THE last time Hearts played Celtic in a cup tie they suffered their worst home defeat in 40 years. That was last December, when the Tynecastle team lost 7-0 in a Scottish Cup match that was the lowest point of Gary Locke’s time as manager.
However, Locke’s successor, Robbie Neilson, will have no fears of anything quite so humiliating when he takes his team to Parkhead on League Cup duty next month. Of course Celtic will be favourites, as they are for every game they play domestically, but Neilson believes so much has changed at Hearts since last December’s humiliation that there is no reason to worry about a repeat.
Indeed, when Wednesday’s third-round draw paired the Edinburgh club with Celtic, the memories of many Hearts fans might well have gone back to their club’s last two journeys to the east end of Glasgow on League Cup business. Seven years ago, two Andrius Velicka goals were enough to take Hearts through to the semi-finals, while in another last-eight meeting in 2009 a Michael Stewart penalty gave the visitors the win.
“It is a totally different environment this time,” Neilson said yesterday when reminded of that 7-0 match. “The club has changed ownership. We have new, positive players at the club.
“I won’t be seeing that as a marker for where we are now. This is a very different team and hopefully we can go there and put on a good performance. They’re the best team in Scotland and it will be a good measure of where we are in our progress.
“It’s a great draw. It will be a good experience for us. We are under no illusions that it will be a really difficult game going there – Celtic are a side packed with international-class players, and it will be a challenge. But it’s a wonderful opportunity for these young players to play at a big venue, and we’ll try to go and play some football.”
Hearts have made no secret of the fact that the Championship is their absolute priority this season, and they proved that by fielding a very young side when they lost 4-1 to Livingston in the Petrofac Training Cup. A stronger yet still less than full-strength line-up prevailed over Stenhousemuir on Tuesday night, but there is no hard-and-fast policy about how many frontline players to rest in the League Cup, and in any case Neilson will wait until far nearer the time before deciding on what squad he should select for the Celtic game.
“There are still nine games before we go there, so our strongest team on Saturday probably won’t be our strongest team against Celtic,” he explained. “I change the team regularly and rarely keep the starting line-up for any of the games, because we change formation and how we play based on the opposition. We have players that can adapt to that. I’ll leave it until a week or two before the game before I think about the kind of team I put out.
“I don’t think the players fear anything. They’re a confident group and there’s an excellent atmosphere among them at the moment. They believe in their ability and, combined with preparing properly, that will give us the best chance of getting something out of the game.”
Hearts return to league duty tomorrow when they welcome Falkirk to Tynecastle, and Neilson expects a tough challenge from a side who won last weekend in the capital, when a Rory Loy goal gave them the points against Hibs. “They’re a good team – I’ve watched them a few times and I know a fair few of their players well. They’ve also brought in a bit of experience in the summer. I was at Falkirk a few years ago, so I know that they’re all good young players. It will be a very difficult game.
“Conor McGrandles [who has just left Falkirk for Norwich] is a good example of what they do there. He’s a great kid. I remember him from my time there, and he was always a wonderful talent. I’m really pleased for him.
“It’s great for Falkirk as well. They’re a club which is consistently producing young talent – they have a great academy and good coaches. Conor’s a good type too – a really hard- working young lad, and he has a great opportunity now.”
Although many people see the Championship as a three-way fight among Hearts, Rangers and Hibs, Neilson does not think the league race will necessarily be so clear-cut, and warned that Falkirk’s challenge should not be discounted. “They certainly have not been overlooked by us. They’re a good team and they’ve already proved this season they’re a good team. It’s up to us on Saturday to make sure we’re a better team than them.”
Callum Paterson is still out injured, but otherwise Neilson can call on his strongest squad for the game. James Keatings has suffered no lasting effects after being taken off injured at Stenhousemuir in midweek and will compete with Osman Sow for a place up front. Dutch striker Soufian El Hassnaoui was an unused substitute in that 2-1 win and could be on the bench again, although given the form of the players ahead of him he may have to wait another couple of weeks before getting a chance to impress.