LOOK towards Tynecastle these days and you'll see a set of supporters wrestling with their conscience.

When the Hearts fans consider Gary Locke they see one of their own who's struggling, a young manager who's been dealt a poor hand but found it impossible to put the brakes on his team's headlong descent into the Championship.

The inescapable truth is that Hearts are four points further adrift now than they were when landed with a 15-point SPFL penalty in the summer. Relegation is a certainty. Where doubt remains is around Locke himself. Hearts fans are facing some uncomfortable truths and asking if their boss, even with this dreadfully impoverished squad, should be doing better.

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By the time the season was three weeks old Hearts had clawed their total back from minus 15 points to minus 8. It was impossible to be in the Tynecastle press box on the days when they beat Hibs and Aberdeen and not feel the sense of momentum. The stadium announcer was ticking off the reclaimed points with glee. Back then the message to the likes of struggling St Mirren and Kilmarnock was "we're hunting you down, we're coming to get you". Now all of that seems like aeons ago. The Premiership has become a joyless slog.

The reluctance to criticise Locke is powerful, and it is natural. He is as much a Hearts man as those filling the stands. He took on the job knowing he would be right up against it and knowing, too, that it could damage his reputation and his long-term prospects in management. He's only 38. There wasn't exactly a queue of big-name managers lining up to take over when John McGlynn got the elbow last February.

There were the final 11 games of last season to make an impression. He won four and lost five with a team which still included the likes of Andy Webster, John Sutton and Mehdi Taouil. It was enough to get him the job permanently. Those three and plenty more besides were then stripped out of the squad over the summer and a ban imposed on them making any replacements. He was left with the archetypal threadbare squad.

Locke is a straightforward, uncomplicated football man. He answers questions openly and honestly. His assistant manager, Billy Brown, got on the blower to Radio Scotland this week and tried to take them to task for having the temerity to question and criticise Locke's results this season. Brown was sticking up for his mate, of course, but in fact the comments which irritated him were mild. He would hear worse if he took a seat in the Tynecastle stands or entered its nearby pubs after games.

Even a manager in Locke's unenviable position cannot be immune from scrutiny and, if necessary, from criticism. Any debate around his efforts is entirely legitimate and to his credit Locke himself has never held himself to be above reproach. The commonest complaints are that the team repeats the same sort of mistakes in games, that the midfield is too often overrun, that the defence loses concentration. When they've had good results - notably the two derby wins and two defeats of Aberdeen - it has given ammunition to those who feel they should be coming far closer to those standards every week.

The defence made by his admirers - and forcibly by Brown - is to point at the debris the management team have been left with after the collapse into administration and to assert that no-one could have done any better. By that logic Hearts would still be 19 points adrift even if Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho had been managing them, which defies credibility.

There aren't many Hearts supporters who openly want Locke sacked. There is no stomach to inflict that on one of their own (and it would be a pointless plea because the club are in no financial position to be paying people off). But the Jambos Kickback messageboard has been running a "Should Gary Locke Resign?" online poll which was 75% in favour after several hundred responses yesterday. Many of them see that as the preferred option: Locke leaves, but on his own terms, with head held high.

He will not do so and nor should he. Managing Hearts must have been enormously stressful over the past few months and he is entitled to all the financial protection and security his contract affords, rather than walking away from it without a penny. Locke has had his moments in the job, and still has the chance to deliver something truly sweet by taking the club to the League Cup final by beating John Hughes's Inveness Caledonian Thistle in the semi-final.

The debate about Locke isn't vindictive or thoughtless. What worries supporters isn't relegation - especially now that it is pretty much an inevitability - but next season, and whether their young manager will be good enough to get them back out of a Championship which will include Rangers.