IF THE signing of Genero Zeefuik proves anything, it is that Hearts are set upon winning the SPFL Championship any which way they can.
They have played some lovely passing football this season, but one quality about Hearts which is not perhaps immediately obvious when contemplating their Championship record is that they can change personnel, formation and style of play to suit circumstances.
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It’s one of the reasons why manager Robbie Neilson has led his men to the comfortable lead which they hold over their next opponents, Rangers. So much so that, even if they lose to the Glasgow club at Ibrox on Friday, they will still have a sizeable points lead. Win and the Championship will be all but heading to Tynecastle.
Zeefuik’s loan signing from Groningen is another reason to believe they can secure the title. The big fellow’s two goals and assist on his debut against Dumbarton yesterday underlined the variety he will bring to the Hearts attack. “He is very different from what we’ve got,” said Neilson. I have [James] Keatings, who is fantastic in the box, Osman Sow, who can run over the top and is a threat in the air, Dale Carrick, who can run the channels and can harry people all day.
“It means we can go a bit more direct if we need to. He can cause problems – if we’re one-nil down with five minutes to go we can put balls into the box and he’ll cause problems.”
It’s about being able to adapt, said Neilson: “The formation we play, we can change it. The style of play, we can change it. We did it against Cowdenbeath where we put Calum [Paterson] up front because we didn’t have that physical threat, so now we’ve got it and it means we can play Calum in his proper position so, if we need to go to Ibrox and change the style, then we’ll do it.”
The signing was another foreign foray for Neilson and football director Craig Levein, and Neilson has no hesitation in saying why Hearts have looked to the Continent.
“It’s about value for money,” said the manager. “You go down to England and the guys are on huge salaries and they don’t want to come to Scotland. There’s a stigma about leaving England for Scotland, they think it’s not going to progress your career, so you get huge value for money in the foreign market, in Holland and Spain in particular, but really anywhere apart from England.
“Even in Scotland it’s difficult to get players, because they want too much money. We’ve managed to get a guy in who moved for half-a-million euros just over two years ago. We’ve managed to get him in within our budget – it just shows there is value out there if you can source them.”
Though he’s resigned to losing players sometime in the next two transfer windows (winger Jamie Walker has already been linked with a move to Spanish side Real Betis), Neilson feels that Hearts, along with other clubs, can now hold on for better deals. He said: “The stability of the club is having a huge bearing on it. A couple of years ago, clubs were going month to month, week to week, and were desperate for cash. But now they’re not.
“Look at Dundee United, they are in a great position to hold out for the right figure and that works well for everyone. It works well for the clubs, it works well for the fans because that money will be reinvested, and it works for the player too, because if there’s a boy that an English club has paid £3 million for, then they need to play him.
“He’s not going down there like a guy they’ve bought for £10,000 and the manager is under no pressure to play him – he’s now got pressure to play the boy that he’s bought for £3m. It works well for everyone but it has to come from the financial security of the club, and we have got it here.”
Rangers hold no fears for Hearts, even at Ibrox, but Neilson respects their personnel. He added: “They are still very good players regardless of their situation in the league table. Wallace, McGregor, McCulloch, Foster – these guys are top players. You go through their team and they are all good players.
“I expect a physical game. It is two teams at the top of the league, desperate to get promoted. Everyone is going to be fully committed. That’s what we expected the last time and we definitely got that. So we need to be prepared again.
“There were a few challenges which were borderline and probably over the line. There were a few from our players which could have warranted more punishment as well.
“We speak about keeping our discipline before every game. It’s important to keep 11 players on the pitch, regardless of the opposition it is difficult to get a result with ten men.”
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