Hearts earned right to savour this - Robbie Neilson renaissance, how team has been assembled, journey back from brink

In last weekend’s derby against Hibs, Hearts romped over the line to secure third place in the cinch Premiership at Tynecastle. A week on, in front of nearly 22,000 of their fans, they were forced to work harder for the win at Hampden.

They still came out on top, though, winning 2-1 and upgrading their European rewards to guaranteed group-stage action and an active interest until December at the very least. They have a Scottish Cup final to look forward to now as well.

And, they have earned it all. In the league, they blew away the competition, tying up their position as best of the rest behind the Celtic and Rangers before the split. That means that manager Robbie Neilson now has the luxury of managing the squad ahead of their season finale, back at Hampden, on May 21.

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By then he hopes to have John Souttar, Michael Smith and Cammy Devlin back to full fitness, along with Andy Halliday, Stephen Kingsley and, possibly, Craig Halkett, who were all casualties of a bruising and feisty semi-final, where Hibs tested their physicality as well as their mettle.

Simms opened the scoring with a rasping strike.Simms opened the scoring with a rasping strike.
Simms opened the scoring with a rasping strike.

“Craig is away to get a scan on his ankle,” revealed the victorious Gorgie boss. “I think all the guys who picked up knocks will be okay. Even with Halkett [who left the field on a stretcher and hobbled out of the national stadium in a protective boot], depending on how he is, he’s now got a carrot to get there.”

The strength in depth of the squad has been a factor in their ability to shine on league and cup duty. Even without the midfield pairing of Beni Baningime and Devlin, they have continued to flourish, thanks to the composure and experience the likes of Peter Haring and Halliday have brought to the midfield in recent weeks.

While at the back, they have retained a determined sense of resolve which was epitomised against Hibs as first Halkett and then Kingsley went off. Taylor Moore came on and slotted right in, while Toby Sibbick actually upped his game when shunted into the middle of the backline.

But all over the field they have winners. Last weekend they came from behind to boss the capital head-to-head but in this one they were the frontrunners. Despite having a quiet game by his standards, Barrie McKay’s class shone through as he played through the pass which Ellis Simms finished.

Kingsley's goal was a sumptuous strike from a well-worked free-kick.Kingsley's goal was a sumptuous strike from a well-worked free-kick.
Kingsley's goal was a sumptuous strike from a well-worked free-kick.

And, the Tynecastle club will undoubtedly do all they can to keep the Everton loanee who has made such a positive impact, using his physical strength and mental steel, his movement, direct running, and his finishing to elevate Hearts’ standing.

His arrival took some of the pressure off Liam Boyce so when the Northern Irishman pulled his shot wide of Matt Macey’s far post late in the first half, it wasn’t calamitous. It would have knocked Hibs and made things easier for Hearts in the second half but Simms’ ferocious 16th-minute opener, allied to Kingsley’s inch-perfect set-piece goal five minutes later had already established an unassailable lead. Especially when a keeper the calibre of Craig Gordon is on hand to pull off point-blank reflex saves like the one he produced in the 54th minute to foil the progress of Ryan Poertous’s header and push it onto the post before smothering the ball.

A bunch of quality individuals, they are even more solid as a unit, and it is the team spirit and the shared belief they have forged that has got them this far and while they maybe didn’t take full advantage of their extra man after Joe Newell was red carded in the 64th minute, they did what was needed to achieve their target.

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A team with a wonderful derby heritage, there is something special about a club that has had to fight for its life the way Hearts have in recent years. Off the park the resilience and steadfastness of chairwoman Ann Budge and the fans who dug deep to make the Foundation of Hearts a viable proposition have inspired those on it so while Hibs failed to sell their full allocation, the Jambos snapped theirs up and then returned for more.

From administration to relegation, through to Premiership returns, lean spells and then the unfairness of demotion, they have developed something akin to a siege mentality, and they have come back stronger.

That is epitomised by their manager. Never fully appreciated during his last spell, he was accused of lacking style and bottle, despite overseeing another promotion, he had to take criticism on the chin last season when Brora Rangers dished out one of the worst results in the club’s history. But the response since, the graft, the smart recruitment and the desire to improve has earned him redemption.

He was happy to pass on the credit for Kingsley set piece goal to his backroom staff, highlighting the dedication behind the scenes and the unwillingness to rest on laurels that will be illustrated further this summer as Joe Savage and the recruitment staff are charged with investing the European financial spoils wisely to replace the likes of Souttar or any of the loanees who move on.

They had to weather a bit of a storm at times against Hibs at Hampden, the Easter Road side reducing the deficit soon after Kingsley’s goal when Chris Cadden fired past Gordon. But, having watched his side secure the victory, Neilson now has a prolonged stint in Europe to look forward to. And, while reaching the Scottish Cup final offers no guarantee, the accusation that he does not win the matches that matter can surely now be dispelled. But cup success would simply be the cherry on top of the icing of a delicious season and one they have earned the right to savour.

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