Hearts boss Robbie Neilson on Hibs opening up, Kevin Nisbet threat and 2016 Scottish Cup
When Robbie Neilson leads his Hearts side out against Hibs at Hampden Park on Saturday in the Scottish Cup semi final it will be just over five years to the day his opposite number left Tynecastle.
Looking back on it now, it was a sliding doors moment for all involved.
With the structure in place at Hearts in 2015, Ross was thought of as Neilson’s replacement when he moved on, the current Hearts manager having brought him to the club to take on the role of under-20s boss.
However, a little over a year after joining from Dumbarton, he left, many viewing it as an abrupt departure.
Speaking in 2017, Ross, then St Mirren manager, discussed the exit.
He said: “There’s a football department there and the football department decided I was no longer the right fit for the structure and how they wanted to progress the club which is fair enough.”
Instead of being readied for stepping into the void when Neilson moved to MK Dons, Ross sought his own route into management.
If things had been different he may well have been in the Hearts dugout. Instead, via Alloa, St Mirren and Sunderland, he will once again come up against Hearts and also the person who brought him to the club having already knocked him out the cup with Dundee United.
Funny how football works out
“I've got a different team now!" Neilson said.
“I was the one that brought him in in 2014. I did a bit of work with him when he was at Dumbarton and we were looking to bring someone in to take the 20s and he came in.
"We had a very successful period when he was here.
"It's funny how football works out. He left here and did well and managed to get himself in at Hibs. From our perspective we have to go beat them now.”
For Neilson, games against Hibs as manager led to criticism amongst the Tynecastle support during his first spell. In the six matches as Hearts boss in Edinburgh derbies he has emerged victorious just once.
The 2-2 draw in the 2016 Scottish Cup and subsequent defeat in the replay still irks many fans; a two-goal lead given up and Hibs going on to end their Scottish Cup hoodoo.
While Neilson is unlikely to view it as such, Saturday presents the perfect opportunity to win over some fans who may remain unconvinced, while banishing some of those memories from four years ago.
"It is part and parcel of football matches,” Neilson said of the 2016 defeat.
“From our perspective it is about gearing up for this game, a totally different team, different squads.
"It is important we are ready for it.
"It's a derby. Whether it is a league game or a cup game, it's two teams and will be decided by who wants it most.”
One player, perhaps more than any other, Hearts will need to keep tabs on is striker Kevin Nisbet.
The summer signing from Dunfermline Athletic will be out to impress Scotland boss Steve Clarke and is currently second top scorer in the Premiership.
He is a player Neilson knows very well having tried to sign him for Dundee United last season.
The 23-year-old netted in a win for the Pars over the Tannadice side during the 2019/20 campaign. And he could have been wearing maroon for the game, claiming to have turned down a ‘lucrative’ offer from Hearts before making the Easter Road switch.
“He’s a threat, definitely,” Neilson said. “I think the two strikers have done very well in combining and they are an old fashioned strike-partnership. One comes short, one goes long, they have a good physicality and are good from crosses.
“Kevin is a player who was at Dunfermline when I was at United and we made enquiries about it and couldn’t quite get it done.
"However, I know his quality well and he’ll be one of Hibs’ biggest threats on Saturday.”
‘Hibs will open up’
So far, Hearts have been strong favourites in every game they have played. It has resulted in some teams trying to stifle and frustrate with Dundee the only opponent to try and go toe to toe.
Neilson expects a "different” game to any they have played so far this season.
Hibs are the bookies favourites and there will be a certain expectation on Ross’ men. Yet, areas of vulnerability in the side sitting third in the Premiership have been pinpointed.
He said: "We played against Dundee at the start of the season, they came and had a go, we had a go and we had good quality. Then you go to Arbroath and they sit in and make it difficult.
"I expect the game at Hampden to be completely different to Arbroath to be honest. Big pitch, nice pitch, Hibs will open up, we'll open up and it will hopefully be a bit more enjoyable and we enjoy the end result.
“We know what they've got, they don't change them up much, the personnel.
"Yes, they change shape now and again but we know the attributes they have got in their team and it is important we try and negate them and make sure we try and highlight the areas where we think we can cause them concern.
“It’s going to be a test, but most games will be a test. It was a test in the last 15 minutes against Arbroath when they went eight up front and bombarded us!
"Every game has different challenges we’ll need to get through this season.”