Robbie Neilson already knows Hearts fans are hard to please, so hearing the jeers from a minority after last week’s 2-1 Europa League qualifying round win over FC Infonet wasn’t a complete surprise.
But on this occasion the Hearts head coach agrees with the naysayers. While there were mitigating factors – it was Hearts’ first competitive game of a new season, new signings were seeking to bed in – he accepts the performance fell below par.
The head coach welcomed the assessment, viewed in some quarters as being harsh, since it underlined to the players that standards are high at Tynecastle. He himself is already well aware of that having been the focus of a fans’ protest last season despite newly promoted Hearts being third in the league at the time.
“No style, no bottle, Neilson out,” a banner on a plane flown over Tynecastle said. A majority of fans inside the stadium jeered both the sentiment and those behind it, but there is a definite feeling at Tynecastle that winning is not always enough. Neilson welcomes such tough love as it guards against complacency.
The criticism from the stands also helps bolster his argument that Hearts will need to improve to complete the job of overcoming their Estonian opponents in the second leg tomorrow evening.
Hearts have the narrow advantage of a 2-1 lead and can expect a rigorous examination of their ability to defend it in Tallinn. The realisation their team still has a lot to do helped inform the fans’ less-than-ecstatic response at the final whistle last week.
“That’s part of football,” said Neilson, with reference to those grumbles. “We accept the performance wasn’t great. We spoke in the dressing room about it.
“It’s up to us to put on a performance and energise the fans. The fans come along and they want to see football being played well and we didn’t hit the levels we’re used to.
“But you want to have that expectation. I’d far rather be at a club where they’re always pushing and always trying to improve than somewhere that’s just happy with mediocrity.
“We want to be a team that’s trying to push in the league and the Europa League. It’s the standards that have always been at this club. Even in the Championship where we had to win games. You get promoted then last year again we had to win games and it’ll be the same this year. We have to accept with the praise that comes there’s going to be criticism too.”
But Neilson does not want his players to feel overly anguished. After all, they are still searching for match fitness while their opponents are midway through their domestic season.
The head coach noted that other results in Europe last week were not as might have been predicted before kick-off. Given the different stages at which teams are at in terms of fitness, there is plenty scope for shocks to occur.
He is just determined to make sure Hearts do not feature among the fall-guys after last week’s narrow 2-1 win. Neilson accepts his side will probably need to score at the national stadium in Tallinn tomorrow.
“The hope is we score early, it gives us more of an advantage. We really need to score. We can’t defend a 0-0 because that’s dangerous. You’ve got to remember we were playing against a team in the middle of their season,” he added. “They’re doing really well in their league, had ten days off to prep for it. They were really at it and at the top of their game.
“We were off it and still managed to get a win. The disappointing thing was we didn’t win more convincingly and lost an away goal so we put ourselves under a wee bit more pressure.
“But when you look at the results in the other first-round qualifiers first leg, 2-1 is a decent result. You look at the teams we would possibly play in the next round if we were to go through.
“You’d have put your mortgage on Siroki (Brijeg) going through but they ended up drawing 1-1 at home (v Birkirkara). It just shows these early stages of the competition are really hard to predict.”
While Neilson enjoyed several European excursions with Hearts during his days as a player there are few in the current squad who can claim to be so accustomed to the experience.
“It’s a wee bit different,” acknowledged Neilson. “You’ve got the whole build-up to it. You fly on Tuesday then you go to the stadium and it’s a different environment.
“You’re running through a couple of things for 45 minutes then you have the whole day to prepare for the match in a different environment. But it’s 90 minutes on a football pitch and it’s up to us to perform.”
Neilson has added new striker Robbie Muirhead and midfielder Morgaro Gomis to the squad after minor injuries kept them out of last week’s first leg.