HEARTS and Rangers may not be too far apart at the top of the Championship, but when it comes to the state of the two clubs, there is a chasm between them.
At the end of yet another week in which the financing and administration of Ibrox has been the subject of claim and rancorous counter-claim, the mood at Tynecastle could hardly be more different.
Come lunchtime today, the old Gorgie ground will be bouncing as the home team try to stretch their unbeaten league run to 14 games.
But yesterday something close to serenity prevailed, as Robbie Neilson prepared for another day with his customary attention to detail. Of course, there is no guarantee at all that a club which is run smoothly off the park will get the better on the pitch of a shambolically run opponent. Even so, there is little doubt that Hearts, by dint of their meticulous planning behind the scenes, have given themselves the best possible chance of thriving on the field.
Under Neilson and director of football Craig Levein, they have recruited astutely and produced a team characterised by its unity of purpose. And, thanks in large part to executive chairwoman Ann Budge, that unity also extends to the supporters, who probably feel closer to their club now than at any time since the mid-1980s.
“There’s a real spirit of togetherness,” Neilson said yesterday about his team. “You saw that in the second half last week against Falkirk. The end of the game was difficult and it was starting to get physical, and they looked after each other, protected each other, which was pleasing.”
Extra training sessions have given Hearts greater fitness and ensured they finish matches stronger than many of their rivals. Along with that enhanced physical strength has come a greater mental resilience which has helped them get results even when they have been below their best.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
“I think it’s just something that develops over time,” Neilson said of that mental strength. “The start of the season” – when a last-minute goal by Osman Sow gave Hearts a win at Ibrox – “probably helped it. They’ve been winning games when they’ve been doing well and when they’ve not been doing well. That breeds confidence, and a belief. At Alloa and Hibs we scored last-minute goals, so there’s always a belief.
“I think there’s a belief there we can go and win it. We understand it’s going to be very difficult: Rangers are a big club with a lot of history and a lot of support and international players – good, experienced players.
“But we believe that we can do it. Every day we come in and work hard – they just want to improve every day until we can win the title. Hopefully we can do it.”
When Neilson addresses the media, he is at times so softly spoken as to be almost inaudible. The content of his conversation reflects the way in which it is delivered: he is not interested in asserting himself in pre-match press conferences, preferring to deliver his message undramatically. It is an example he likes his players to follow.
“We’ve said along that, even the guys that come along and speak to the press, we try to make sure that they stay dignified in what they’re saying, be humble in what they’re saying,” he explained. “Because we realise that the club, a year ago, was in real financial difficulty.
“The fans backed us to the hilt when we were struggling in the league. We’re not going to turn round within the space of the year and say we’re going to do this or we’re going to do that, start shouting our mouth off. We need to be dignified in what we do.
“The fans stick with us. There’s a real togetherness and an effort to get back to the way it was ten or 15 years ago, when it was a real community club. The Foundation [of Hearts] have been brought in, we’re looking at starting satellite centres in the schools, getting really involved and being part of the community. Ann Budge has had a massive influence on that. If we can do that kind of thing, the fans will support us even more.
“We have an idea of where we want to go and a plan of what we want to see. The things that Ann is putting together, along with Craig Levein, will be great for the future of the club.
“What we don’t want is fans just turning up on a Saturday and that’s it, the be all and end all of it. It has to be something that is in their day-to-day to life, something that’s in their community, that we give them something back.”
Rangers, like Hearts, have scored a lot of late goals in games. But the home team play at a consistently higher tempo, and Neilson thinks that, with that last-gasp win at Ibrox to inspire them, they can stretch their lead to nine points today.
“I think it does matter that we’ve beaten Rangers. In football, in life, if you’ve beaten someone then the next time you face them you’ll feel that confidence that you can do it again. I think there is a belief that, this week, we can do it again.”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS