THE Hearts supporters who will make their way along the M8 to Glasgow today will do so in buoyant spirits.

The Tynecastle club, who will take on new cinch Premiership leaders Rangers at Ibrox this afternoon, have just won eight games on the spin and gone 12 games undefeated for the first time since 2018.

They are now 14 points ahead of Kilmarnock in the league table with 12 matches remaining and securing third place in the top flight, and qualification for the second qualifying round of the Europa League, seems virtually assured.

With their captain Lawrence Shankland in the form of his life – the Scotland internationalist has netted 14 times in his last 12 appearances and taken his overall tally for the 2023/24 campaign to 26 – hopes are high among the Jambos faithful that their heroes can record a draw and possibly even a victory.

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They were certainly unfortunate not to do so on their last visit to Govan at the end of October. It took a last minute James Tavernier penalty and an injury-time Danilo winner to deny them a result on that occasion.

And they had no difficulties beating defending champions Celtic at Parkhead in December. A Shankland header and a Stephen Kingsley free-kick in the opening half an hour ultimately wrapped up three deserved points for the visitors.

The Herald: Yes, the capital club, who announced they had achieved a record turnover of £20.8m and made a profit of £298,000 in the last financial year back in November, are in rude good health both on and off the park at the moment.

Their fans are certainly counting the minutes until their derby encounter with their Edinburgh rivals Hibernian - who are not quite falling apart again, but have not won in the Premiership since edging out bottom-placed Livingston 1-0 at the Tony Macaroni Arena on December 9 - in Gorgie on Wednesday evening.  

But is this as good as it gets for Hearts? They are currently 13 points adrift of Rangers and 11 behind Celtic. Could they ever get into a position where they could split the Glasgow behemoths? Could they ever again launch a credible challenge for the Scottish title?

There is, due to the vastly superior budgets which Celtic and Rangers have to both buy and pay their players, certainly no expectation or pressure on a club which last won the Premiership, or the First Division as it was then, way back in 1960 to do so.

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Just getting a win today and damaging their opponents’ prospects of finishing first in the top flight come May would be celebrated wildly by their followers. It would seal a historic double. Hearts last prevailed at Parkhead and Ibrox in the same term in the league way back in the 1985/86 season. 

That fateful campaign was also the last occasion they seriously threatened to lift the league trophy. Graeme Souness took over at Ibrox that summer, promptly went out and signed the England captain and goalkeeper and changed Scottish, and probably British, football forever.

Across Europe today, in the major leagues anyway, it is the biggest clubs with the deepest pockets who routinely finish first. The likes Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Feyenoord, Liverpool, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Porto, PSV, Real Madrid and Sporting Lisbon, regularly turn the title races in their countries into one or two horse affairs.

There are, though, exceptions. Leicester City famously won the Premier League down south in 2016 despite having a squad which cost just £54.4m to assemble and a wage bill which was dwarfed by those of the vast majority of their rivals. 

In Germany this season, Bayer Leverkusen have gone undefeated in all competitions and romped into a commanding eight point lead in the Bundesliga. The BayArena club lavished €90m on nine new players. Still, with Moussa Diabby joining Aston Villa in a €55m transfer and others departing, their net spend was just €20m.

The Herald: That is washers in the Fatherland and a fraction of what Bayern have splashed out. The Allianz Arena outfit, who have lifted the Meisterschale 11 years running, have brought in Harry Kane from Spurs for €100m and Kim Min-jae from Napoli for €50m as well as Sacha Boey from Galatasaray for €30m last month. 

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Leverkusen, who were dubbed Neverkusen by the English media when they squandered a five point Bundesliga lead with three games remaining and then lost the Champions League final to Real at Hampden in the 2001/02 season, still have much work to do. It will be true to form if they blow it.

Still, they have, just as Leicester did, shown what can be achieved against far richer rivals with a good manager, shrewd recruitment, an effective system and a passionate fanbase in the past six months.

There is great excitement in this country at the moment about the Premiership not being a procession for the first time since 2011. Can Rangers maintain their charge? Can Celtic get their act together? It will be compelling viewing in the coming months finding out.

It would be wonderful if Hearts could build on the progress they have made in recent years and get themselves into the mix in the future. It is a tall order. Failing to do so will be no disgrace. But they should draw inspiration from Leicester and Leverkusen and dare to dream.