Robbie Neilson’s men are stretched to the limit right now, the squad shorn of 11 first-team players as injuries and fatigue take their toll. Three matches in a week, with Hearts involved in Europa Conference League group-stage football, have put massive demands on the squad. That’s the price of success and while the Hearts manager would much rather be playing matches against Fiorentina than sitting idle, being back at their Oriam training base has allowed them to regroup.
“This is the first free week we have had in a few months and we have been able to prepare for Saturday,” said Neilson. “We have been able to get a couple of boys back fit, so it has been good to have that. A few of the lads trained on Thursday and we will have a couple who will take part on Friday. Peter Haring will miss it due to concussion protocol which is disappointing, but Andy Halliday will make it and a few of the others will be in contention.
“It bolsters the squad, a bit of experience as we were running with a lot of younger boys who aren’t quite ready. It’s good to get some of them back and by the end of the month I expect a few more to come back. Nathaniel Atkinson has rolled his ankle and he should be one of the ones towards the end of the month. We are disappointed to lose him but he won’t be out long term.”
Currently seventh in the cinch Premiership table, Hearts are only three points behind third-placed Hibs with a game in hand. Last Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to direct rivals Aberdeen cast a shadow over a team that sauntered to third position last season but no-one is panicking at Tynecastle. The league is congested and Neilson knows time is on their side.
“If you look at the last few games, we haven’t picked up the results but we are creating chances,” continued Neilson. "We know we aren’t defending as well as we should, but there’s a reason for that. We have had to chop and change things through injuries, that adds to what is happening. Once we get the players back we will get that consistency back.
“The league will be tight this year. You will have Rangers and Celtic in the top two positions but it is the job of everyone else to get close to them. If you do that then you will come away from the rest of the group. I knew with the European games and going into the World Cup break, it was always going to be difficult for us due to the amount of games and travelling. A lot of the teams outside the Old Firm have a great season and get into Europe, then they have a bad season. At the end of the season we want to be in a position that we get group-stage football again. We’ve probably not picked up the results we wanted but we are still in that area and contention to be there.”