THE perils of plastic pitches are all too often overstated, according to Robbie Neilson. Hibernian may have lost on the artificial surface at Queen of the South and Alloa, while Rangers could only scrape a draw at Recreation Park.
Hearts, who are unbeaten so far in the Championship, travel to Dumfries tomorrow then visit Alloa next Saturday. But the head coach believes that astroturf should work in his team’s favour, not against it, and has confidence in the relatively new surface at Palmerston Park.
“I think the surface will suit us,” Neilson said. “I’m not worried at all about playing on it and there will be no excuses for us failing to perform on it. It’s a good pitch, and the ball can get popped and zipped about on it quickly.
“The majority of our guys have grown up playing on astroturf, whether it be the plastic at the academy [or elsewhere]. Even the foreign players like Osman Sow have experience of playing on it in Sweden. Adam Eckersley has played on it in Denmark and the Dutch boys grew up on astroturf.
“It’s a decent surface, to be fair: it was relaid in the summer. However, it’s different from grass and we need to be ready for a different sort of game.
“I would have no fears about playing all my players on it, although I would prefer grass. These surfaces change all the time – they’re better than they were even a year ago – so I wouldn’t take someone out just because it is on astro.
“The preparation changes and the times we are out on the training ground will change. It is important you don’t overdo it on astro and train for too long. We went down to Spartans earlier this week and are training on our own astro on Thursday and Friday to make sure we’re ready for Palmerston.”
Clear at the top by six points following their own 5-0 win over Livingston on Sunday and Rangers’ loss to Hibs the following night, Hearts could hardly have hoped for a better start to their league campaign. They have only dropped two points so far, at Dumbarton, and are now just two games away from going through the first quarter of the season unbeaten.
Given the ease with which they have won some of their games, speculation has grown about how long they can go without suffering a defeat. For Neilson, however, the issue is not when his team will eventually lose. He knows it will happen sometime, and believes that the important thing is how the players react when it does happen.
“In terms of the outcome of the league, yes, Monday night was a bonus for us. However, it does nothing to alter our preparation for the next game. We must win at Queen of the South regardless of who’s winning and who’s losing elsewhere.
“We need to keep winning games and continue to do things right. We’re six points clear at the moment, but if we don’t do things right on Saturday, then it will quickly be three. We’re under no illusions: we’re doing well, but we’re not a great side yet. We will lose a game at some point – we’ll maybe try to break a team down and they’ll hit us on the counter-attack.
“It’s about how we react to that – and we will be ready for any setbacks. We’ve spoken numerous times about what we’ll do if we lose a goal, if we lose a game. It won’t be ranting and raving, it will be about what we do next to recover.”
Having spent some time on loan at Palmerston during the early stages of his playing career with Hearts, the former full-back retains an affection for Queen of the South as a club. His time there in the latter months of 2002 also taught him a lesson that he is applying now as a coach: that it is better for young players to get experience of first-team football, even if it is a division or two lower than their parent club, rather than staying put and taking part only in age-group games.
“I enjoyed my loan spell at Queens – I met some great people and it’s a great club. It was a steep learning curve for me and I went down there to experience regular first-team football. Queens were in the Championship at the time and I have fond memories of my time at Palmerston.
“I went on loan to Cowdenbeath and came back to Hearts and played for a season and a half. Then I fell out of the team and went to Dumfries and that helped me push on again. I played a lot of games for Queens and I got back into the Hearts first team and took it from there.
“Like any youngster, it’s important to go out and play firstteam matches and play competitive games. First-team football is great for young players’ development and education. Top-level football is far superior.”