THE club record six game run without conceding a goal which Hearts went on in the Ladbrokes Premiership before the winter break was all the more remarkable given that it was achieved with the exact same players who looked incapable of keeping weans out of a close before Craig Levein took over.
Levein’s insistence that he had not, despite Jon Daly’s regular jaunts from his vantage point in the directors’ box to the technical area during games, meddled in first team affairs during Ian Cathro’s time in charge had been widely derided before his appointment.
Yet, the change in the Tynecastle club’s style of play and the improvement in results since he has returned have backed up his claim. They have gone from being unable to get a draw with part-time League Two opponents Peterhead away in the group stages of the Betfred Cup to thrashing the mighty Celtic at home in the Premiership.
That 4-0 triumph over the Scottish champions last month was by far the best since he moved from being the director of football to manager at the end of August. But it was by no means a one-off. St. Johnstone have been defeated and Aberdeen and Hibs held to draws. Slowly but surely, his side has climbed the top flight table and they now occupy fifth place.
The fare served up by the Gorgie club along the way has often been of the decidedly stodgy variety. Yes, some of their play against Celtic, who were harried into a succession of defensive blunders, impressed. But the Edinburgh derby last month was downright painful to watch. It was one of three consecutive goalless draws Hearts ground out before the shutdown. You’ll have had your entertainment?
However, there can be no denying the conservative approach which Levein has advocated since swapping his suit for a tracksuit has been effective. Crucially, it has shown an appreciation of just what the players he has at his disposal are capable of delivering. Not realising that was what proved to be the downfall of his idealistic and inexperienced predecessor and protégé Cathro.
The emphasis has been firmly on not getting beaten and it has worked. Hearts now have the second best defensive record in the Premiership after only the defending champions having conceded just 19 goals. But six of those were leaked when, for a brief spell, Daly was caretaker. Letting in just 13 in 18 outings is good going by any team’s standards.
Christophe Berra, the Scotland centre half who returned to his boyhood heroes for a second spell in the summer, has been one of the form players in the country as has Jon McLaughlin, the goalkeeper who has displaced Jack Hamilton, while John Souttar, whose play was wildly inconsistent before, has been far more dependable.
But do not be surprised if the displays of his Hearts side improve as well during the second half of the 2017/18 season if Levein is able to strengthen his side significantly during the January transfer window.
The departure of Jamie Walker to Wigan Athletic for £300,000 this week was certainly a setback. The winger was the capital club’s outstanding performer last term. But he has, no doubt as a result of persistent speculation about his future and repeated failed attempts by Rangers to secure his services in the summer window, not been as influential in recent weeks. His mind has seemed elsewhere.
The arrival of Demetri Mitchell from Manchester United on loan is an encouraging start for supporters as is the interest shown in bringing Steven Naismith of Norwich City back to Scotland.
Levein attributed a disappointing 2016/17 campaign to two bad transfer windows and it was hard to argue with him. Many signings bombed spectacularly. Much of the blame for that has been levelled at the then director of football. But he has also been adamant that he did not unduly influence who both Robbie Neilson and Cathro brought in.
The 53-year-old has a decent record in the transfer market over the years. Indeed, he has unearthed a few gems in his time. If he can bolster his side with his own players in the coming fortnight and add some more guile and flair then the resurgence shown by his side should continue. Some style will be added to their new-found substance.