This time he's staying: Robbie Neilson on last time his Hearts side faced Rangers in midweek at Tynecastle
It’s hard not to think about the win just over six years ago during his first spell in charge and on what was an emotional night in Gorgie. Relations between some fans and Neilson had become strained, with many identifying the previous season’s Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Hibs as the principal reason. Still, Hearts leapfrogged Rangers into second place with a victory secured by a double from Robbie Muirhead, who’s now at Morton. Some fans even started singing Neilson’s name at the end while that much-loved old sound of feet drumming on the main stand’s wooden floor also resounded round the ground. That sound won’t ever be back. Work to tear down the main stand started just a few weeks later.
But Neilson did return. Although a win this evening would only see Hearts draw to within ten points of second-placed Rangers, the long-term future looks very rosy indeed. The manager has recovered from a slightly alarming run of form earlier this season, when his side were juggling European and domestic commitments amid an injury crisis, to put together a ten-game unbeaten run.
Hearts are unarguably the third best team in the country, whatever Michael Beale says. While the Ibrox side are undoubtedly better than they were six years ago under Mark Warburton – they lost 4-1 to Ian Cathro’s team under the lights at Tynecastle just over two months later – so too are the home side, although, perhaps surprisingly, Hearts have lost their last three home games against Rangers.
Neilson felt able to rest five likely first-team starters in Sunday’s 0-0 draw at Livingston. He clearly rates his side’s securing a result tonight and rightly so. “I didn’t realise that was the last time we played them (under me) at night at Tynecastle,” said Neilson. “That was a long time ago … 2016? I had a full head of hair back then! There is nothing better than Tynecastle under the lights. I know people talk about it but when you are out there on the pitch or on the sidelines, there is something special about it,” he added. “It can create an atmosphere. It is up to us to bring that tomorrow night. If we can bring that energy and passion and the fans can reciprocate that then we have a chance.”
Beale knows he erred by referring to Aberdeen as the third-best in Scotland recently. Neilson has accepted that apology but wants to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the new Ibrox manager. “We always talk about aiming up the way here," he said. “We don’t want to start looking at what’s below us and thinking about all these clubs. There is no doubting that, with the financial divide, it is difficult to get there. But we have to try and aim to get closer and closer. Whenever we get them (the Old Firm) at home, we feel we have a real chance. If we can do that consistently, the next step is can we do it away from home? That’s been the biggest issue probably for all clubs outside the Old Firm.”
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