2020/21 in Review – Hearts
A mixed season at Tynecastle with some real highs and embarrassing lows, all of which resulted in a return to the Premiership. Jamie McIntosh looks back on the season as a whole and has his say on various season awards.
Robbie Neilson guided Hearts back to the Premiership for the second time, scoring the most goals and conceding the fewest. Hearts won the league by a 12 point margin, but despite all this, most fans will be glad to see the back of this campaign.
After Hearts blitzed a Championship which included both Hibs and Rangers in the 2014/15 season, fans were expecting more of the same this time around in what was a much weaker Championship by comparison.
Hearts entered the campaign as comfortable favourites and when they defeated one of their main challengers in Dundee by a 6-2 scoreline on the opening night of the season, it put a massive maroon marker down.
Hearts were excellent that night, however Dundee showed the rest of the Championship how not to set up against Hearts. 18-year-old Finlay Robertson started in the middle of the park, alongside 34-year-old Graham Dorrans and 35-year-old Charlie Adam – Paul McGowan (33) also started. To say there weren’t many ‘legs’ in that Dundee midfield would be an understatement and it showed. James McPake changed the formation at half time and Dundee improved in the second half, but the damage had been done in the first 45 and Hearts went on to win 6-2.
After watching that match, many of the other Championship managers knew they’d have to play conservative football against Hearts in an attempt to frustrate the Jambos. Many succeeded – embarrassing cup exits to Brora Rangers and Alloa followed later in the campaign, along with eye-bleeding draws against Queen of the South, Morton, Dunfermline, Inverness and Arbroath.
The pitch, the officials and the opposition’s style of play were some of the excuses – sorry, explanations – given by the Hearts manager when asked about some below par performances, but the main gripe from many Hearts fans appeared to be the lack of a Plan B when Plan A wasn’t working.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Cappielow, Gayfield and the Indodrill are tough pitches to play on, or that the opposition will be compact and play route one football, but the way Hearts struggled at these grounds would suggest that the players, nor their manager, had varying game plans to combat different teams’ styles and playing surfaces.
Despite all the negativity, Hearts will be back in the Premiership next season and with a few signings in the correct areas, I do believe Hearts can achieve a top four finish, largely due to a relatively average Scottish Premiership.
Player of the Season- Craig Gordon
Realistically, it was a two-horse race between the Championship’s top scorer, Liam Boyce, and the Championship’s Golden Glove winner, Craig Gordon.
I think when looking at the goalkeepers in the Hearts team that was demoted last season, Craig Gordon is just in a completely different universe. I also think it’s a fairly plausible argument that if Hearts had Colin Doyle, Joel Pereira or Bobby Zlamal in the sticks for the past seven months, they may not have lifted the Championship trophy.
Hearts have struggled in many games this season and Craig Gordon seems to have pulled off a world class save in at least every second fixture this season and that’s why he’s my player of the season.
I wrote in a previous article that Liam Boyce’s all-round game has impressed me this season. I used to see him as a poacher, but both his link-up hold-up play have been tremendous this season. Boyce has stepped up to provide some big goals for Hearts and has been particularly clinical from the penalty spot. However, he’s just come up short to an outstanding 38-year-old goalkeeper. Scotland’s number one, you might say…
Underperformer of the Season- Mihai Popescu
Andy Halliday was on route to getting this award, however in the last dozen games or so, I’ve been really impressed with the 29-year-old. Mihai Popescu on the other hand, is a different story.
When Hearts signed Popescu, a lot of Scottish football fans who had previously seen the Romanian at St. Mirren considered it a shrewd signing, however it hasn’t turned out that way.
The defender has been extremely shaky and has been at fault for numerous goals this season, most notably against Queen of the South, when he passed the ball straight to Stephen Dobbie on the edge of the Hearts box for the Doonhamers’ first of their three goals at Tynecastle that afternoon.
Popescu has only played 30 minutes in the five games that followed that Queen of the South defeat and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hearts tried to offload the Romanian in the summer window.
Young Player of the Season- Andy Irving
Youth and Hearts haven’t really gone hand in hand this season, but with Andy Irving just turning 21, he can pass as young, as well as being a very good player.
One of the few players who remained at the club from when Craig Levein was axed, Tynecastle was a toxic place for any player, never-mind a young one, but Irving never hid in games and always looked to get on the ball – more importantly, Irving was always looking to play a forward pass.
Unfortunately, like so many agents, Irving’s seems to be encouraging him to move elsewhere for what will presumably be more money. Hearts have offered Irving a new contract on more than one occasion and the midfielder still hasn’t put pen to paper, meaning it’s likely his days in Gorgie are numbered.
Euan Henderson has shown glimpses of quality, but hasn’t featured enough to get the award, while Harry Stone has been excellent away from Tynecastle and is surely one for the future.
Signing of the Season- Craig Gordon
Fairly simple one really. Had Josh Ginnelly been able to stay fit, he may have provided some competition, but Gordon has been a tremendous signing for Hearts, and you’d imagine he will continue to be worth his weight in points when Hearts return to the top flight next season. Stephen Kingsley has also been a welcome addition in Gorgie, however he hasn’t performed as consistently as Gordon, so the left-back will have to settle for second.
Goal of the Season- Stephen Kingsley vs Dundee
Probably the toughest decision on the card. Hearts have scored some very good goals this season, the majority have been individual ones too.
Craig Wighton’s hat-trick goal against Raith Rovers and Andy Irving’s long-range strikes against Alloa and East Fife are notable mentions, but the winner is Stephen Kingsley, for his freekick against Dundee on the opening night of the season.
It was a wonderful freekick, which I was fortunate enough to have a perfect view of, as the ball curled over the wall and into the top corner of the net. Jack Hamilton was beaten all ends up from a freekick that even dead-ball specialist Denis Prychynenko would’ve been proud of.
Moment of the Season- Victory over Hibs
Everything pointed to a Hibs win in this game. Hearts had only been playing for a number of weeks, whereas it was months for Hibs, and it was, of course, a Premiership side against a Championship side. However, Hearts came out on top in extra time.
It was a massive moment for the fans, but it also seemed a massive step forward for Robbie Neilson, who had struggled in derbies during his first spell as Hearts manager and it seemed like a victory which would’ve bought the Hearts manager time – as we know, derbies mean so much to the supporters.
Moment to Forget- Cup Exits
I almost feel it would be wrong to pick just one of Hearts’ two pathetic cup exits this season. The Brora defeat is, of course, more embarrassing, as they were a Highland League side who hadn’t played competitively in months. However, Alloa’s win over Hearts in the Betfred Cup, their first ever competitive victory against the Jambos, was also a humiliating afternoon.
League defeats to Dunfermline, Raith and Queen of the South were also dark days, as was being completely outplayed in a 3-1 defeat at Dens Park in January.