WITH no points at stake, there are still plenty of people with points to prove as Hearts travel to Rugby Park this evening for their League Cup tie.
It is in the knockout contests that Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has tended to tinker with his starting line-ups, resting players and offering others game time, happy to focus primarily on the league results. But this term, with silverware also a target and against his predecessor as Tynecastle boss and against a sprinkling of players he deemed surplus to requirements, he says he will be taking few risks with his team selection against Kilmarnock.
This season we are taking all the cup competitions seriouslyRobbie Neilson
“I will look to play a strong team,” he said. “Last season the cups were not a high priority for us as the league was. This season we are taking all the cup competitions seriously and they are important to us. The league will always be the main priority for Hearts.”
But if he wants to ally performing well in the Premiership with a lengthy run in the cup tournaments, he knows that his men will have to be aware of the danger posed by former colleagues and friends, as a growing representation of past players aim to make a case for why they should still be at the Gorgie club.
“Players move on and they go to different clubs and it just so happens there are quite a few of them at Rugby Park,” said Neilson. “They are all good players and they are all good characters and none of them left here with any issues. The only reason they left was because I felt that they would not get game time here. They all went with our best wishes.
“If those players raise their game then so be it as it is up to us to go out there and try and win the game. We are confident of going to Kilmarnock and doing that and I have a good enough squad to do that. We will have to prove it on the night.”
Although a member of Gary Locke’s coaching team at Tynecastle before he replaced him as boss, Neilson says they haven’t spoken and their paths haven’t crossed since then, claiming one was focused on his role at Kilmarnock and the other preoccupied with guiding his men to Championship promotion.
But Billy King is looking forward to catching up with the man who helped keep his head above water despite being thrown in at the deep end while Hearts, stifled by signing restrictions and a points deduction, struggled through a season embroiled in an ultimately unsuccessful battle to escape all but inevitable relegation.
“I owe him a lot,” said King. “He is Hearts through and through and a massive figure. It was a tough time for Lockey as well because he was having to play young, inexperienced players like myself and there were not a lot of players to go with. He gave the club a lot and he has taken a few players in from Hearts to Kilmarnock and they are good mates of mine, so it will be nice to see them again, but the most important thing is to try to win the game.”
The group of Gorgie old boys has been bolstered by the emergency loan signing of Mark Ridgers from St Mirren as goalkeeping cover. He was signed to alleviate a crisis brought on by the injury to first-choice keeper Jamie MacDonald. Further injuries and back-ups being cup tied while loaned to other clubs complicated Locke’s week further as he prepared to face his ex-employers.
“We had a similar situation in the League Cup [last season],” said Neilson. “Alexander was out Gallacher was out and Hamilton was cup-tied. There is not a lot you can do. You assemble your squad and you have two or three goalkeepers. Budgets dictate that you can’t carry four of five goalkeepers. But there is always somebody available.”
Neilson is confident his men will not be coming up against some kids pulled in from the youth ranks, but there is still uncertainty as to who he can field in his own ranks. Morgaro Gomis was finally expected back in Edinburgh last night, following his father’s funeral, while new signing Arnaud Djoum would be fit enough but Neilson was unsure if international clearance would be through in time.
But with Hearts losing their past three fixtures, while Kilmarnock have recovered from a poor start and finally found a way to win, recording victories in the last two Premiership games and moving up from the foot of the table, Neilson is sure that his men will need to recapture their early season form to make it into the draw for the next round.