A YEAR ago, a cup run did not feature highly on Hearts’ list of priorities. They were thoroughly preoccupied with securing safe passage back to the Premiership.
But with a new season, they have new targets and, having succeeded in his primary purpose of last term, head coach Robbie Nielson is happy to look towards some multi-tasking.
“It is really important,” he said, as he looks ahead to tomorrow night’s League Cup tie against Arbroath. “Obviously, the league is still the priority, but whereas last season the cups didn’t have any interest to us at all – it was all about the league and getting back up to the top flight and we managed to do that – this year we want to go on some good cup runs and hopefully we can do that, starting on Thursday.”
Big ambitions are often reliant, at least partially when it comes to knockout tournaments, on good fortune and the Tynecastle club enjoyed precious little last term, coming up against Celtic in both major domestic cup competitions.
It was the third time they had been drawn against the Parkhead club in two seasons. Without them blocking their path, Hearts made it to the semi-finals of the League Cup two seasons ago, as well as the final of the same competition the season before and while the major success has tended to come in the Scottish Cup, Neilson hopes that the match against Arbroath can provide the impetus to help rectify that this term.
“In the cups you do need that bit of luck and it can depend who you get in the early rounds but I think we have a strong enough squad that we can rotate and concentrate on the league but hopefully go quite far in the cups.
We can concentrate on the league but hopefully go quite far in the cupsRobbie Neilson
“The cup is about the luck of the draw and who you get and how you perform on that day so I’m not going to say that we expect to get to the far ends of it but we would like to try to.”
Everton supplied the opposition in their final warm-up game and although the Hearts players were forced to raise their level of performance against a quality English Premier League side, their manager says he expects even more intensity when they square up against the Gayfield Park side and fine tune their match fitness before starting life back in the Premiership with their keenly anticipated opening game against St Johnstone on Sunday.
“Sunday’s game [against Everton] I was really pleased with,” said Neilson. “We played well in patches and you are never going to dominate a team of that stature but we still passed the ball and tried to do the right thing and playing against guys like that is a real learning curve for our players.
“But it has felt like a long pre-season, so it’s good to get back to the action again. When it’s pre-season you can never wait to get back to the competitive games so it’s good to finally get there.
“Last year we had Annan Athletic,” he said of the League Cup tie that served as their season curtain-raiser, “and, again, this gives us a competitive game that is maybe not quite as intense as a league game. St Johnstone have had a couple of games with the European tie so this gives us a test before the league starts.”
Summer signing Juanma is fit and the striker should feature tomorrow, while other niggling injuries, to such as Prince Buaben, have cleared up.
“[Miguel] Pallardo is the only one who will be a week or two and [Soufian] El Hassnaoui is going to be a while with his knee but Juanma is fine. He trained the last week but we didn’t use him against Everton because we felt it was maybe a bit too early but he will be available for Thursday. Maybe not starting but he will almost surely play part of the game,” Neilson said.
“The first part of pre-season is about fitness and the last part is trying to put the team together and we have been trying to do that but we have had a couple of niggling injuries and we haven’t had the full team but we are starting to get there.
“I have a squad of 18 or 20 and probably a core of 14 that I know I can put in, at any time, at any place, and they will give us a performance. I wouldn’t say I had a strongest team but I have a stronger group and they are the key players in the team.”
One to add to that is Nigerian defender Juwon Oshaniwa who finally appears to have freed himself from red tape and is expected to join up with the squad in the next 48hours. It means the cup game will come too soon for him but Neilson is hoping there will be many more opportunities before the cup run expires.