Robbie Neilson is nothing if not thorough. The Hearts head coach has left little to chance as Hearts continue preparations for this weekend’s Championship opener against Rangers at Ibrox.
While some might have blanched at the prospect of taking charge of their first league game as manager at Rangers’ ground, Neilson is delighted. He remarked yesterday that going to Ibrox contains no fears. This is not because Rangers are now a different proposition to what they once were. Even in the club’s pomp, Neilson relished playing at Ibrox. He expects his young charges to feel the same.
Indeed, Neilson has few worries on this front. One thing he assured reporters yesterday is that his team will be ready for whatever happens, and so it sounds. “I like to be prepared for anything,” he smiled yesterday.
The head coach has already revealed that they have been training in 10 v 11 set-ups in the event of either side suffering a red card this weekend. Neilson proved he is already well-practised in the art of management by calling for strong refereeing on Sunday.
“It is important we do that, especially before going to Ibrox, which is a place in the past [where] we have had a lot of men sent off,” he said. “I would always make sure players are disciplined and not sent off but sometimes it is out of your hands. I am saying everyone is influenced by the Ibrox crowd. If you go to a big venue we are all influenced. It does not matter if you are a fan or a manager sitting on the touchline or a player or a referee. If you see something and there is a roar behind it, then it can influence you.”
Neilson has watched all Rangers’ pre-season games – including ones streamed from their tour to the United States. He was there in person on Tuesday night to see Hibs lose to Rangers in the Petrofac Training Cup tie at Ibrox. It was a worthwhile mission since, once Hearts negotiate their first league engagement on Sunday, they then host Hibs in an eagerly awaited derby next weekend.
The two teams form what most expect will be Hearts’ main title challengers and so to face both teams in the opening week provides an opportunity the Tynecastle side to lay down a marker. Rangers are the bookies’ favourites to finish top of the league and gain automatic promotion back to the Premiership.
Asked whether he, too, considers the Ibrox club to be the side Hearts will need to finish above, Neilson said: “It is always the same with the Old Firm. People say they will run away with this and run away with that but it is up to us to try and do our own thing. We feel that the way we are doing things and with the players we have here, we can definitely give them a run for their money.
“I see [Sunday] as an opportunity to go and perform, for the boys to go there and try and implement what we have been trying to do in pre-season. I don’t think there was ever a fear factor [about going to Ibrox], to be honest. I used to enjoy going there. I think the majority of players do. It is a nice pitch, nice environment, a good stadium to play football..
“From my point of view, I never felt any added pressure. The big pressure for me was when you went to the lesser grounds, the places where you turned up and there were 200-300 people there. It was then you needed to make sure you performed. But, at places like Ibrox, there are 50,000 people there and you can guarantee your focus is there right away.
“Everyone is talking about it,” he continued. “As soon as the fixtures came out the press were talking about how we go to Ibrox first game and how it’s a big marker. So everyone wants to be in the team. We have got guys who have played a lot of games and at a young age have played big environments. They have played in semi-finals of the League Cup, Scottish Cups and big derby games and at Parkhead, so they know what it is about. I have no worries about putting them in.”
Neilson was offered an illustration on Tuesday as to why he has been so keen to work on scenarios in training where a team outnumbers their opponents. A harsh sending off for Danny Handling meant Hibs were reduced to ten men at a crucial period of the game. The incident also highlighted another point made by Neilson yesterday – the start of the season is when mistimed tackles are more likely.
Handling was punished for a poor challenge in the middle of the park and Neilson had warned his players about making sure they do not give referees the opportunity to book them or, worse, send them off. The Tynecastle club have had players red carded on three of their last six trips to Ibrox.
“Usually, in the first four or five games people are not quite at it, they mistime things and can’t get where they want to be,” he said. “It’s always at the start of the season when you have to be careful about rash challenges and things like that.”