Alan Pattullo: Criticism of Hearts’ Robbie Neilson misplaced

Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson directs his players against Hibs. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson directs his players against Hibs. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS
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When is a draw not a draw? When it comes after losing a two-goal lead in the last 11 minutes of an Edinburgh derby. The record books show that Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has lost only once in five meetings with Hibs since his appointment two summers ago.

However, judging by the reaction of some Hearts fans, Sunday’s draw should be marked down as a second defeat for Neilson, who has now found himself in the 
firing line.

He was quick to anticipate such complaints in the aftermath, pointing out, not unreasonably, that “if we’d been 2-0 down and got back to 2-2 we’d be sitting here delighted, but it’s still the same outcome”.

Nevertheless, the critics are adamant there is no glory whatsoever in Sunday’s result since it involved losing a two-goal lead late on. But then Hearts were not the only team to do this at home last weekend. Liverpool capitulated after being 2-0 up in the last eight minutes against Sunderland on Saturday, when their fans really did have something to complain about.

Not the loss of two late goals; it happens in football. Thousands had already walked out in protest at provisional plans to hike ticket prices to as much as £77.

In the all-too-recent past Hearts, too, have had real reason to become exercised so it is strange to observe such an extreme reaction to Sunday’s result from some quarters. Their side, remember, can further consolidate third place by winning against Ross County tomorrow. Even if the injury and suspension-hit Tynecastle side don’t manage to secure a result in the Highlands, a top three finish seems likely in their first season back in the top flight.

As for the Scottish Cup, as last night’s draw for the quarter-finals (eventually) confirmed, Hearts remain in the mix, even if some need reminding of the fact.

It’s not as if letting slip a two-goal lead is even a new phenomenon in Edinburgh derbies. It has occurred on ten occasions, most recently in 2006, when Hearts were the ones celebrating after two goals by Andrius Velicka claimed a point at Easter Road in the first derby after Tony Mowbray left the post of Hibs manager.

So it can happen. Indeed, in one of the most venerated Edinburgh derby comebacks of all-time, Hearts retrieved a two-goal deficit in injury time, with Graham Weir the perhaps unlikely hero on that occasion. Before Sunday Hearts fans had not felt the sting of such a scenario since 1998, when goals by Andy Walker and Pat McGinlay rescued a point for Hibs who had been 2-0 down.

Because their anguish is so fresh, some Hearts supporters are finding it hard to bear. They are particularly agitated by a second-half performance by their team that seemed designed to hold what they had, rather than build on it in an attempt to kill off the opposition. It’s a fair criticism to an extent.

However, with injuries piling up all around him, Neilson’s hands were tied. A knock meant the end of Prince Buaben’s involvement early on, while Alim Ozturk departed the scene shortly after half-time. The head coach later revealed that Sam Nicholson and Arnaud Djoum, who was replaced with nine minutes left, were also struggling, as was Miguel Pallardo.

Don Cowie, Buaben’s replacement, ended up playing almost the full game despite having made only two appearances since November. Hearts were hardly in prime shape to dictate a match against a Hibs team with nothing to lose in the second-half.

Neilson was unable to make proactive alterations. Rather, he had decisions forced upon him. Otherwise it is highly unlikely Abiola Dauda would have lasted the 90-plus minutes, strike partner Gavin Reilly too. The former in particular struggled with the pace of the game, understandably in view of his recent arrival on loan from Vitesse Arnhem.

It’s hard enough adapting to the Scottish game just days after signing, but being asked to do it in the white-heat intensity of an Edinburgh derby is one decision Neilson might have regretted yesterday as he reviewed the game. Juanma was left on the bench throughout. Osman Sow’s involvement, meanwhile, was restricted to a walk-on part before kick-off, frustratingly for Hearts fans.

Neilson later revealed he 
had never entertained the prospect of playing Sow 
ahead of his lucrative move to China, despite telling the media last week he’d leave the decision up to the player to decide. A concocted story if ever there was designed to keep Hibs guessing about Hearts’ line-up, and one which didn’t really pay off. Alan Stubbs wisely prepared for either eventuality.

But Neilson was right to be circumspect afterwards. Had Niklas Gunnarson’s sliced clearance that clipped the top of the bar been a few inches lower, had Kevin Thomson not been on the line to block a goal-bound header, then Hearts would have been applauded for their character in being able to roar back in dramatic style even after seeing a two-goal lead slip away.

The bonus for the neutral is getting another chance to savour the intoxicating properties of an Edinburgh derby a week today. As Neilson pointed out, it will be all the sweeter to win the tie at Easter Road, as Hearts now must do. Nothing is decided yet, far from it.