Hearts are back bigger, bolder, stronger, but their passing game stays, vows Neilson
WHETHER writing that second novel or recording that difficult second album, attempting to follow up something brilliant is often a daunting task.
Last season we didn’t go two losses on the bounce. This season it could happen so it will be how we handle it
After dominating a Championship which featured the combined might of Rangers and Hibernian, expectations are high for Hearts this term but rather than feel nervous, they are responsible for setting the lofty targets.
Before the last campaign had even finished they were already predicting a top-six finish this term, with bookies tapping into that self-belief and making them favourites to finish as high as third. Now, as he prepares to open their campaign with a home match against St Johnstone this afternoon and with his squad fully assembled following the arrival of Nigerian Juwon Oshaniwa, Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson remains confident that his newly-promoted charges can make their mark.
“It’s going to be a difficult game,” said Neilson. “You are looking at a team that have qualified for Europe three years on the bounce and been Scottish Cup winners. They are an experienced team, with an experienced manager. They will come to Tynecastle, they haven’t been for a few years, it will be packed and they will lift their game for it, so it will be a really tough game.
“I feel I have a far superior squad [from last season], more experience, physically and mentally as well. I am pleased with it. We’ve brought in a lot of new faces, so it’s trying to get them bedded into the team and trying to get them to understand how we want to play. They’re good players so I don’t think it will take long. It will be a similar style to last season. We’ll pass the ball, but you need to win games. That’s it.”
An early climax to last season has given Hearts more time than others to plan, make additions and get into their pre-season briskly with the aim of developing that understanding.
There have been a few injuries and some under-par performances but the coaching staff are realistic. They know that the Premiership is a step up but say that good habits learned last season can still be utilised.
“I think the mentality of winning every week – and having to win every week – will be great,” said Neilson. “Because things will be more difficult this year. Last season we didn’t go two losses on the bounce. This season it could happen, so it will be [a question of] how we react to it. There will be a lot of learning curves for us this season. If we can go through the season only having one loss on the bounce and then winning the next week it will be great, but I don’t foresee it.”
That will be the challenge for the young coach in his second term as the Tynecastle boss. He also has to suss out new opposition and pit his wits against new dugout foes.
But he is resisting the temptation to rip everything up and start again. If something isn’t broken, he isn’t about to fix it.
“We will just do exactly what we did last season, prepare properly, work hard and try and get the players all the information to prepare them as best as we can and hopefully that will get us to where we want to be.
“It’s good to go and watch different games. We spent a lot of time last year at Championship games and we didn’t pay a lot of attention till the last month or two of the season to the Premier. Over the course of the close season, we have spent a lot of time at games watching them. It gives us more opportunity to give the players information.”
Some observers point to the only two meetings with Premiership opposition last term, both cup ties against Celtic, and suggest that the gap between the Championship and the top flight may be greater than Hearts anticipate, but Neilson says that while it is not about one-off games, his men do need to up the levels, finding the grit, the ability and the stamina to last a season, which is why he has brought in bigger, older and bolder players who, he says, are equipped to deal with the challenge ahead.
“The gap is consistency. In the Premier, you have to do it every week, whereas last season in the Championship we could be at 70-80 per cent and still win games. This season we will have to be at it every week, 90-95 per cent minimum to get a result. That’s going to be the tough one for us. Last season, we could play Rangers and Hibs and then have two or three weeks where if we weren’t quite at it we would still get the result, whereas this season it could be Celtic, Dundee United, Aberdeen, away to Inverness, Ross County on the bounce. It’s tough games, so it’s important that the consistency is there.
“We’re not going to get carried away. We’ve just been promoted, so we’re not going to say ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to do that’. We want to get into the top six, and if we do, then great. If we don’t, then we’ll just need to build for the following season.
“But, it’s Hearts: if I said I just want to avoid relegation, what incentive is that for the fans, for the players, for anybody? We don’t want to do that. We want to come up and push as hard as we can. When you’ve sold 14,000 season tickets, the expectation is there to get yourself into the top six, and that’s what we need to do.”
Front runners throughout last season, he believes the experience of being the Championship’s most sought-after scalp will help his players deal with the burden of hope and the expectation of a sizeable home crowd, who can be an undoubted advantage but can also deliver a blow to self esteem if things aren’t going so well.
“You have to learn how to handle it,” said Neilson, who, having been at the club as a coach and a player, says he has experienced both sides of that. “That’s why when we recruit players we find out what clubs they’ve been at before, how they played at big clubs, how they played in big environments. And they all have: no matter what league it is, they’ve all played in big games. You have to handle that pressure.
“I still expect a bit of inconsistency from them from being young and also the positions that they play, where you get inconsistency no matter what age they are, but they are getting stronger, more streetwise. There’s still a long way to go but they have definitely become better players.”
The players are better players, the team is a better team. Today we will get an inkling if that is good enough.