THERE are two schools of thought among recent Hearts managers when it comes to preparing their team for the Edinburgh derby.
For Jim Jefferies and Gary Locke, the game against Hibernian was a passion play, in which the need to win individual battles was paramount. Paulo Sergio, conversely, liked to stress the need to remain rational: no matter how frenzied the atmosphere, he wanted his players to retain their composure.
It’s all just a question of emphasis, of course. Sergio knew that, without emotional commitment, his players’ calmness would get them nowhere, just as Jefferies and Locke were aware that the head was needed as well as the heart. All three achieved some famous results in the fixture.
Having said that, there is no doubt that, as he prepares for his first derby at Easter Road as Hearts’ head coach, Robbie Neilson’s approach is far closer to Sergio than it is to his fellow-Scots. However, unlike the occasional habit of his Portuguese predecessor, Neilson will not boast about his team’s inherent superiority to their city rivals: he is far too humble and diplomatic for that, and in his public pronouncements this season has studiously avoided offering any hostages to fortune.
Far from bragging about his own squad, Neilson has at times preferred to highlight their shortcomings – for example by dwelling on their failure to keep a clean sheet against Cowdenbeath rather than praising the panache they showed in scoring five at the other end. Rather than belittle his rivals, he has gone out of his way to compliment them, as he did when implausibly suggesting that Hibs boss Alan Stubbs was a worthy winner of the Championship’s manager-of-the-month award for September.
The strategy is clear. As the race to win automatic promotion to the Premiership heats up, the pressure on Hearts will heighten. For Neilson, the best way of coping with that pressure is to avoid all distractions such as verbal spats with opponents, while encouraging his players to be unsparingly self-critical.
Victory at Ibrox in the opening game of the season showed how resilient this Hearts team can be, as they hit back with a stoppage-time winner just a minute after Rangers had equalised. Given the hyperbolic hubbub likely to prevail at Easter Road on Sunday, they may need even greater mental toughness if they are to achieve a similar result – something which Neilson is sure they will manage provided they do themselves justice.
“It’s trying to keep them calm really and making sure we do things properly and are prepared,” Neilson said yesterday when asked to explain how he will approach the Hibs match.
“It’s more important you keep your head when you’re away from home. We have to make sure we’re disciplined and we keep our shape and do things properly – and if we do that we’ll have a good chance of getting something out of the game.
“We’re sitting at the top of the league. We’re confident in our own ability. The players know if they go there and perform the way they can, they can get the result we want.
“Derbies are difficult games, but I thought we tried to pass the ball in periods [in the last derby]. Sometimes you do get periods where people start kicking it all over the place and panicking, but hopefully we can erase that. We haven’t had that a lot in the rest of our games this season, so hopefully we can take it into the derby as well and try and pass the ball.”
The first derby at Tynecastle, a 2-1 home win, was not an altogether composed affair. Hearts’ Osman Sow and Hibs’ Scott Robertson were sent off, while their respective team-mates Jamie Walker and Lewis Stevenson received retrospective punishment after a head-to-head confrontation. Such incidents may show that the maintenance of self-discipline is more easily said than done, but Neilson is at least hopeful that this time both teams will again attempt to play some decent, thoughtful football.
“I expect them to try and beat us, to try and work hard and to hopefully try and pass the ball as well. They have some good young players similar to us, so it will be an entertaining game.
“It’s two teams who are saying they are going to pass the ball in the Edinburgh derby – it’s all right saying it, it’s having the strength and willpower to actually go and do it.
“And it’s myself and Stevie’s [Crawford, assistant coach] job to try and get them to do that.”
Sow, who is carrying a knock, will train today and tomorrow after sitting out yesterday’s session and should start, but his fellow-strikers Dale Carrick and James Keatings are out and a doubt respectively. Captain Danny Wilson, meanwhile, is fit to resume his place in the back four.
Neilson has heard the talk this week about 2005, when Hearts lost their unbeaten league record to Hibs at Easter Road, and is all too aware that the home team on Sunday would love to record a similar result. But, for all the focus on the derby, and on the games the two Edinburgh sides play against Rangers, he believes that the games against the smaller teams in the division could prove more crucial.
“It wasn’t a bad feeling at the time,” he said of that 2-0 loss to Hibs nine years ago. “We were still top of the league after that game. It was one of those things.
“It’s always a difficult game. It’s a place where you have to make sure you’re composed and you do things right and you’re disciplined with your play.
“We went there and that team was a very experienced team. But I remember Edgaras [Jankauskas] got sent off and that changed the game. So it’s important we don’t do that on Sunday.
“Every team would love to be the first one to beat us in the league this season.
“The run will come to an end eventually, whether it will come in two weeks’ time or eight weeks’ time.
“It will come to an end and if someone wants to have the bragging rights over us then fair enough. But it’s a long season.
“I said at the start I expected Hearts, Rangers and Hibs to be challenging for the league.
“And it was always going to be the games outwith that would win the league.
“You have to make sure you go to these other venues and win, those are the ones that will decide the title.
“The game on Sunday won’t decide where the title goes. It will be the following weeks when we go to Falkirk and Cowdenbeath that will decide whether we win the title or not.”