Robbie Neilson is desperate for Hearts fans to ensure Tynecastle can become a place where everyone feels welcome – except obviously the opposition.
The head coach knows that games against tonight’s opponents Celtic in particular have brought out the worst in some people in the past. After the statement released by the club following trouble inside and outside the ground at Saturday’s game against Ross County, the spotlight will be even more firmly trained on Tynecastle during tonight’s League Cup quarter-final clash.
I don’t think our good work will be undone. We want to make this a great venue for people with kids, wives and everyone to attendRobbie Neilson
One of Tynecastle’s greatest qualities is its bear-pit nature. The partisan home support – especially tonight, when Celtic have been given fewer tickets than they normally receive – is what sets the ground apart. Neilson has urged home fans to be as noisy and passionate as ever while, at the same time, warning them against crossing a line towards offensiveness.
He stressed that “people should not be scared to come to Tynecastle”. He means, of course, those taking their seats in the stands.
Preferably players from rival teams will still feel their pulse quicken and goose-bumps march across their skin as they prepare to emerge from the tunnel; after all, the unique atmosphere at Tynecastle is one of its chief selling points. It is why so many supporters – visiting ones included - would like the club to remain based at the ground. But a pulsating, thrilling atmosphere ought not to come at the risk of spectators being placed in personal danger.
Neilson is confident the supporters have the ability and desire to police themselves. From the reaction to news that some so-called Hearts fans had attacked a Ross County supporters’ bus, amid other regrettable episodes, it is clear the majority of Hearts followers are appalled by the thought that some visiting supporters might think twice about attending Tynecastle.
Owner Ann Budge is certainly dismayed if this is true. She personally contacted her Ross County counterpart Roy McGregor to apologise.
Now Neilson has backed the club’s efforts to rid match days of the scourge of such misbehaviour.
“We want Tynecastle to be a great environment for families to come, a difficult environment for oppositions, loud and energetic. But there’s a line that can’t be crossed,” he said yesterday, as he reiterated a strongly-worded statement released by the club on Monday. “We need to make sure we are moving forward and can’t have things happening like at the weekend and previous weekends. I think the statement from the club was great, rather than just accepting it,” he added. “Yes, we want energy and passion and noise, but there is a line that can’t be crossed.”
There is the fear that the positivity generated by the new regime could be spoiled by such episodes. Hearts already display the charity “Save the Children” on the front of their shirts and were the first Scottish club to pledge to pay employees a living wage. Under Budge their aim has been to win back some of the goodwill lost during the Romanov era.
“I don’t think our good work will be undone,” noted Neilson. “The easiest thing in the world would be to sweep it under the rug but we want to highlight it and make sure it gets sorted and that the fans understand that we are trying to stop this. We can eradicate this from the club. We want to make this a great venue for people with kids, wives and everyone to attend. People should not be scared to come to Tynecastle.”
Of course, Neilson doesn’t want Tynecastle to become a place where teams enjoy coming to play. Every club intends for their own ground to be a fortress. Hearts have lost just once at home this season and were unbeaten at Tynecastle in the league in the previous campaign. Neilson believes Hearts can concentrate more fully on cup competitions this season. That wasn’t the case during the last campaign, when their principal task was sealing promotion.
“The league is still the bread and butter, but the cups are certainly taking a higher priority than they did last year, that’s for sure,” he said. “We want a good run. But it’s the top team in Scotland we need to beat.”
Not for the first time, either. Their only loss at Tynecastle last season was against tonight’s opponents, who beat them 4-0 in the Scottish Cup a year ago next month.
They were also eliminated from the League Cup by Celtic, who won 3-0 at the fourth-round stage. Once again this season Ronny Deila’s side stand in Hearts’ way.
They will give themselves a greater chance of securing a positive result if able to keep the full complement of players on the pitch. It was something they failed to do in the Scottish Cup defeat by Celtic last season, when Morgaro Gomis was sent off in the early stages.
A red card after only 48 minutes did not derail Hearts in their victory over Ross County on Saturday, however. Blazej Augustyn does remain free to play tonight. The stand-in skipper’s availability – he instead misses this weekend’s league clash with Partick Thistle – could be significant after a series of more solid defensive showings in recent weeks. “It’s a boost for us that he can play,” said Neilson. “His physicality, his height and his aggression is great for us and it’s good to have him.”
Neilson was speaking before news of a training ground spat between Celtic team-mates Nadir Ciftci and Emile Izaguirre became public. But he warned that whatever ills are befalling Celtic, they can never be discounted.
“Celtic are always dangerous, no matter what is going on,” he said. “They had a poor result in Molde, then they come back and beat Dundee United comprehensively – so they are always dangerous.
“You can’t say ‘it’s a good time to play Celtic’. Because it never is.”