THE Championship flag will be unfurled at Tynecastle tomorrow but while it will serve as a reminder of all that was achieved last term, Hearts manager Robbie Neilson says the pomp and ceremony will mean little if they can’t get the new campaign off to a winning start.
An emphatic display of dominance, last season’s success was built on the foundation of an opening-day triumph at Ibrox. That early momentum served them well and, while the challenge is steeper, Neilson wants a similarly bright start to the club’s Premiership crusade.
“It’s great for the fans to get the flag but the players only enjoy games if they win and we need to make sure that we get the three points on Sunday,” he said. “If we do then I’m sure we will enjoy the whole day, if we don’t it will go a bit flat.
“It’s nice to get a win any time but we want to win our first game and then we want to go to Dundee and win that one. But we have to earn the right to win it and this season that will be a whole lot harder than it was last season.”
Winning the second tier title with plenty of time to spare led to Neilson’s men being given a few guards of honour in the following weeks and while he appreciated the sentiment, the manager was not a fan of the psychological baggage. He was concerned that it gave the other team a reason to view them as an even bigger scalp and perhaps caused his own men to take their eye off the ball, comforted by the knowledge that their primary task had already been completed.
With tomorrow representing a step into the unknown for some of the new signings, others in the squad are fully aware of the greater competition posed by Premiership peers and Neilson says he has no fears that the flag ceremony could prove a distraction
If you want to compete at any level at all, you have to be physically strong and quickRobbie Neilson
“I don’t think so,” he said. “With a guard of honour you give the opposition the motivation to have a go at you because they have been forced to applaud you on to the pitch, but it’s different with the flag. It’s put up and then we move on and play the game, so I’m sure it won’t be an issue and the players will be concentrating on the game.”
On Thursday night, against Arbroath, they failed to meet the standards expected of them this year but with some first-team regulars coming back from injury there will be some alterations to the starting line-up for the St Johnstone match.
“That was about giving players some game time and getting through the tie without injuries and we did that. The performance wasn’t great but we are in the hat [for the second round draw],” Neilson added.
Recovering from a poor first-half display to score four second-half goals and run out winners, that mental ability to bounce back from disappointment is something the players may have to rely on, with dropped points likely to be more commonplace than they were last season. But psychologically and physically Neilson feels his squad is strong enough.
Enlisting players with pace, power and presence, he has a more experienced and streetwise squad at his disposal.
“That’s football nowadays and if you want to compete at any level at all you have to be physically strong and quick,” he said. “You have to have good ability but it’s about physique as well if you want to challenge at the top of the leagues or play in Europe or down in England.
“You have to be physically strong. In Scottish terms we are quite a strong team physically now but we aren’t compared with English teams and over the summer I wanted to recruit guys who could come in and give us that physicality. They are fantastic football players but they are also a threat at set plays. I watched the Celtic game the other night and they got a goal from set play and that has become a huge part of the game.
“You are looking at guys who are 24, 25, 26 so they still have a long career ahead of them, but hopefully they can come to their peak with us and bringing guys in like that helps the dressing room as well. Their attitude and the way they look after themselves, the other boys see that and want to replicate that.
“That’s why when we recruit the boys we always look to find out what they are like as a person and we explain to them that their job is to play well for the team and help us be successful but another part of it is to try to help the young boys and they do that.
“I think the challenge will be guiding them through losses and loss of form as players and as a team. That will be my challenge. And getting the consistency. But if they were a ten out of ten and producing that every game, they probably wouldn’t be playing in Scotland and we have to understand that.”