Pre-season preparations are complete. Talks with key out-of-contract players begin this week. As has been the case this season, Robbie Neilson will leave nothing to chance as he embarks on stage two of the project to restore the Tynecastle club to the upper echelons of Scottish football.
The head coach celebrated on the pitch with his players at the end of Saturday’s 2-0 home win over Queen of the South – Hearts’ first match since being confirmed as champions a week ago. As Neilson explained after the game, wrapping up the title so early has given him a lengthy head start over the other clubs in the division whose future has yet to be decided.
“Pre-season is already planned,” he said. “We’ve got all the games in place. We know where we’re going and what we’re going to be doing, so it gives us an opportunity. We’re basically ready. That’s us for next season. We can get going. Hopefully we can get some new recruits in as well.
“If you go into the play-offs, you’re looking at 2 June before you know if you’re going to be in the Championship or the SPL. How far is that? Two months? It’s a lot of time to take off your planning for the following season.
“With any decent players out there, if you’re having to wait till 2 June before you can offer them a contract, the good ones will be away. So it’s great that we can now start preparing.
“We’re not getting carried away. We’ve just won the Championship, but we’re stepping up to a higher league. We definitely need to recruit and alter the squad a little bit.
“The nucleus will stay the same. There are great players here, great potential, young guys that are doing great and some older players that have been fantastic, but when you move up a level, you have to up your game a bit as well. A lot of preparation will need to be done. There are things we got away with this season that we won’t get away with next season. We’re going to speak to the guys who are out of contract, get their agents in and see what we can do. I think there’s a few coming in next week and the week after that as well. It’s important to speak to these guys and try and get them tied up, because they have given us so much this season.
“Everything falls into a budget, where we want to take the football club. Next season, we want to try and push to get into the top six, so if that means altering the squad a little bit, so be it.”
The last time Hearts were promoted back into the top flight, in 1983 as runners-up to St Johnstone, they were expected to struggle. Instead, they won their first five games and ended up qualifying for Europe.
This time round, expectations are a lot higher thanks to the calibre of Neilson’s squad and the mediocrity of much of the opposition they will face.
Nonetheless, the coach warned that his players cannot expect to dominate the Premiership as they have done the Championship.
“It will be difficult next season. Winning brings momentum, but sometimes you have to generate your own momentum by taking positives from defeat, things like that,” he said.
“It will be a different game, a different season next year. I don’t expect the kind of runs we did this year.”
Taking positives from defeat is something Hearts have only had to do once in the league so far this season, and they have done it impeccably, bouncing back from a defeat by Falkirk to win every game they have played since. Centre-half Alim Ozturk, who scored the second goal in the victory over Queens that made it nine in a row since that 3-2 loss in January, knows that next year will be harder, but he also has faith in the togetherness of the squad.
“It’s a very good team and we will get better because we fight for one another,” he said. “Next season will be a nice season for us. I think we can challenge in the top six, but you never know.
“We want that and we will fight for that. We will have a good pre-season and we will go again.
“Celtic are a very big club: they won the last three titles. They will be the favourites, but our target, and this is what I want as a player, is to finish the league minimum top six.
“We have a lot of young players and everyone is hungry. I have that feeling we can do well.”
While Neilson carries on with his planning, the players have that target of 99 points and 100 goals to aim for.
Their six remaining games include two against Rangers and one against Hibernian, so Ozturk knows that, even with the title in the bag, there can be no slacking.
“We have six games left and we will keep going. We will try and win every game, that’s for sure,” he added.
“We need to keep going. We do not have any pressure, but we want to finish the league in style. We want to get as many points as possible and hopefully win all the games.”
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