Hearts expect 'a more vocal and driven team' from now on
The under-fire Edinburgh club travel to Dunfermline on Saturday with Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon, Northern Ireland defender Michael Smith and new loan signing Shay Logan in their squad.
Gordon and Smith were badly missed during international fortnight as Hearts lost in the Scottish Cup at Brora Rangers and suffered a home league defeat against Queen of the South.
Both matches were notable for defensive errors and lack of on-field leadership, with some fans calling for the removal of manager Neilson and owner Ann Budge. Logan’s arrival adds further expertise as Neilson prepares to reorganise his back line this weekend.
“We have a number of senior players coming back into the group again. When you lose the likes of Michael Smith, Craig Gordon, Steven Naismith and Stephen Kingsley, it's quite a number who bring that leadership. We didn't have Andy Halliday available either for that [Brora] game,” said the manager.
"When people like that are missing it will always be a loss to the group. Last Saturday, we were still without a number of them but they're all coming back now, so I would expect to see a more vocal, more driven team.
“We went into the last two games with a totally different back four from what we've been playing all season. We had a different keeper in, a left-back in and we had to shuffle the pack with Craig Halkett going to right-back.
“Bringing Michael back and Craig back, and also Shay Logan coming in, gives us more numbers in there. We'll get people playing in their correct positions, maybe with one or two shifting about. There will be a little bit more balance within the team.”
Logan is poised to make his Hearts debut at East End Park after agreeing a loan deal for the final five games of the campaign. Hearts need only two wins to secure the Championship title and automatic promotion back to the Premiership.
“He's an experienced player who has played 400 or 500 games in the Premiership,” said Neilson of Logan. “It's not like a novice coming into the team where you have to explain everything for him. We will keep things simple for him. I'm sure he'll pick it up no problem.
“I thought Craig did really well for Scotland on Wednesday and he produced another world-class save at 1-0. I’m delighted for him. Hopefully he continues that form with us and that cements his place in the international squad for the summer, which would be brilliant.
“It is huge having a guy like him back, plus Steven Naismith and Michael Smith are back and Shay Logan has come in. It is important they bring that ability and leadership.”
Tynecastle officials have endured a difficult couple of weeks as discontent among supporters led to a small number protesting outside the stadium last weekend.
Neilson acknowledged that results and performances have not been good enough of late, advising all concerned to take the criticism on the chin.
“It is part and parcel of being a manager, you can do all the courses you want on tactics but when the chips are down it is about keeping everyone together and you push forward,” he said.
“For me, there has been a lot of external noise but in here we are trying to focus on what needs to be done. If you are at a club and you lose two games and there is no criticism, then either expectations are very low or you aren’t at a big club.
“It comes with the territory and you have to take it and use it as motivation. I spoke to the players about it not being acceptable but they have to put it right. You can talk to the press, talk at the training ground but the only way to put it right is by winning on a Saturday.
“We told the players before the Queen of the South game to keep it solid and do the basics right but we were 1-0 down after a minute and 15 seconds. It was a difficult start but to their credit we got back in it to 2-2.
Talk versus action
“We were in a commanding position but an error cost us and we lost the game. That was a disappointment, we can talk about doing this and that but now we have to go and do it.
“You want a good performance, you want to enjoy it and entertain, but we also want to win. It's about doing both. We've done that regularly this season and we need to continue that.”
Dunfermline are preoccupied with their own problems as they prepare to welcome Hearts. They have lost seven of their last ten games and are still recovering from a 5-1 thrashing in the Fife derby against Raith Rovers on Tuesday evening.
“I watched it. That's the Championship to a tee,” admitted Neilson. “Four weeks earlier, Dunfermline turned Raith over 4-1 and everyone thinks Dunfermline are going on a run. Then on Tuesday night the roles are reversed.
"It's a league where, if you're not at it 100 per cent, you can get turned over.”
Does he expect a response from the Pars on Saturday? “I certainly hope not. We will wait and see. We can all talk about going to do this or that. It will tell the story on Saturday at three o'clock.”