Having played behind Danny Wilson during a record-breaking Hearts title win, Neil Alexander knows the substantial void left by the departed captain.
New signing Blazej Augustyn is currently sizing up what Alexander labelled “big shoes to fill” as pre-season training begins.
It is a sizeable task for the Pole. Hearts conceded 26 goals in 36 games as they won last season’s Championship by 21 points. Wilson’s partnership with Alim Ozturk in central defence was a pivotal factor, as was Alexander’s consistency in goal.
With Wilson gone – he invoked a contract clause to leave for free last month – head coach Robbie Neilson must rebuild his defence. Augustyn, 27, arrived from Gornik Zabre on Thursday boasting experience of top-flight football in Italy. Little will have prepared him for the Scottish equivalent, nor the task of replacing Wilson.
“He’s a big loss – the captain and one of your most influential players,” said Alexander. “It’s big shoes to fill but we’re confident of bringing in the right people who will bring the right things and strengthen the team. It’s always a big loss when you lose your best players and Danny was certainly one of ours. We can only wish him all the best for the future.”
Wilson is now in talks with Rangers about a possible move back to Ibrox, which would result in him remaining in the second tier of Scottish football. A former Ibrox employee, Alexander is coy when asked about the decision facing his former colleague.
“Danny will make that decision, no-one else can answer that apart from Danny. I’m sure he’s got plenty options in front of him. At this point in his life and his career, I’m sure he’ll weight them all up and make the best decision that suits him.”
Whoever takes his place will be made well aware of the difficulties ahead for Hearts. Unusually for a newly-promoted team, they are targeting a top-six place in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Alexander argues they are simply aiming high.
“As a club, we set high standards for ourselves. Realistically, top six would be where we’re aiming. We’re not getting carried away. It will be a lot tougher than it was last year. We’re confident in the ability we have as a team. Hopefully the manager can bring in the right players and that will improve the team.
“It’s a big step up, physically and in terms of experience and the standard of football that’s getting played. We need to match that week in and week out. Last season we played a lot of attractive football and scored a lot of goals. It will be a lot tougher this year. If we can get anywhere near the standards we set last year, we can make life a lot easier for ourselves.”
If evidence was needed of the gulf between the Premiership and Championship, it came via Motherwell’s staggering 6-1 aggregate play-off final win over Rangers last month.
“I thought that would’ve been a lot closer,” admitted Alexander. “It just shows that Motherwell, even finishing second bottom, are still a tough team to play against.
“Celtic, Aberdeen, Dundee United and the likes will be the big, tough games, but Hamilton, Partick Thistle, Dundee and others are going to be even harder.
“They’re the teams who might be around you come the end of the season. You need to get points from them and they’re the games where the pressure lies.”
The Championship remains another attractive prospect this year in line with the Premiership. Hibs, Rangers and St Mirren, and with clubs like Falkirk and Queen of the South, is likely to make for a competitive division. Alexander will be watching closely whilst helping Hearts navigate their way around the top flight.
“Maybe at times last season the Championship was more exciting than the Premiership. I’d like to think Hearts had a bit to do with that given the type of football we were playing and the goals we were scoring. Having St Mirren, Rangers, Hibs, Falkirk – it’s going to be a hard league for anyone to get out of.
“We just proved it’s vital to win the league because going into the play-offs is a lottery. There’s no guarantees you will go up. Rangers were odds-on favourites at the start of last season. I said publicly that I felt Rangers would walk it. I’m glad I was wrong. It’s going to be tough for Rangers, Hibs and St Mirren. It will be interesting to see how that one pans out.”