Few clubs can have enjoyed such contrasting fortunes over the last 12 months as Hearts and Dundee United. They can each reflect on these wildly different paths when completing a final assignment of 2015 by playing against each other at Tynecastle tonight.
Little has gone wrong for Hearts, who tied up the Championship title in March with games to spare before adapting to life in the top tier with impressive ease.
It has been a wretched year for United, however. An annus horribilis if ever there was one. This time last year they were relishing the prospect of a League Cup semi-final appearance while also maintaining hopes of a second place – or possibly better – finish in the league.
Now they sit last in the division, having won only eight times in the league this year, with three of these victories in the opening month of 2015. They have won only twice this season, and just once under new manager Mixu Paatelainen. But, flying in the face of the many who have already written off United’s chances of avoiding the drop, Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson is confident his old side will stay up.
Neilson, who played more than 20 times for United towards the end of his career, said. “They’re a good club and they’re in a difficult position just now.”
Difficult perhaps. But it is not an impossible situation. According to Neilson, at least. He recalled Ross County’s escape last season after they were cast as lost causes. But the Highlands side were only one point adrift of 11th place 12 months ago and just seven from safety. United trail 11th-place Kilmarnock by ten points.
“I genuinely don’t think they’ll go down,” Neilson stressed. “I think Mixu will strengthen in the January window and I think the chairman will back him. They’ll bring players in and they’ll get a lift.
“They aren’t too far away at the moment. With the players they have and the ones I would expect them to bring in, they can put a run together and get out of that group because they’re a big club.
“They’re ten points behind so you’re looking at four wins,” he added. “Look what Ross County did last year when Jim McIntyre came in. He brought in a few players and moved a lot out. He got the opportunity to change things.
“If you’re a manager coming in and you get that January window and you get backed, then you’ve got a chance. If you come in after the window then it’s very difficult to change things.”
Neilson accepts 2015 has been a very favourable year for Hearts. They achieved their goal of promotion while also continuing to stabilise finances.
Despite Hearts being as close to leaders Celtic as they are to Partick Thistle, the current sixth-placed team, Neilson claims a place in the top half remains the target for the season.
“That’s where we need to be financially and that’s where we want to be,” he said. “Anywhere higher than that is great for the club and sets us up well for next year. I don’t want to get carried away.”
Neilson is mindful that for all the positivity surrounding the club at present, they have still not won since 7 November after a run of four draws and one defeat. A return to winning ways tonight would be an ideal way to round off an excellent year before thoughts turn to how Hearts can continue to improve.
“I don’t need to bring anybody in but we’re actively looking for one striker,” confirmed Neilson. “There are a couple out there that we’ve been looking at but it all comes down to money.
“We aren’t going to throw money at it,” he added. “We’ve got a budget that we’ll stay within.”