IT IS a notion that was glossed over by head coach Robbie Neilson yesterday, but winger Jamie Walker admitted it was one that held sway in the Hearts dressing room: that the Tynecastle club’s impressive run of unbeaten form had contributed to the downfall of Rangers manager Ally McCoist.
While the Tynecastle side have exited all three cup competitions early, promotion has been the priority from the start of the season and a sixth successive league victory this evening in their rearranged trip to face Cowdenbeath would lengthen their undefeated sequence in the league to 17 matches – a run in which they have dropped points only to Dumbarton and Hibs. More significantly, it would extend their advantage over second-placed Rangers to a formidable 12 points.
While it could be argued that Hearts’ task has been made easier by the seemingly endless chaos engulfing the Ibrox club, Walker contends that the near-flawless way Hearts have approached the battle for the Championship following last season’s relegation had focused the spotlight more strongly than might otherwise have been the case on McCoist and his largely unimpressive side.
“It’s impossible not to notice what is happening there,” said 21-year-old Walker, who became a father to son Jace earlier this month.
“There’s a lot of instability there, which has helped us. A few of the boys were saying their manager going was because we have been doing so well. They’ve lost a few games but if we hadn’t been going as well then it wouldn’t have seemed quite so bad for them.”
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Hearts’ ultimately successful emergence from the disastrous Vladimir Romanov era, where reckless spending put the club on the brink of extinction, contrasts wildly with the soap opera being played out in Govan. As the club continues to rebuild after a year in administration, Neilson is well placed to sympathise with McCoist.
“I do feel for Ally,” he said. “He’s a nice guy, I spoke to him a lot in the Scotland set-up, and it’s obviously never nice to see somebody step down from their position. But that’s football. It’ll come to us all. It’s not great when you see it but, then, Kenny McDowall has the opportunity to step in – and I’m sure Ally will continue in the game to some extent.”
Asked whether he thought Hearts’ form had played a part in McCoist’s departure, Neilson contradicted his players’ thinking. “I don’t think a lot of it has to do with us,” he responded. “It’s got nothing to do with how we’ve been going. We don’t sit here thinking we’ve done this or influenced that. We can only affect what we do day to day. If other clubs are looking at us, that’s up to them.”
Neilson was seen as a surprise choice to work under director of football Craig Levein when new owner Ann Budge’s regime began in the summer, but the former stalwart defender has proved an inspired choice for the dugout and is benefiting on the pitch from the solidity being displayed off it. Neilson believes Hearts’ current state will be attracting covetous looks from rivals.
“We’re all working in the same direction,” said the 34-year-old. “There are no parties trying to pull us apart or anything like that. So, yeah, we’re probably in the best shape we’ve been for a long, long time.
“I think we are possibly the envy of a lot of clubs, although there are a lot of good clubs out there – stable clubs who have gone through a lot of financial heartache.”
Hearts’ opponents tonight, Cowdenbeath, have their own monetary concerns but will benefit this evening from the visit of the league leaders. Hearts have sold out all available tickets for the re-arranged trip to Central Park, a ground far removed from the ones they have been used to frequenting for the past three decades.
It is for that very reason that Neilson took his first-team squad to Cowdenbeath during their pre-season preparations and he is optimistic that jaunt will bear fruit on a night he believes could test his players as much as any outing they have made in the league this term.
“I think this game is every bit as big a challenge as going to Ibrox – it’s just a different sort of challenge,” he said.
“The emphasis is on us to go and win the game, handle the stadium and the conditions, and so far we’ve handled everything that’s been thrown at us. We need to carry on like that. I never want to lose the unbeaten run anywhere – Cowdenbeath, Easter Road or Ibrox. We want to continue winning games.”
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