“We are aiming upwards and will need to work hard for a result but we have a great chance to go top – for a day anyway,” he said. “It is a motivation for the players. We want to keep winning games and if we can get ourselves to the top of the league, it puts pressure on other teams. But we need to beat St Johnstone first.”
That proved beyond them when the teams met in the League Cup at the start of the season, offering further motivation to the Gorgie side.
“We were disappointed with that first game but, looking back on it, we played very well for 70 minutes, then lost a couple of sloppy goals,” said Neilson. “But over the years McDiarmid Park has been a happy hunting ground for us, we’ve had a few results there.
“My players are in a good place right now, with the way they are performing and the results they’ve had. The players can see the squad we have built and the competition for places. If we can get a result on Saturday then it gives them another lift and proves we can compete at the top.”
There have been positives to cling to in recent weeks, with a draw at Pittodrie kickstarting an upturn in fortunes and three subsequent victories have helped make up for a shaky start to the season, where the club let themselves down in Europe before a league defeat by Celtic was followed by that swift cup exit.
“You play at a big club then you need to realise that after a couple of losses there will be criticism,” said Neilson. “There will be pressure. All we can do is focus on the long term. There is not a lot of patience in football right now and, as a player, club and coach, you need to try to see through everything that gets thrown at you. I’ve got a few leaders in there. We recruited Don [Cowie] in January, and he sets the tone in the way we play and how I want the players to be, Connor [Sammon] came in during the summer and is important, Perry Kitchen is another who leads by example. Those are probably the three that lead the team and there are others just behind them who drive the team as well.”
In Tony Watt he has landed a effervescent force in the dressing room and on the pitch and is confident that there is more to come from the Scotland striker. Despite only notching one goal in his six appearances so far, Neilson says he is a player who can create chances and generate excitement.
“Tony has been great to manage,” he added. “He’s a bundle of energy on the training ground and just wants to play football and we will give him the opportunity to do that at Hearts. I couldn’t ask any more from him and with the talent he has got you have to get him on the ball in good areas. There aren’t a lot of players in Scotland who every time you give him the ball you feel that something is going to happen.
“The players and the supporters feel that too and you have to fit guys like that in your team and play them whenever you can.”
The former Celtic forward was added to the squad in the summer, happy to head north again, on loan from Charlton. Neilson claimed to be surprised at landing him, given his calibre, and Hearts have already made it clear that they would love to make the deal a permanent one. But with another year to run on his contract after this season, Neilson says that would depend on the player as well as his parent club.
“I would love to try and get him into the club if I can,” said Neilson. “He took a substantial hit on his salary to come up here as he wanted to play first-team football again and to be back in Scotland and to be near his family. But he is an asset to Charlton and if he comes up here and does really well then he will be a bigger asset to them. We will see what transpires in his season here.”
At a disciplinary tribunal yesterday it was decided to expunge the yellow card Watt received against Hamilton from his record, disagreeing with match official Craig Thomson, who booked him for simulation at the time. It was a welcome outcome for Neilson, who says there have been no signs of the laziness or bad behaviour the player was accused of earlier in his career.
“He’s been no problem at all for me,” said Neilson. “I spoke about this and that with him and had a chat when he came in but since then it’s been fine. I think in the past people have said things and not known Tony as a person and as a player and made judgments as they do. Tony was another one who came onto the scene early as a young kid and expected things just to happen for him. He is now a lot more mature.
“I was surprised to get him to be honest as he was playing in the [English] Championship last season and doing well. I know Charlton got relegated but there were teams lining up to take him.”