Robbie Neilson insists on ‘game to game’ mindset

Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson supervises training at Riccarton yesterday. Picture: SNS
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson supervises training at Riccarton yesterday. Picture: SNS
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ROBBIE Neilson would never make it as a Shakespearean actor. If Katharine Hepburn, as Dorothy Parker once put it, ran the gamut of emotions from A to B, the Hearts head coach probably does not even make it that far. He doesn’t need to.

He does calmness, and that’s just about it. No drama. No self-pity in the bad times; no egocentric babbling in the good times. Neither proud outbursts about how well his own team are doing, nor provocative remarks about other clubs. Nothing that is likely to be a distraction from the business of the day, which, as it has been every day since the start of the season, is about getting back into the Premiership at the first time of asking.

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Of course, Neilson’s unrelenting politeness has not deterred other clubs’ coaches and players from weighing in with opinions about Hearts. And it has been interesting to watch how those opinions have changed.

At first, there were suggestions – mainly, it seemed, from around Ibrox way – that Hearts’ bubble would burst. More recently, as Neilson’s team have stretched their lead at the top to 15 points, Hibernian manager Alan Stubbs and others have stated that the title was Hearts’ to lose, perhaps subtly hoping to put pressure on them. “For them to lose it would be a catastrophic collapse,” Stubbs declared earlier this week.

But whatever the motivation is behind such remarks, they would appear to wash over Neilson. He has got his team this far by steadfastly refusing to let his attention wander from his principal task of preparing them for every game, and he shows absolutely no sign of wavering as he prepares for Saturday’s Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle.

“It’s up to Alan to say what he wants,” Neilson said yesterday. “We’ll just look game to game.

“We’re not paying any attention to where we sit in the league. There’s not talk about being X amount of points ahead of teams. All we talk about is the next game and taking care of Hibs.

“We’ll then move on to the Dumbarton game and Rangers after that. It’s a big month for us, and we’ll just continue to do what we’re doing. I won’t start saying ‘This is where we’ll be in May’. It’s where we are at the moment we are looking at.

“[Other clubs] can do what they want, they’re not putting any doubts in our minds. The only doubt in our mind is what we’re doing day to day in training. We’ve been the same all along: we come in every day and focus on the next game and work hard.

“That’s all you can do. People can say, ‘We’ll do this’ or ‘We’ll do that’ but sometimes you’re better just to concentrate on yourself and look after your own team and do your own thing.”

Although he comes across as a very rational and well-organised type who leaves nothing to chance, Neilson is also well aware from his own coaching career, and from the year Hearts spent in administration from June 2013, of how swiftly fortunes can change in football. And that awareness is another reason why he has no desire to get carried away by his club’s current fine run of form.

“It was difficult last year with the things that went on at the club,” he continued. “We’ve turned the corner now, and it’s a positive environment to be in for everyone. We need to continue that and keep the spirit at the club.

“I think everyone at the club is appreciating the good times after what we went through – the fans as well.

“Everyone appreciates the hard work put in by everyone associated with the club – the fans, the board, the administrators. Everyone has worked hard to get the club going in the right direction.

“There have been a few periods when it has been really good, but it can go up and down and up and down in football. We had a really bad down in the last couple of years but now we’re going back up.

“But we need to continue what we’re doing and not get carried away by saying, ‘We’ll do this and that’. We don’t shout our mouth off about where we are or what we’re going to do, because we know how quickly things can change.”

Hearts were en route to Livingston during the bulk of Hibs’ 4-0 win over Rangers last Saturday, but they saw enough to be aware of how dangerous their neighbours will be. “We watched the first part of the game, so we saw the first couple of goals,” Neilson explained. “I thought Hibs played really well, dominated the midfield and are coming onto a fine bit of form.

“It’s going to be a difficult game for us, but we’re on a good run as well. It’s two teams coming together who are confident and want to play football in the right way. There will be plenty of young players who are energetic and want to do well.”

With Soufian El Hassnaoui, Dale Carrick and Osman Sow all still out injured, Neilson had aimed to get a new striker in for the derby. He has not entirely given up hope, but insisted that any new recruit had to be the right fit for the rest of the season, not just for a single game.

“You never say never. You never know until something comes up. We’re in contact with a couple of players, but it’s about getting the right player and getting it across the line.

“If it’s the right one then I’d like to get him in by Saturday and, if it’s the right one, then he could feature. I don’t want to rush into bringing someone in. If it gets to the end of the window and there’s nothing out there then I’m more than happy to continue with the strikers we have. It needs to be someone who will come in and add value.”

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