. He’s a smart coach and an excellent man manager. His years as a director of football at Hearts also underlined his eye for a player, while his witty press conferences paint the picture of a man enjoying football again.
This has manifested itself in Hearts’ recent form.
As strong a start as Hearts have made this season, their form is not yet of 2005/06 proportions, when George Burley’s side stormed the Scottish Premier League with nine wins and two draws from their first 11 fixtures.
October will be a defining month, with games against Rangers, Aberdeen and Hibs in quick succession. Get through that unscathed and the hype will be real.
For now, though, there’s no reason to believe a collapse is coming. The sight of Hearts at the top of the table is a fair reflection of where they are as a team right now.