The Edinburgh club want the minimum of a top-six finish after winning the Championship title and promotion back to the top flight at the first attempt. Neilson acknowledged there is significant work to do – particularly with regards to signing players – in order to realise that ambition.
“The target first and foremost is to try and get in the top six. There's a lot of good teams up there that have been in the league for a while now so we need to recruit very well in the summer,” said the manager.
“There's a very good core to the squad but we need to make changes. The objective in year one was promotion, year two try to get into the top six, then year three push on from there. We don't want to get too far ahead but the main aim is to get into that top six.”
A recruitment drive is coming at Tynecastle Park and securing promotion by mid-April helps planning. “The earlier you wrap it up the better and this year we’re on a level playing field with everyone else,” explained Neilson.
“Last year we were very late going into the market because we didn’t know whether we were going to be in the Championship or the top flight.
“We then had the league starting and us training a lot later so we missed out on a lot of targets we wanted to bring in. Also, players didn’t want to come and play in the Championship so this year we’ve managed to get over the line early and we can start planning.
“We’re a team that is going to be in the top flight, we know when the league is going to start so it gives us a much bigger advantage than last year.”
Neilson confirmed Hearts are still waiting to hear if Andy Irving will accept the offer of a new contract. He also addressed the issue of youth players like Irving breaking into the first team, and why more didn’t do so in this season’s Championship.
“It’s been a difficult year for them all. The only ones who could train with us were the ones who were in the first-team group. The under-18s couldn't train and the guys who we put out on loan couldn’t train because they were involved in a different [biosecure Covid] bubble.
“This year our main objective was to get promoted and make sure we win week in, week-out. It’s been a tough year for the younger ones. Generally they’ll filter in and out of the first team and play with the under-18s, the reserves, train with the first team for a bit, go on loan and merge with the first-team group.
“We couldn’t do it this year. The ban on training for the non-first team players made it very difficult. I can see the disappointment in some of them not getting first-team football but it’s the way the year has panned out.
“We hope to get back to some normality in the summer where these guys can filter in and out of the reserves, the 18s and the first team and develop them to come into the team.”