THE race for the Championship title could become closer tomorrow than it has been since the opening day of the season.
With leaders Hearts playing Falkirk in a teatime kick-off, Rangers, who are at home to Alloa at 3pm, have the chance to close the gap between them and the leaders to a single point.
Since winning at Ibrox in their opening match of the season, Hearts have enjoyed breathing space between themselves and Ally McCoist’s team. They also remain unbeaten, having drawn at Dumbarton and Hibernian and won all the rest of their matches.
So, will they start to feel the pressure if Rangers pick up three points? Not according to head coach Robbie Neilson, who is confident that his squad will maintain their composure, refuse to pay any attention to events elsewhere, and simply concentrate on their own match.
“There’s not much we can do about it,” said Neilson when asked about the possibility of Rangers getting to within touching distance of his own team.
“If Rangers lose before our game we can go seven points clear. It’s swings and roundabouts, this and that. It’s up to us to make sure we perform on Saturday evening and get a result. The gap is not something we’ve spoken about. We just speak about ourselves. We focus on our own game. And, if we keep winning games, we will win the league.
“I don’t know if the boys look out for their results – I don’t. They might, it’s up to them. But I’d like to think they’re strong enough to think: ‘If Rangers win, then so what?’ Likewise, if they get beaten: ‘So what? It’s up to us to go and do something’.”
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Whatever happens tomorrow, the pressure on every promotion contender is sure to increase as the season goes on. With only one club guaranteed to go up to the Premiership, a team could finish second, a score or more points ahead of the clubs in third or fourth, and yet be pipped by either of those clubs in the play-offs. That could make for a nerve-wracking end to the campaign but, for Neilson, it all adds to the enjoyment.
“It’s a good way of doing it. It keeps it entertaining. We just need to make sure we’re first, and that’s what we’re gearing up to do. We’re going to try to win the league and, hopefully, we’ll do it.”
Hearts won by a single goal at home to Raith Rovers last week, and were below their best both in that match and in the Edinburgh derby which preceded it. But Neilson is unconcerned by such variations in form, believing that consistent hard work is the key both to getting results and to the squad’s getting back to the top of their game.
“There are going to be performances like that all season. It’s never going to be constant progression – it’s going to be up and down.
“There will be peaks and troughs. We just need to make sure when we do come off it a little bit we get the result. And then we work hard to pick it back up again.”
Captain Danny Wilson will again be absent tomorrow because of injury, but is expected to be back in time for the home game against Rangers a week on Saturday. Another absentee is full-back Callum Paterson, who is suspended from club action after his red card in the derby, but was this week called up to the full Scotland squad for the first time by national manager Gordon Strachan after initially being selected for the under-21s.
“I’ve spoken to Callum a couple of times this week and he’s enjoying it,” added Neilson. “He’s working hard, he’s keeping his head down and he’s doing things right. I’m pleased. He said it’s been a big eye opener for him as well, with the players who are there and their ability. It’s great for the club, because I’m sure as soon as he comes back all the guys here will be asking him ‘What was this guy like?’ ‘What did they do?’
“I know the guys in there. They work hard, they look after themselves and they’re good professionals. Hopefully, that will rub off on the boys here.
“I just told him to go there and show the right attitude and make sure he works hard, to make sure he does himself proud. I’m sure he will.
“I know Gordon is taking guys in to look at and see what they’re like and what their attitude is like and how they handle themselves in and around the squad. And I’m sure Callum will do that.”
Hearts had hoped to train on Falkirk’s artificial surface in preparation for tomorrow’s match but, when they learned it was unavailable, opted for Spartans’ pitch instead. “It is much the same,” said Neilson. “It’s as close as we’ll get. We tried to go to Falkirk, but it was booked out by Central Academy. It’s just one of those things, but Spartans is fine – we use them quite a lot and they’ve been great with us.
“There are a few tough away trips in this league and this is certainly one of them. But it’s a good pitch and a good stadium. We’ll have our full allocation [of fans] there, so I think it will be a good game for us.”
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