WHEN the SPFL released this season’s fixtures last June, today’s meeting of Hearts and Rangers immediately stood out as potentially one of the biggest occasions of the campaign.
It was certainly a date which was ringed in red on Robbie Neilson’s calendar – but the Hearts head coach could scarcely have even fantasised over the circumstances in which it has now arrived.
Instead of a Championship title race which he had hoped Hearts would be engaged in for as long as possible with pre-season favourites Rangers, Neilson has overseen a remarkable procession to the silverware his team will collect at full-time this afternoon.
Hearts will kick off 24 points clear of their Ibrox opponents on a day of celebration in Gorgie, one Neilson is determined will not fall flat.
“If you’d said to me at the start of the season that we’d get to the last game of the season and face Rangers at home to win the title, I’d have taken that,” said Neilson.
“I think every Hearts fan would have taken it. Right from the start, Rangers were the team people thought would romp the league. So to do what we have done has been great. But we still need to win this game, it’s as simple as that for me. I’ll relax after the game. Right now, we need to win it. There is still pressure to do that. There is the pressure which comes from the pride of this club and there’s pressure in all the people who are coming from all over the world to see us lift the trophy.
There’s pressure in all the people who are coming from all over the world to see us lift the trophy.Robbie Neilson
“So it’s important we put on a performance and get a victory – because a title party is not the same if you don’t win the game. It becomes a damp squib. So we must make sure we try and get the result.”
Rangers arrive at Tynecastle jostling for position in the play-offs, a nerve-jangling process Neilson is delighted to avoid as he reflects on Hearts’ success in achieving automatic promotion.
“At the start of the season, I didn’t think Rangers would romp it,” he added. “I thought there was a good chance we could compete with them. I thought we would give them a run for their money.
“I felt the hardest bit for us would be the consistency of it. Rangers and Celtic over the years have been consistent in winning games. Even when Rangers dropped to League 2 and League 1, the reason they won those leagues is they won every week.
“The difficult thing for teams and players outside the Old Firm is getting that mentality of just winning, no matter what it takes, just winning. If you can do that, you have a chance of keeping up with them. Thankfully, we managed to do it and Rangers didn’t. That was the difference. It was exciting for a period, until we started building a big lead. But the play-offs are a great idea – as long as you’re not involved in them! From my point of view it’s going to be really exciting.
“But if you are involved in it, it’s going to be really nerve-wracking because you just don’t know what is going to happen. You look at Queen of the South playing against Rangers or Hibs and Palmerston is a difficult place to go. Both teams have lost down there.
“So right away the team people think are going to be the underdogs have a good chance of beating either of them. Then you look at the team from the top league coming down as well, whether it be Rangers or Hibs who they face, the pressure is going to be on them rather than the team from the lower league.”
Neilson has already started planning for next season as he looks to reshape and improve his first-team squad for Hearts’ return to the top flight. The 34-year-old has very clear ideas on what he looks for in potential signing targets.
“I had a meeting this week with two players that I really liked,” Neilson revealed. “I liked one’s character, so we are going to push that forward. I didn’t like the other one’s character, so we cut ties there.
“For me the most important thing is that we have the right type of people come into the club who will, one, work hard and, two, set an example to everyone else here.
“It’s about asking questions to get a feel for people. It’s important as a coach to have a relationship with a player. Right from the start, you can tell if you will or you won’t. If it’s the latter, then I can’t bring them in.
“It doesn’t matter how good they are if they will unsettle the group and won’t be the right player to move the club forward. That side of things is almost more important than ability. Obviously, you get people with good characters who are terrible football players, so you need to get a balancing act. You look for good players who are also good characters and I think we did that last year.
“The recruitment we did for last season was good for us. We made sure, first and foremost, that it was the right characters coming in. That made a big difference to us. With the way we train, it had to be the right players coming in.
“All the guys who came in did really well for us, whether they have played 30 games or five games. They all had a good way about them and understood the situation.”