AS HE contemplated a successful conclusion to their Championship campaign Robbie Neilson considers Hearts’ one league defeat to date to have been a pivotal moment in the season.
The Hearts manager was referring to the 3-2 loss to Falkirk earlier this year, which has proved to be their one blip so far. Aware the title could be wrapped up as soon as this weekend – although he was none too willing to elaborate on this prospect – Neilson now assesses the defeat to Peter Houston’s team as having had a positive effect in a fairly relentless march.
If Hearts beat the same opponents this afternoon and then Hibs and Rangers draw tomorrow the Tynecastle side will become the first senior team in Britain this season to be confirmed as champions. Not only that, but they would become the first side to be guaranteed promotion, something Neilson stressed was the prime objective at the beginning of the season.
Indeed, he explained that Hearts are now season ahead of schedule, which is good news for him as he prepares to enter discussions about his budget for the year ahead.
“We had a two-year target to get back up,” said Neilson. “We managed to do it in the first year which means that it helps the budget. It gives me a bit more money to bring guys in.”
Neilson is nearing an acceptance that the hard work has been done and it is only a matter of when rather than if the coronation takes place. He even dropped a “when” into the conversation, although it must be hard to remember to censor yourself during every answer at every press briefing.
“It will be nice to see the guys’ faces when they win it and how they feel as winners,” he said, when asked if the title win in his first full season as manager would represent the biggest achievement of his career.
It will, he said, but only because the glory will be shared out among players who have stuck to their task throughout a remarkably consistent season. According to Neilson, even when it has gone wrong it has gone right.
Hearts benefited from the loss to Falkirk in January because it meant that, at long last, talk of them completing an entire league season unbeaten was extinguished. This was a relief for Neilson, as it was his players.
“We were disappointed to lose the game but when you look back with hindsight it probably helped us,” he reflected. “It took pressure off us. I felt that in the weeks building up to that Falkirk game when we got beaten, there was a tension in the team. Every time we spoke to the press or to the fans it was: can we go through the season unbeaten? It was a good thing. You never like to lose games but it took that away.
“After that game, it has helped us massively. It gave us a wake-up call but it also took the pressure of us.”
Although Falkirk were comprehensively beaten at Tynecastle earlier this season, it has been a different story in their meetings since. Hearts were fortunate to come away with all three points on their last visit. They won 2-1 but had to withstand severe second-half pressure, as happened at Tynecastle when Falkirk were able to pull off that memorable win.
“In the first-half we dominated the game and they sat in,” said Neilson, with reference to the last meeting at the Falkirk Stadium. “But in the second-half he [Houston] changed his tactics and started to press us and made things difficult. They came here and did the same thing. So I am expecting the same again.”
Neilson knows Hearts have to take care of things by winning today in order for the result of tomorrow’s Hibs versus Rangers match to mean something significant for the Tynecastle men. A draw at Easter Road would seal Hearts’ position as champions.
It is perhaps fortunate that rather than sitting nervously in a seat at Easter Road, Neilson is due to be elsewhere. He will be on the windswept training pitches at the University of Stirling completing his Pro-Licence qualification, alongside fellow managers and coaches such as Dundee’s Paul Hartley. Assistant Stevie Crawford will be in situ at Easter Road.
“I will be checking my phone,” noted Neilson. “I am sure people will be texting me. But we need to take care of tomorrow first. A lot of people are getting ahead of themselves and saying that on Sunday this or that can happen.
“But first and foremost we need to take care of Falkirk.
“I would have gone to the game to have a look because we play Rangers and Hibs in the coming weeks,” he added. “But I will get a copy of the game and watch and will have Stevie’s report on it. You can’t influence it. What will be will be. If Rangers win or Hibs win we just have to deal with it.”
Midfielder Sam Nicholson is not xpecting to be given a night off to celebrate next week even if the title is secured this weekend.
“There will be time to celebrate at the end of the season,” he said. “We are in no rush. We need to get the last few games out of the way.”