Dundee United were the closest challengers 13 points behind. Hibs and Aberdeen, both playing five games of bottom six football, trailed by 16 and 20 points respectively. The reward was guaranteed European group stage football, no League Cup group stage and no early start to the domestic campaign.
Yet, it has just turned September and the reality has become evident in a condensed fixture card due to the World Cup in Qatar later this year. The Thursday-Sunday-Wednesday-Saturday-Thursday-Sunday schedule is taking its toll already.
There will be many who view this predicament as my wallet's too small for my fifties and my diamond shoes are too tight but, currently, it appears that Hearts simply don’t have the squad to give all the games everything, contributing to a run of five defeats in six. The latest came at Livingston, a 1-0 reverse at Livingston on the back of dropping into the Europa Conference League and been knocked out of the Premier Sports Cup.
Craig Gordon, Michael Smith, Craig Halkett, Jorge Grant, Liam Boyce, Nathaniel Atkinson, Cammy Devlin, Kye Rowles and Andy Halliday have all had illness or injury issues to contend with since the league kicked off at the end of July. Beni Baningime remains out for the long term.
Transfer market and fatigue
The unfortunate timing of injuries to Rowles and Boyce has put a different spin on a transfer market. The players who have arrived have already contributed positively to the first-team dynamic. Prior to the St Johnstone game last weekend, the only position that truly needed addressed was attacking midfielder. Some supporters fretted last week as the clock ticked down to the close of the window. Panic shopping is not something Hearts tend to do any more. It is far more deliberate and considered.
The situation is such that Neilson, at the start of September, has mentioned “fatigue” and how it’s impacting the intensity in which the team attacks.
“Similar to Wednesday night, we didn't have that spark because of fatigue in the team," he said. “We need to get that energy back for the final moment."
At the end of the Kilmarnock loss in the League Cup, Smith looked puggled after coming across the pitch to win a tackle. As well as physical fatigue for players who have been carrying knocks and niggles, there is also the mental fatigue. An issue which becomes more pronounced following disappointment, having to pick yourself up to go again and again.
Conference League beginnings
With İstanbul Başakşehir up next to begin the Conference League group stage, it presents Neilson with an intriguing dilemma, considering what he has witnessed so far this campaign. Does he prioritise either Europe or the league? Does he look to strike a balance? Or does he go all out, treating the next two-and-a-half-months of football as a sprint before the players can get a well earned break.
Aussie midfielder Devlin played down the excuse of “chopping and changing the team”. So far 35 alterations have been made, an average of more than four game to game.
But it is only natural for that to have an impact. Those in reserve don’t have the same quality, experience or consistency as the core of the 13/14 strongest players. It also takes time for relationships and partnerships to foster. That development progresses the quickest through games.
From a player perspective, every individual wants to be part of the European occasions. Those are the special nights which the players have worked tirelessly to earn or moved to Edinburgh to be involved in.
“We’re all super excited about being in Europe and we have a great chance to go on and play good football on the European stage," midfielder Cammy Devlin said.
“It’s difficult because you’re not used to it [the schedule]. I’ve never done it before, but I’m a player and I want to play games as much as I can.
“Every player will tell you he wants to play games rather than training. We get to do it twice a week at the moment. We are loving playing games, we just need to be better in them."
He added: “The league is where we earned the right to be in Europe and that should really be our bread and butter – to come to places like this [Livingston] and win.”
Importance of third
The European games are moments for everyone connected with the club to be able to enjoy and make the most of. But it is also the case of getting back there, again and again.
Doing so allows for more investment in the squad, both in terms of quality and depth. It brings more experience to the club, from the players to management, of handling and getting used to the midweek demands.
That's why finishing third is so important again this season, especially with heavy investment at Aberdeen and Hibs.
The good news for Hearts is that despite recent struggles – and that's all they currently are, recent struggles, rather than any sort of crisis – they sit fourth, the same number of points as third-place Aberdeen and have two more points than Hibs.
After the last couple of weeks, the next few become important in getting league points on the board, developing a strategy, using the international break to reset and refresh, bringing players back from injury because October is when Neilson and his team will truly be tested.
There are eight games in 30 days. Fiorentina are opponents twice, while there are trips to Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Ross County, plus home games against Rangers, Celtic and RFS.
For all the discussion amongst fans, for the disappointments in the last couple of weeks, such a month should excite and entice but also serve as a reminder of the potential rewards that lie in wait for finishing third.