FOR some people, hiring the pitch at Alloa in advance of their league game there today was a cunning ruse by Hearts. For Robbie Neilson, it was plain common sense.
It is an illustration of the forethought at the Tynecastle club this season that booking Recreation Park – which is available for general public hire – was no last-minute decision. Instead, it was made before the Championship even started, as Neilson and director of football Craig Levein plotted their campaign for an immediate return to the top flight.
“It’s a pitch you can hire out – it’s open to the public,” Neilson said yesterday. “We knew as soon as the fixtures came out that we were going to hire it. It was part of the preparation – if we can do it, we’ll do it. If we could hire every other pitch in the Championship on a Wednesday I would do it as well.
“It is a different surface. We went there on Wednesday to get used to it – it’s older than the Queen of the South one. But it’s flat, it’s green and it’s got lines on it. So it’ll do fine for us.
“A lot of our players were brought up on it and are used to it. I spoke to some of them after it and they actually enjoyed playing on it. AstroTurf pitches are quite beneficial for us.”
Asked if he would happily hire out Tynecastle to other teams, Neilson replied: “No. But Alloa were great with us – they allowed us to do it.” He knows, however, that no such hospitality will be offered today, as Barry Smith’s team bid to continue an impressive run of form in which they have already taken points from the other two members of the Championship’s big three.
“It’s a tough place to go,” Neilson continued. “That’s one of the reasons we went there – to get used to it.
“Rangers drew 1-1, Hibs got beat 2-1 – we’ve watched those games. Alloa are hard to break down, they’re stuffy, they work hard, they sit in and make it difficult for you.
“So it’s going to be very difficult for us. It could be similar to last week, when for the first half-hour it was 100 miles an hour. We need to slow it down a little bit then hopefully our quality will come through.”
Should Hearts win or draw today, they will have completed the first round of fixtures without defeat. It would be an impressive achievement, but one which Neilson is disinclined to dwell on.
“It’s nice, but there’s still three rounds to go. It’s important that we take care of this game and then the Dumbarton game after that. There’s no point in saying ‘Right, now we’ve won the first round of fixtures that’s us done and dusted’. It’s a long, long season and we’re not even a quarter of the way through yet, so we must make sure that we continue to do things right.
“I don’t think we look at the [unbeaten] run – we just look at the next game and try and win it. I know winning games builds momentum, but there’s a confidence in there already.”
Given Hearts’ record, there was widespread surprise at this week’s news that Neilson had not been voted Championship Manager of the Month again, with the award going instead to Alan Stubbs of Hibernian. But, while the award baffled many Hearts fans as well as supporters of other clubs, Neilson himself suggested that his city rival could be seen as a worthy winner.
“I like Alan, I’ve spoken to him a lot, and he had some good results last month to be fair. He’s done very well – good result against Ross County, good result at Rangers that did us a turn.
“I’m pleased for him. We obviously had a good month as well, but we lost at Celtic and dropped points at Dumbarton. Alan and his assistants are doing well at the moment.”
Unsurprisingly, Hearts striker Dale Carrick offered a different opinion, arguing that the case for his own boss was far stronger. “He’s done everything right,” he said. “We’re undefeated [in the league] and scoring goals, and I think he should have got [the award] again.
“We’re getting better and better with each game. People probably expected us to slip up at somewhere like Queen of the South last weekend, but that’s the sort of thought that we thrive on. We want to prove people wrong and show that we go to places like that, play well and get the results we want.”
Carrick is in the running to start alongside Osman Sow up front today, with Soufian El Hassnaoui possibly dropping to the bench. James Keatings is still making his way back from injury and will not be risked.