Hearts winger Sam Nicholson says there is no reason why the Tynecastle club cannot build on this term’s league form and challenge for the Premiership title next season.
Currently sitting third and on the verge of sealing a place in European competition next season, they have not given up all hope of catching tonight’s opponents, Aberdeen, to finish second. But Nicholson says that everyone at Hearts believes they can get even better.
“It’s brilliant for us to be involved at the top and for the gaffer to say we can keep challenging. It’s fair enough him saying that, but he also needs his players to buy into it and I think that’s definitely the case. Everyone here wants to push for the league and try and win trophies. We got a taste of it last season when we won the Championship and we want to keep pushing on as a team.
“I think it’s realistic to expect us to challenge for the title next season. You can see the way we play against some teams. Look at the way we played for 60-70 minutes against Celtic – we more than matched them. It’s all about trying to do it for 90 minutes now. The way they took their chances explained why they are higher up the league than us. It comes down to that. We need to start taking our chances more often. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone there because I miss a lot of chances myself. If we can score more of our chances, that will make a big difference.”
Defending champions Celtic have amassed 76 goals in 32 games, Hearts have netted 52 in 31, just three fewer than Derek McInnes’ side who have been the Parkhead club’s main challengers for the past two years.
“Aberdeen have had a great season and so have we,” Nicholson added. “This game is massive for both teams. People are saying we can still catch them but this is a massive game if we’re to do that. We’ve got to keep pushing right to the end of the season because no-one knows what’s going to happen. Aberdeen could slip up above us or we could slip up and let the teams in below us.
“I don’t think anyone else expected us to do so well but when we sat in the dressing room and had a meeting at the start of the season a lot of the boys believed we could do well. I think we’ve done brilliantly so far because the last time we came this high was a good wee while ago.”
It was season 2010-11 when Hearts last finished in third place and ten years since they went one better and split Celtic and Rangers to end the campaign in second place. But Aberdeen have provided the benchmark since Hearts’ return from the Championship this year.
“I thought Aberdeen with the team and budget they have got, alongside Celtic, would be outwith us,” said head coach Robbie Neilson. “To get as close as we can to those two sides has been great. Next season if we can build again we can try and have another hit at them. Ultimately we want to try and get as close as we can to the top of the league.”
To do that, the Hearts boss believes they will have to replicate Aberdeen’s squad consistency.
“They’ve done well this season again but they’ve kept the core of the squad from last season. You normally find that when a squad outside the Old Firm does very well, a lot of players leave but Aberdeen managed to keep a hold of them and they brought in good players in the summer. They’ve managed to maintain a challenge again and they’re deservedly in second at the moment and we’re still desperate to steal that off them.
“We need to try and keep the group together. We brought in eight or nine last season and I would be looking to bring five in at the most next season. That means we could bring the level up again and take a step forward.”