Catching second-placed Aberdeen in the Ladbrokes Premiership is a difficult, but not impossible, task set by Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson. He believes his players are capable of overhauling the nine-point gap from third to second, although he acknowledged it is a tall order.
Hearts welcome Inverness Caledonian Thistle to Tynecastle tonight and will close to within six points of Aberdeen with a win. The Pittodrie club have played one game more than their Edinburgh rivals. They are in action tomorrow evening at Tannadice against bottom-of-the-table Dundee United.
Weekend results went Hearts’ way as teams immediately above and below them dropped points. Neilson challenged his players to catch Aberdeen as they tackle three successive home matches – which started with Saturday’s 1-0 win over Kilmarnock.
“Obviously we’re coming off the back off a good result on Saturday against Kilmarnock,” he said. “We play Inverness and then Partick on Saturday, which is good because it’s three games at home that we’re wanting to take maximum points from. We’ve won the first game, so it’s now a case of carrying that on.
“I was pleased with the other results on Saturday, obviously. We came in and saw that Aberdeen and St Johnstone had drawn, which was ideal for us – and Ross County lost, which was another wee lift. That gives players the feeling that there’s a wee bit of a gap to us in third. But the main aim now is to aim above us.
“It’s going to be very difficult to catch Aberdeen because, in my opinion, they’ve been the second-best team in Scotland for the last few years. They’ve got good players, a very good manager and they have experience in the right areas. So it’s going to be tough to get close to them. But that’s our aim.
“Our long-term plan is simply to get better and hope that the team next season is better than it’s been from January till the end of this season, which means trying to use the window well. It’s all about progressing all the time and trying to push on.”
Striker Gavin Reilly feels Hearts may already have overachieved by sitting third in their first season back in the Premiership. However, he too is aiming higher. “After the start we made, winning five of the first six, it put us in a good position,” he explained. “We’re a newly-promoted team and maybe we’ve overachieved.
“But we’re at a big club here and you strive to finish as high up the table as possible. We’ll just keep working week in, week out and hopefully keep progressing. We’re third at the moment, with an eye on second. We’ll see how it goes.
“It’s not certain that we’ll finish third but we’d like to think we’re in a good position to finish there. You’ve always got to aim higher and second place is up for grabs. I’m not going to say we’re going to get it, but that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Neilson declared himself delighted with his most recent acquisition, John Souttar, who joined Hearts for around £150,000 from Dundee United on transfer deadline day. “I see John as a centre-half. That’s where his long-term position will be, but when Callum Paterson went off on Saturday he shifted over to right-back. He’s played there numerous times for Dundee United so it wasn’t an issue for him.
“I knew he was a good player – that’s the reason we paid money for him. We don’t usually pay money for young players like that but when you see a player that’s available and has real potential then it was a no-brainer to bring him in.
“He has come in and performed, trained brilliantly and worked his way into the team. He played centre-half and then right-back on Saturday and, already, you can see that he’s got a lot of quality.
“John is strong, physical, very quick – but he’s got great technique on the ball as well. Some people think a big, tough centre-half should just shell the ball up the park. John doesn’t do that, he passes it. But he’s also got good physicality.”
Inverness striker Miles Storey is yet to taste the Tynecastle atmosphere but experience from England tells him it can be a powerful weapon tonight – in Caley Thistle’s favour.
He grew up idolising Wolves, joined their youth team, and remembers how the intimidating Molineux environment could be a double-edged sword.
The on-loan Swindon Town player, said: “I was a Wolves fan when I was younger and there are similarities. They have an intimidating support at the stadium who get right on top of the opposition and it can really work in their favour.
“But if they don’t score in the first 45 minutes then the fans can really get on their back, so if we score first and dominate the ball, create a few chances, it could work in our favour.”