ROBBIE Neilson always knew this could be an important week. Hearts’ season won’t be defined by it, but ambitions could need refining, depending on results.
A couple of weeks ago, his side were being compared to the impressive Hearts team that started the 2005-06 season in a hurry and ended it in second place. A slip-up at Hamilton at the end of last month brought their sequence of wins to an end but, so soon into their rebuilding process, it was probably an unrealistic likeness to be drawing.
Today at Tynecastle, though, Aberdeen have the opportunity to equal that start to a domestic season and the similarities seem more legitimate. They have grown and evolved into something that can be considered a genuine threat to established dominance, they have the strength in depth to stay the course and they have the winning mentality and togetherness that was honed by George Burley in that Hearts team a decade ago.
But to make it eight wins in a row they will need to beat Hearts, which is why Neilson, who featured in that glory season for Hearts, is willing to laud Aberdeen but not ready to determine if they offer a more valid comparison. Not yet.
“I’ll tell you after Sunday!” he said. “They’re a very good squad but it’s a long, long season and to go and challenge again like they did last year will be difficult. Celtic have the clout to go in January and spend big. They’ve just spent millions on a centre-half, which other teams can’t afford to do. If Aberdeen or anyone else is up there in January, the cheque book will be out and there’ll be big players coming in.”
Finishing in the top six was always the stated ambition for Hearts this term, but the start to the campaign stirred up higher aspirations in some fans, players and the media. Defeats by Hamilton and then Inverness have added a bit of calm and perspective, but a win this afternoon, in front of a sell-out crowd, and they will end the day just three points adrift of the Pittodrie side.
“It’s a good time to play them, because if you’re going to pick a game to play after two defeats on the bounce, Aberdeen at home is it,” Neilson added. “Sell-out crowd, huge game, fantastic atmosphere, it’s on TV, there’s a big build-up.”
The players are up for it. They took time out this week to build on the team bonding. “We went for some food – for a Nando’s, as people might guess!” said winger Sam Nicholson. “It was good to get out as a team because the bonding side of things is massive as a team. We were a close squad last season – and we are this season, too – but we need to keep building on that. It’s the first time we have done that this season. Last season we did it a lot but it’s a bit different when you are winning every game. After the two defeats, that can play on the mind, so we decided to go out for a meal as a team and it has helped. Everyone has settled in really well, but you still need to put in the effort to build as much of a relationship as you can. That was our thinking the other day and we are going to try to do that more and more.”
Everything is a building process. Building towards something better as a club, building the points one game at a time, building on top-flight experience and improving bit by bit, stopping along the way to reassess and tweak. It is an approach Aberdeen have used well.
“They’ve had a fantastic start but they’ve just carried it on from last year,” admitted Neilson. “They’ve recruited well – they’ve not brought a lot of players in but they’ve kept a strong squad. They also only had about three weeks of a close season, then came back in and played six European games so they’re bang on right now, like they’re in mid-season. You expect the majority of teams in Europe to start well, which makes it difficult for us, but we’re in a good place getting a few boys back fit again and it’s going to be a great game.”
Despite being a useful measure of where Hearts are, this afternoon’s game won’t make or break their season, according to Nicholson.
“Yes, we would hope to have a better idea where we are after this week, but it’s still a long season,” he said. “Regardless of what happens in the next few games, there is still a long way to go. Some teams start the season well and die out, some start poorly and spring into action towards the end. You never really know. We just need to take it game by game and win as many as we can. But, yes, we could get more of an idea what the season will be like over the next few fixtures.”
It promises to be a pivotal seven days for Hearts. On Wednesday they will travel to Kilmarnock for a League Cup third round tie which pits them against former manager Gary Locke and a clutch of ex-players. Then, on Saturday, they are due to meet Celtic on league duty in Glasgow.