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Now comes the mourning after the night before . . .

AFTER the party comes the hangover and with it often a period of contemplation.

Michael Stewart has acknowledged it is hard to assess the job done by Gary Locke. Picture: SNS
Michael Stewart has acknowledged it is hard to assess the job done by Gary Locke. Picture: SNS

The sheer exuberance among the Hearts supporters following Sunday's win over Hibernian - a high that spilled into Monday if social media is a reliable barometer of such matters - once more underlined that for most football fans there is no greater feeling than beating your oldest rivals. And when those same neighbours have come to your stadium looking to relegate you then the pleasure at having deprived them is magnified even further.

Now, though, there is the comedown. Sunday's victory, no matter how satisfying, will likely prove no more than a temporary stay of execution for Hearts. Starting the season with a 15-point handicap as a punishment for going into administration, relegation was always the most likely outcome for Gary Locke and his players and that will almost certainly prove to be the case. They likely need to win all of their remaining seven matches - starting with Aberdeen at Tynecastle tomorrow night - and hope that St Mirren lose all six of theirs if they are to pull off what would be considered one of the greatest football escape stories of all time.

More realistically, Hearts are on the brink of a return to the second tier of Scottish football for the first time in 31 years. Then comes the time for reflection. Did the points deduction and registration embargo make such an outcome virtually inevitable? Was there more Locke or his players could have done to avoid it? What now? Should Locke remain in charge? Can Hearts put up a sustained challenge to Rangers in the SPFL Championship? Will the squad need a drastic overhaul?

Peering into the future is a fraught business at the best of times but in Hearts' case it is doubly so. Their off-field situation remains precarious as they wait for an administrator in Lithuania to confirm the 50% shareholding held by UBIG can be transferred to the Foundation of Hearts, thus allowing the club to escape the spectre of liquidation.

Michael Stewart acknowledges that uncertainty but does not allow it to deter him from offering his typically forthright views on what has gone on at Hearts this season and what could happen next. The former Hearts player, and boyhood fan, has sympathy for Locke and the circumstances he has to work in but feels there are still things he and his players could have done better during a tumultuous campaign.

"If things had been slightly different I think they could have avoided relegation personally," he said. "Throughout the season I have been fairly critical in that they have given away far too many goals on a regular basis, making the same mistakes. Those kind of things can be ironed out on the training pitch and I don't think they have been.

"I look at things from an analytical perspective and there have been things that happened through the course of the season that could have been done better."

There was sympathy for Locke, a Hearts man operating in his first managerial role to a backdrop of constant turmoil, but with it the assertion that "sentiment doesn't go very far in football". On whether Locke should remain as manager, Stewart was unusually non-committal.

"It's very difficult to try to qualify how well Gary has done," he added. "In terms of next season there really is only one person [Ann Budge, Hearts' prospective new chief executive] that's going to make that decision [on whether Locke should stay on], if and when she gets control of the club. Yes, it would be very harsh if he was removed from his job but unfortunately that is the nature of the beast."

Stewart also felt there had been too much focus on getting the points handicap wiped out. "I would have had league tables plastered around the changing rooms at Tynecastle without the minus 15 points. You can take them off at the end of the season. Psychologically, if you are looking at the table and seeing yourself in the top half of the league, you start to think: 'Hey, we're not the worst team in the league.' But, when you are continually seeing yourself 15 or 20 points adrift, that can be demoralising."

Should Hearts' off-field problems be resolved positively, the focus will switch to the job required to prepare the team for next season. Stewart dismissed the idea that a young squad would need overhauled extensively but admitted there would need to be some changes if Hearts were to offer Rangers serious competition for the title.

"There are good players there," he added. "With a year's experience in the Premiership, if they manage to keep most of them and manage to get out of administration and add a couple of players, they would be competitive in the Championship. I don't think anyone will argue that Rangers are going to be the huge favourites next year to get promoted again but the great thing now about the new set-up is that you have the opportunity through the play-offs to get another crack at the whip."

n Michael Stewart was at Linlithgow Academy to launch the TSB Football Travel Fund. To apply for a travel grant, go to abouttsb.co.uk/travelfund

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