Alexander insists Tynecastle side won’t struggle with step up in class thanks to impressive head coach
Those who achieve the most don’t recognise success as a full stop, merely a comma before they head to the next challenge. For Hearts that is the quest that awaits them this term. Their emphatic romp to glory in last season’s Championship was widely lauded and saw manager Robbie Neilson earmarked as a close contender for manager of the year in his first full campaign in charge. The ascent to the Premiership gives both him and his players the opportunity to test themselves further and reinforce their credentials while targeting ambitions as lofty as a top-six finish and even qualification for Europe as well as silverware in their return to Scottish football’s top tier.
But, while not underestimating the size of the task at hand, Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander believes that his manager will have no problem justifying the praise and plaudits heaped upon him last season.
“I think any manager is always out to prove things, and Robbie has already proved to people what a good manager he is from what he achieved last season. He will want to improve and get better – and he will do that with the more experience he gets in the job. This will be a new test for him this season, up against better opposition, but I have been so impressed by him as a manager from the minute he walked through the door.
“He is one of the best young managers and coaches I have ever seen in football – and I have been around the game for a long time. I really can’t speak highly enough of him. I see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes and how he deals with things and I have been immensely impressed by him.
“His work ethic, the hours he puts in behind the scenes, his dedication, his methods on the training pitch – all of these are absolutely first-class. I have no doubts whatsoever that he is going to go on and become a really top manager one day. He deserves all the plaudits that come his way. His attention to detail is so good, he leaves nothing to chance. Before the game, during the game and after the game – he is always looking at ways to improve the team and make us better.”
Robbie is one of the best young managers and coaches I have ever seen in football
That has included a revised approach to summer fitness for most of the youngsters in the squad, allowing him to welcome them back to full pre-season training as stronger contenders for a first-team place, it has also included another meticulous scouring of European and domestic leagues seeking out the players he requires for the latest jigsaw puzzle. He has retained players he considered key and brought in others who he feels will complement them. The proof will be in the Premiership results and Alexander says that any new additions have big shoes to fill, but he is buoyed by the attitude and attributes of those who have stayed and those who have been added.
“I think top six is a realistic target. We are not getting carried away by saying that we are going to be challenging Celtic for the title or anything like that. It will be a big step up for some of the boys, particularly in terms of strength and physicality, but we definitely feel as though a top-six finish is well within our capabilities.
“There are no gimmies in the Premiership. It’s really tough and you know that you are in for a battle in each and every game. But we know we have a good squad.”
The aim is to push on from last term, where they benefitted from a scorching start and never really looked back. A similar start would be welcomed by Alexander, who says the fixture list renders it a reasonable ambition.
“It’s great to see the club back in the Premiership – that’s where Hearts should be. We put the hard work in last season to get the job done in the Championship and this is our reward – to be back in the Premiership. Some of the boys have now had the experience both of being relegated, and also winning promotion and being champions. I’m sure they prefer the latter. They have had a year’s experience of playing in the Championship week in, week out, and that will certainly benefit them. So they will be confident, they know what they can do and what kind of ability they possess, and they need to keep that up and continue to go out and express themselves. We will be up against much better opposition this season – but that’s a good thing. That’s the only way you are going to improve. It’s a huge challenge for our boys – but I know they are capable of stepping up to the mark.
“We don’t play Celtic, Aberdeen or Dundee United in any of our first six games next season, so that gives us a great chance to get some points on the board and build some confidence. You’ve got to be looking to beat the teams who you expect will be in and around you in the league table, so it’s definitely a good start for us in terms of the fixtures and we are all raring to go and get started.”