Hearts interim manager Steven Naismith stressed he needs his players to start enjoying football again before they can hone in on targets.
Naismith came under fire for saying that third spot in the cinch Premiership was “not the be-all and end-all” in his first media conference as manager and for similar comments after his first game in charge.
Saturday’s Edinburgh derby defeat by Hibernian saw Hearts slip five points adrift of Aberdeen in the race for a position which provides guaranteed European group-stage football.
Naismith’s apparently relaxed approach to league targets was at odds with the club’s decision to sack Robbie Neilson as soon as they dropped to fourth and chief executive Andrew McKinlay’s subsequent comments.
But the former Scotland striker believes he will be “doomed to fail” if he focuses too much on final placings at this stage.
He told Sky Sports News: “From the club’s point of view, third is the aim. It’s got to be the aim because two or three years ago we were in the Championship, strides have been made, you get the taste of European football and then what comes with that is expectation.
“Now the club have got to strive to be better. In the background there is loads of good stuff going on but, for me, if we don’t win games then you’re not going to be in the mix for that.
“What we have to think about first is enjoying playing football, which then gets you more chances in games and gets you wins.
“We will look come the last few games of the season and say, ‘are we in the pack for it or are we not?’
“If you set it up any other way, I think you are doomed to fail. You can’t look beyond where you are at at this moment in time.
“For me it’s about: first, performance, secondly, getting the result which will come with a good performance, and then when you go into the split you play everyone else anyway. So that’s the telling part of the season really.”
Hearts go into Saturday’s visit of Ross County on the back of six consecutive defeats and Naismith has cautioned it will take time for the players to fully embrace his focus on attacking football.
“Change obviously came and we needed to change things that were happening rather than staying in the rut that we’re in,” he said.
“We have done that. Like I touched on after the game, I felt we defended much more solidly that we had in past games but probably never carried as big a threat as I would like us to have, from where the club have been over the past two years, making strides in terms of attacking football.
“So that’s something we will look to change in the coming weeks.
“That’s the more difficult part because as a player, and I experienced it myself, when things change there’s a part of you that stays in that default mode which has been drilled into you over the past two or three years with the previous manager.
“We are asking them to do things that are different, that are unknown, and they need to grasp that quickly.
“I still think very quickly we can be successful in terms of winning games but it’s not going to be perfect until maybe the last few games of the season.
“But we need to have more good points than negative points in each game.”
Liam Boyce and Beni Baningime are back training following long-term knee injuries but are not taking part in full sessions yet.