ROBBIE Neilson believes that Hearts have successfully navigated the most arduous portion of their campaign, acknowledging that his players can now see the finish line in their race back to the Scottish Premiership.
The Tynecastle head coach has been understandably reticent to present the Championship title as a foregone conclusion, even in the face of a lead over Hibernian and Rangers which becomes more unassailable with every passing week.
However, he has accentuated the importance of emerging unscathed from the notoriously taxing winter months, lauding his player’s work ethic and diligence amid the darkening days, whipping winds and muddy pitches of Scotland.
Even a first league defeat of the season at home to Falkirk on 24 January has only served to strengthen Hearts’ resolve, spurring them on to a three-match winning streak.
And Neilson has no intention of allowing that commitment to wane as the sun re-emerges and the gleam of the Championship trophy comes into full view. “I think the hardest part of the season is probably from about December to around now,” Neilson explained. “I think we have managed to get through it.”
Twenty-five points from a possible 30 during that period would certainly back up that claim. He continued: “Once you get into March, the sun comes out, the training is a wee bit better – it’s not windy and wet and it’s not pitch black in the morning. You have the light at the end of the tunnel of the end of the season.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world [during those months] to come in and say ‘it’s wet outside, let’s just work on the bikes or go down to the pool’.
“You might get away with that for a week or two, but six weeks down the line it will hit you. They have worked hard, kept up the double or triple sessions and we are still fit and ready for this run-in.
“The target is to get over the line as quickly as possible and, to do that, we need to win every game.”
Given, as Neilson acknowledges, the end of the season is fast approaching, talk this week has turned towards contract negotiations, specifically with Miguel Pallardo and Adam Eckersley, two hugely impressive performers this term. Both players are out of contract in the summer but are thought to be content in Gorgie, while the club certainly see them both as part of next season’s set-up, should they cement promotion.
However, any extensions are likely to wait until they have Championship winners’ medals around their necks. It is an approach which bears the hallmarks of a regime that has no intention of repeating the mistakes of the past.
“The players already know my thoughts on them and trying to get them tied up,” he continued. “I don’t see it as major issue. I’m confident they will get done.
“We have to be realistic, though. The league isn’t won yet. I can’t offer guys Scottish Premiership money and then we don’t get there – and the club ends up back in the position it was a year ago. I can’t go to [chairwomen] Ann [Budge] now and say: ‘I want him signed up on top-flight money’, when we don’t know where we’ll be. Once we know, we can alter our budget.”
As one of the most consistently challenging away venues in the second tier, a win at Queen of the South this afternoon would serve to underline Hearts’ determination not to give their erstwhile title rivals even a modicum of hope. Despite posting a 3-0 win at Palmerston Park in October, Neilson heaped praise on James Fowler’s side and suggested they should not be discounted when considering who will be playing top-flight football next season.
“Down there we found it really difficult in the first 25 minutes,” he recalled. “We cleared one off the line and they hit the post.
“I expect it to be just as hard this time. If Queens do get into the play-offs I think [Palmerston Park] will be a difficult place to go. Both Queens and Falkirk, whichever side is in there, shouldn’t be discounted.”
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