That third-placed finish of last season in the Premiership feels like a distant memory. To be fair to Aberdeen, they are a new team, having made 13 new signings, but they and manager Barry Robson are coming under increasing pressure. Five games into the current campaign and they are joint-bottom with St Johnstone on two points, separated only by goals scored. This is their worst start to the league since the 1999/2000 season under Ebbe Skovdahl, when they finished bottom of the pile.
Robson is convinced that Aberdeen’s fortunes will change once his new players gel, but with the Dons about to embark on a gruelling run of Thursday-Sunday matches due to their involvement in the Europa Conference League group stages, it is not going to be easy. Bundesliga cracks Eintracht Frankfurt await on Thursday. A difficult evening is in prospect in Germany.
Europe is far from Aberdeen’s main concern, though. On the domestic front, the Dons have not won at Hearts since 2017, 11 visits ago, so it was always going to be a tall order for this fledgling team to storm Tynecastle and take all three points back up the A90. Yet it is clear that they are big issues for Robson to address. His star striker of last season, Duk, was once again ineffective and has not scored this season. In midfield, the departure of Ylber Ramadani over the summer has hit the team hard, too easily dominated in that domain. And at the back, all five defensive players arrived over the summer in Nicky Devlin, James McGarry and centre-halves Slobodan Rubezic, Richard Jensen and debutant Stefan Gartenmann. Despite the defeat, they were the most solid players.
Going into this match, Hearts needed the points almost as badly as Aberdeen. The opening-day victory over St Johnstone felt like an eternity ago. Diminished by their own Conference League qualifying campaign, the Tynecastle outfit took the opportunity over the two-week break to re-title Steven Naismith as head coach and work hard in training. Lined up in a 4-2-3-1, they were cohesive, structured and played with a plan. Once Yutaro Oda’s opener on 14 minutes, a shot that viciously deflected off McGarry past Kellee Roos, went in, Hearts settled and took control. Aberdeen were largely toothless and Liam Boyce’s second goal, on 64 minutes, sealed the deal, pouncing on a rebound after Roos had done well to stop a deflected cross beating him.
Robson managed to stay upbeat despite the vicious reception his team were given at the end of proceedings. "100 per cent,” he replied if he understood their ire. “We want to win football matches. I think they know that. We are a work in progress. That was a whole new back five today. We tried to change it at half-time, but you could see a lack of cohesion with us. We tried to work on it a little bit during the international break but we had a lot of them away. I've been at this club a long time. I've seen the fans and rightly so, they want to see us win the game and obviously we never.”
He was also bullish on his teams prospects going forward. “I'm honest enough and smart enough to know that you need results even with the hard start,” he said. “We've obviously taken in 13 new players. But all of that doesn't count for much because we need to get results. We need to improve and get better at both ends - and we will. We're all trying to get to know each other. Some of them are trying to understand the league. Some of the ones who have been here probably need to start hitting some form. And I think once they do start hitting form, I'm really comfortable with the squad the players we've got here, there's a good team there. They will click and they will get going. We just need to make sure that it is sooner rather than later.”
Failure to do that and it won’t just be the fans’ patience that will be tested. Robson will not have much time on the training ground, given the European commitments coming up. A double header against Ross County looms, the league clash next Sunday at Pittodrie followed by a Viaplay Cup quarter-final in Dingwall three days later. A win in at least one of those matches can take the heat down a notch.
Hearts and Naismith have already done that, though. Disgruntlement had been sweeping through the Gorgie fanbase but this result, and parts of the performance, should breed optimism. The link-up play between Lawrence Shankland and Boyce in attack appeared promising, while young Costa Rican Kenneth Vargas was a menace out wide. What was most pleasing for Naismith, however, was the performance of the much-maligned Kye Rowles, the Australian reminding everyone of his abilities with an impervious display next to Frankie Kent. Before last year’s World Cup, we saw the best of Rowles, and this was a timely showing of why bigger clubs were taking interest in him less than 12 months ago.
Hearts will now aim to kick on, with a trip to St Mirren next weekend. They are now fifth in the table. For Aberdeen, the only way is up.