LIKE his team on the pitch, Robbie Neilson has seldom allowed his guard to slip as Heart of Midlothian have relentlessly marched towards the Championship title this season. Despite the willingness of everyone else to state that victory is theirs, the head coach has steadfastly refused to countenance talk of his side being champions before the arithmetic confirms that status.
The Tynecastle team are so far ahead that the right set of results this week will finally clinch them the silverware and the automatic promotion that top spot secures. Victories against Raith Rovers tonight and on Saturday away to Falkirk, the only team to have defeated Hearts in the league this term, would earn the Gorgie club the title on Sunday if Hibernian and Rangers draw.
Despite having had an unassailable lead for weeks, Neilson’s squad have been hugely impressive in the way they have not wavered from their single-minded approach to returning Premiership football to Tynecastle. With the finishing line now in sight, it would be an unexpected turn of events if they were to slip up at Stark’s Park.
However, given that the question for some time has been when and not if the championship is to be sealed, it should come as no surprise that Neilson yesterday confessed he and his players’ attentions have been allowed to stray towards ensuring they complete a remarkable campaign in style.
Becoming the first side to score 100 goals in the second-tier since Airdrie in 1974 is well within their grasp but Neilson admits a record points tally for the division, usurping the 89 points capital foes Hibernian registered in 1999, is keeping his players motivated as they seek to avoid a drop in standards.
“It could be a good week for us,” said the 34-year-old. “It’s a good chance to hopefully get a result against Raith that would lead us into Saturday’s game against Falkirk, which will be a really big game for us. We still go from game to game and try to win and, even if we do eventually get over the line, it’s important we continue working on trying to win games.
“There are targets we can try to get to that we’ve spoken to the players about. But also there’s the motivation of our own pride. We want to win games, we don’t want to be going places and losing games.
“We can get to 99 points, so that’s what we’re going to aim for. If we could get to that it would be great. I don’t think we’ll get it but we’ve got to try to target that.
“We’ve lost a few games, so it’s important we keep motivating ourselves. The big thing for me is the pride of the players. We should be out winning games, we shouldn’t be letting teams score against us. We should be winning every game we play and we want to do that.”
Having lost just once in the Championship this season, there is no doubt the title will be richly deserved when it is finally confirmed and Neilson believes it is a success that has been built on the determination of some players to rehabilitate their own careers as well as Hearts as a club.
The likes of Genero Zeefuik, Alim Ozturk and Miguel Pallardo have found Hearts and their league superiority providing an agreeable environment to prove their ability, whilst Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben have restored previous reputations and Soufian El Hassnaoui and Osman Sow have shown attacking expertise when injuries have allowed.
Neilson has admitted that squad changes will be required for life in the Premiership, although that should amount to evolution rather than revolution, but he is optimistic this season’s success will be an encouragement to the signing targets he hopes will seek to make Gorgie a home for similar improvements to their games.
“A lot of the time when you brings guys from abroad to Scotland, the only reason you are getting them is because they have some sort of issue or problem,” he explained.
“Whether they’ve had fitness problems, injuries or other issues at clubs, they have come here and it’s all been resolved.
“We’re bringing in guys from the top league in Holland, the top league in Spain. If we’re going to get them, if they didn’t have other issues or some flaw in their make-up, they wouldn’t be here. That’s obvious.
“A lot of them know we’ve created a good environment – we have to continue with that. We let them know that we can help them, so they can help us.
“We hope players thinking about coming here see our guys improving. The ultimate aim is to bring guys in, they do well and improve for a year or two, then we sell them on – and they go on to bigger and better things.
“That is a carrot for the next guy coming in. He sees someone who maybe hasn’t been playing somewhere else coming here, getting a chance and going to the next level again. It’s definitely something we talk to guys about when we’re trying to persuade them to sign for us.”
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