Hearts v Hibernian: Neilson predicts epic battle
THERE was more than the victory to commend Heats for in their opening game of their Championship campaign. They weren’t firing on all cylinders when they defeated Rangers at Ibrox last weekend, but their intentions were clear.
The style of football the new Tynecastle manager Robbie Neilson wants was obvious. Absolute faith has been placed in the team’s technical qualities, the players’ ability to keep the ball, playing it out from the back and through the midfield. The work ethic was there last weekend, as was the mental resilience needed to come back from conceding a late, late equaliser and still leave with the victory.
There were times when their approach left them under the cosh, but there is a calmness about the gaffer which suggests that even if frustration boils up inside him, he is willing to stick with what he believes in, unwavering in his principles.
He has seen that reflected in his counterpart this afternoon, Alan Stubbs, and smiles when he talks about the possibility of actually seeing some football break out at Tyencastle this afternoon, despite the tensions associated with a meeting between city rivals.
“We spoke throughout the pre-season about how we were going to play, even at places like Ibrox. I’ve tried to instil a bit of confidence to allow them to pass the ball. Rangers pressed us early on at the weekend – they’d done their homework on us – and we took a few chances and played with risk. But you’re going to get that when you play the way we want to play. It’s important that I don’t get on the players’ cases if they make a mistake because I know we’ll get better with time.”
There is obvious scope for improvement, but he hopes that walking away from Ibrox with all three points gives players and fans confidence in the manager’s philosophy.
“Obviously, if we’re trying to attract players here, performances like Sunday are massive. Players have to buy into it. But that happens when you win. It builds enthusiasm and confidence. It’s vital that we don’t think Rangers was the be all and end all. We must win our next game now.”
If ever a game could overshadow that opening day success, it’s a derby. So often Hearts have had the upperhand in recent years, so often they have shown that their grit and willingness to battle usurped Hibs’. It hasn’t always made for pretty encounters and Neilson isn’t necessarily promising something that delicate today but he does hope that the content will prove more charming and the overall package more attractive.
“Hibs also want to play attractive football this season so hopefully Sunday will be a good game to watch. I’ve watched them a few times and they’re passing it well. I watched them last Saturday and they played well, tried to pass it. They moved the ball well across the back, into midfield and out wide. They have some dangerous players, guys that I quite like as players and, yes, 100 per cent, the confidence is there. You can see that from the way their manager conducts himself on the sidelines. He’s letting the boys play. You can see guys that last season were maybe a wee bit nervous in situations are taking it and dealing with it.”
As a player Neilson has enjoyed his fair share of the Edinburgh derby and refuses to play it down and dismiss it as just another three points, the way some managers do.
“It’s another game in terms of the league but it’s a huge game for the city and the club. It’s two teams that have been relegated down to the Championship and are battling to get back up again and a game like this is huge to laying down a marker.”
In the past it was players who did that. The hefty challenges dished out like warnings to ambitious strikers and creative midfielders. But he insists that times have changed.
“There was a few times [when football broke out] but not too often. I usually managed to stop it!” He says with a wee grin.
“In the past, that’s the way football was, even before I played. It was always a very physical game but now the physical side is starting to die out of the game a little bit. I think football is changing now. In the last five or ten years, tackling early doors to put a mark on the game has stopped because you get booked. Referees are refereeing it differently now, it is just the way football is. It’s not quite as physical and we are getting to see more football, which is great for the fans and good for the technical players.
“It will start off 100 miles per hour and people pressing all over the pitch but eventually it will die down a little bit and we’ll start playing some football. Part of it is about that fight and spirit, but we are now starting to see a bit more football in all games, no matter where you play. The technical side of it as opposed to the football side of it.
“If you put in a meaty challenge now and mistime it by half a second you are off the pitch. You can’t do it as much now.
“It’s the guys who stick to the gameplan and know exactly what they are doing in situations that will come through.”