ROBBIE Neilson, the head coach, may have been correct to play down the comparisons in the aftermath of Wednesday’s comfortable win over Motherwell, but it is impossible to ignore the similarities between the current table-topping Hearts side and the swashbuckling team that illuminated Scottish football under George Burley a decade ago.
As a player in the 2005-06 team, Neilson is well placed to give his verdict, and he is right to note that the squad from ten years ago was a lot more experienced, not to mention far more expensively assembled and, by extension, of a higher quality than the one which he currently leads.
That does not mean there is no merit in comparison, however. The fact both teams won their opening three league games is reason enough, given that no other Hearts side in the intervening period has achieved the feat in the top flight. Another common theme is the positive impact made by a raft of previously unknown foreign recruits. Ten years ago, Takis Fyssas, a European Championship winner with Greece, Julien Brellier, Edgaras Jankauskas and the talismanic Rudi Skacel were among those featuring prominently in a magical period in the club’s history. This time round, Juwon Oshaniwa, an African Nations Cup winner with Nigeria, Blazej Augustyn, Igor Rossi and the new fans’ favourite, Juanma Delgado, have all wasted little time settling in and look equipped to help Hearts maintain their latest flawless start for a while longer.
While Burley’s team may have been of a superior standard, they were also operating in a league that was considerably stronger than the current Scottish Premiership. The competition for a top-three berth is likely to be significantly less formidable than it was a decade ago.
For Billy King, the main difference between 2005 and 2015 is that he has gone from starry-eyed 11-year-old supporter to key attacker, influencing the team’s fortunes. On Wednesday, his sparkling second-half performance, which included his team’s second goal, effectively finished off the challenge of a Motherwell side who had been widely tipped to do well this season. “We need to keep our feet on the ground, we have only played three games,” he cautioned. “But we have got off to a great start and, hopefully, we can keep that going.
“I was on the books at Hearts back then and went along to all the games in the Burley season. It was unbelievable. The players we had that season were incredible – they were my idols at the time. I looked up to all of them, Rudi Skacel, Deividas Cesnauskis – great players. That’s the generation we all aspire to here.”
In a further similarity to 2005, the team are being backed by capacity crowds at Tynecastle – albeit without the fireworks of then chief executive Phil Anderton – and sizeable away supports. The travelling fans at a friendly in Preston last month underlining the pre-season optimism around the club. Where previously the challenge was to split the Old Firm – which they did – now the emerging hope among the Hearts fans is that they can tap into the feelgood factor and give the big two of Celtic and Aberdeen some kind of run for their money.
“The support is unbelievable,” said King. “With the atmosphere at the start of the game it’s not difficult to get up for games like this when you have a full house and all the fans are singing and there’s a real buzz about the place. It’s unbelievable to play in.
“It helps us hit a high tempo. You saw the way we started the game against Motherwell, we were on the front foot and we never allowed them to get into their rhythm. We pressed them hard and it was high-intensity stuff. That’s the energy we get off the crowd when it’s a full house and that definitely helps.”
An additional bonus this team has – which Burley’s team didn’t – is that they already have a well-nurtured winning mentality after their runaway Championship title success last season.
“I’m not really surprised we’ve won our three games,” said King. “We had that mentality last season, when we won most games and we have carried that on to this season. I think we all believed we could win our first three games. We have got off to a great start and now we just need to keep it going. We have Ross County next and we’ll try and get the three points there.”