Aberdeen 'is one of the key games for Hearts' as Robbie Neilson discusses potential new Dons boss
In truth, there are only a couple of years between the school-boy peers but it is Robson who is playing catch-up in terms of football management as the interim Aberdeen boss maintains his push towards being given the role on a permanent basis. A victory over Neilson’s Hearts would go a long way to strengthening his case, moving the team the capital side thumped 5-0 the last time they met to within four points of the favourites to finish third. A loss, though, would see them drift 10 points behind with just nine games remaining.
“I’ve known Barry for a number of years, since we were kids and played at boys’ club [level],” said Neilson. “He’s doing a great job as an interim manager. He’s been there for a number of years, he knows the set-up and the players. It’s up to him to try to do well to get the job.”
Since Jim Goodwin was dispatched at the end of January, Robson has stopped the rot. Taking over a team that had won one game in 10 matches, they have now made it three wins in five and have cast more than a covetous glance at third spot. Neilson has registered the improvements and knows that ending Hearts’ seven-year run without a win at Pittodrie will be even tougher than it might have been. The capital side last triumphed in the north-east in the final head-to-head of the 2015/16 season. In the nine games up there since, they have drawn two and lost seven, including the first meeting of the current campaign when goals from Duk and Vicente Besuijen gave the home side a 2-0 win.
“Aberdeen are a very good side,” said Neilson, hoping that his men can buck the trend this time around. “They had a difficult period but look at the squad and the strength they have. It’s always a difficult game for us up at Pittodrie. We know it’s one of the key games of the season for us. The midfield is a bit different. [Leighton] Clarkson is a wee bit deeper but it’s much the same kind of shape. Maybe the mentality has changed which can sometimes happen when you have a change of leadership. It’s a big game for us especially going into the international break. You want to have a decent distance between yourself and the other teams but you just want to win and not focus too much on the league.”
Hearts have welcomed both Lawrence Shankland and Robert Snodgrass back, which gives them a better chance of fending off their revitalised rivals. “It’s a boost,” added Neilson. “You want your key players in. We’ve missed a number of them through the season but getting them back gives us that lift. I think it’s our 41st competitive game of the season, with another ten to go. It’s been a tough season with injuries as well but every time I’ve asked the players to go and perform at key moments, they’ve gone and done it so I’m pretty sure they’ll do it again.”