Robbie Neilson won’t bite on Hearts’ title chances

Hearts Head Coach Robbie Neilson. Picture: SNS

Hearts Head Coach Robbie Neilson. Picture: SNS

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THE impression that Hearts are currently living high on the hog was only enhanced yesterday by there being steak baguettes on the menu at Tynecastle.

But rather than being indicative of a worrying return to the boom-and-bust mentality that left the club so stricken recently, this unexpected treat was because of a new sponsorship tie-up with Quality Meat Scotland’s Scotch Beef Club, which aims to promote the best meat from Scotland.

Hearts players celebrate last weekend's 2-1 win at Ross County, which made it 12 points from 12 in the Premiership so far. Picture: David Lamb

Hearts players celebrate last weekend's 2-1 win at Ross County, which made it 12 points from 12 in the Premiership so far. Picture: David Lamb

It is a stamp of quality of the sort Hearts have been re-producing in the first few weeks of the season, luring the good and the great into making positive pronouncements about how long their title challenge can be sustained.

The great is Sir Alex Ferguson, who earlier this week added to recent admiring comments about owner Ann Budge by claiming Hearts could well be “serious challengers” this season. While he is not a knight of the realm, former Hearts skipper Steven Pressley surely still fits the description “good” down Gorgie way, despite the manner of his departure for Celtic nine years ago.

He has certainly repaired some of the damage by proposing Hearts as potential title winners, noting they can push Celtic “all the way”.

Some of this elated rattle can be attributed to excitement at the prospect of a title race. They, like many others, are willing it to be so. Ferguson, after all, was the last manager to break the Old Firm hegemony, winning the title with Aberdeen just over 30 years ago. Can Hearts, along with the Pittodrie side, really put the frighteners on Celtic?

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson wasn’t wishing to extinguish all the good vibes. As he noted yesterday, it is “nicer to hear things like that than people tipping us for the drop”. But he also pointed out that as far as he is aware, Pressley, good friend though he is, had not been to a Hearts game so far this season.

“I spoke to him yesterday – not that he told me he’d said anything!” smiled Neilson when asked about Pressley’s upbeat comments, which were made in a Ladbrokes SPFL blog. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I get on really well with Elvis.

“I’ve still not seen big Elvis at any of the games this season, so he’ll be looking at it from the outside, seeing the results, rather than being in here and seeing it close up.

“I know what group I’ve got,” he added. “I know where we can be. Guys on the outside don’t know where we are. They look from the outside and see four wins from four. There’s a long way to go. We’re not going to shout our mouths off about doing this or that because we know where we’ve come from.

“Look at the St Johnstone game, we could quite easily have lost that when it went to 3-3 and we were under the cosh. We went to Dundee and could have been 3-0 down after 45 minutes but we went on to win it.

“Against Motherwell we had to get ourselves back into it in the second half. Ross County, we could have come out of that with a draw. So we could have been sitting here with two points – and nobody would have been talking about us challenging for the title then.”

But Hearts are not sitting here on two points from four games. They are sitting here with 12 points, courtesy of four consecutive wins. They are sitting on top of the Scottish Premiership.

Hence people drawing comparisons with the George Burley-led Hearts side of a decade ago that led the league after kicking off the season with eight consecutive league victories.

“We’ve only gone four – halfway there, 50 per cent, it’s not a lot,” observed Neilson, on the eve of today’s home clash with Partick Thistle, an assignment most outwith the Firhill side’s camp would agree is winnable.

Thistle have sold out their allocation, understandably so given their own bright start to the season (they have only lost once, to Celtic). When the club put a call in to Hearts to enquire about more tickets, they were told: “sorry, all gone”.

Thus, for the third home league game in a row, Tynecastle is a sell-out. Neilson is correct. These comments from Ferguson and Pressley have to be taken with a pinch of salt. But those packing out Tynecastle every second weekend are watching Hearts on a regular basis. They, too, are buying into the hype as well as helping create it.

Neilson said that he knew “expectations are building but not from our point of view”. The head coach frantically sought to find a happy medium between tempering these hopes while not completely extinguishing them. He doesn’t want to risk creating an impression he lacks belief in a collection of players currently proving such a potent mix.

“We’ve had full houses all last season, so that’s not new,” he noted, truthfully. As for the comparison between Burley’s team and this one, Neilson, himself a member of that side, reckons there is no comparison. After all, the side of a decade ago included several players on “crazy money”, who were expecting to win things.

“There was always a confidence in that group, there was always belief – because there were guys who had won the European Cup [Edgaras Jankauskas], a guy who had won the European Championship [Takis Fyssas],” he explained. “We had probably ten or 12 full international players. So it was a different mentality in that group.

“That group looked at it as going to try and win the league. The group we’ve got now are progressing every week, but it’s about doing things properly and taking things from there.”

The head coach has noticed a more competitive edge in training since the arrival of new additions such as Spanish striker Juanma and Nigerian full-back Juwon Oshaniwa.

“A lot of the guys last season came through the academy together,” he said. “They had been together for three or four years and they were best mates and they hung about together. But now, although there’s a good team spirit, there is that competitive side of it where they want to win, they want to get in the team.”

He expressed delight at five Hearts players having been included in the Scotland Under-21 squad announced by new manager Ricky Sbragia earlier this week. Neilson is building something to last at Tynecastle. Even if Thistle should succeed in bursting the bubble this afternoon, that isn’t likely to change.

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