Hearts will be a different team this year, says manager Robbie Neilson
Robbie Neilson believes the Hearts team facing Inverness Caledonian Thistle tonight will look completely different to the one which ended last season.
Having signed seven new players, the manager is ready for a fresh start as the Betfred Cup group phase begins against the Highlanders at Tynecastle Park.
Hearts sat bottom of the Premiership when the 2019/20 campaign was prematurely ended in March as coronavirus struck. They then suffered a controversial enforced relegation to the second tier.
Criticised for underperforming, the team has been revamped since Neilson returned as manager in June.
“Player-wise, we've changed quite a bit and we've managed to freshen things up,” he said. “If you look at the team that finished just before lockdown, it's totally different from the one that will start tonight.
“We've got that freshness and we're going into a campaign where we're expected to win every game and we want to start that tonight.”
“It's been a good pre-season but it's been a long pre-season as well. We had that feeling, especially in the last few games, that we were just ready to go and wanting something to play for rather than just these pre-season games. We're in a good place.
“The boys are itching to get going. There's still a few of them that came in a wee bit later, like [Andy] Halliday and [Mihai] Popescu, who need a bit more time. But the rest are up to speed and should be pretty much near match fitness for tonight.”
The Betfred Cup is high on Hearts’ priority list for the new campaign. “The league is the priority for us but we want to progress through the group stages and go as far as we can,” explained Neilson.
“We'd like to think we can get to the latter stages and possibly even win it. We've got a good squad here but the league is the priority. The Dundee game a week on Friday is the one we're gearing up towards.”
Asked whether the decision to cancel this season’s Challenge Cup was correct, Neilson replied: “For us, the priorities are league, Scottish Cup, League Cup then the Challenge Cup. For me, especially with the way things are going, it was the right decision not to carry it through.”
Craig Wighton and Jamie Brandon are in line to start tonight’s match at centre-forward and right-back respectively. Liam Boyce and Michael Smith are on Northern Ireland duty.
“We knew they were going to be away a while ago so we've managed to get Craig and Brandon a bit of game time going forward,” said Neilson.
“We've played the last couple of games starting them so they're looking good and it's a chance for them to go and stake their claim.”
Neilson expects Inverness, managed by the Hearts legend John Robertson, to attack in Edinburgh. “I know John very well. I played with him, played under him and I've coached against him. They'll come and have a go, they're always very attack-minded,” he said.
“John lost quite a number of players in the summer but he's kept a good squad. There's [Aaron] Doran, [Miles] Storey, [James] Keatings, who I had here and is a top finisher, and [Nikolai] Todorov, so it's still a strong team.”