Hearts’ league title win has become even more important given the failure of both Hibs and Rangers to gain promotion from the Championship, according to head coach Robbie Neilson.
The Tynecastle club won Scotland’s second tier by 21 points and ended up being the only team to get out of the division as Queen of the South, Hibs and Rangers lost in the play-offs.
Neilson set out with the aim of winning the title and automatic promotion when he took charge of Hearts last summer. The league was the priority, and a 20-match unbeaten run underpinned the charge to first place. That guaranteed Hearts a place back in Scotland’s Premiership 12 months after their relegation.
Hibs also went down last year but, after finishing second, lost to Rangers in last month’s play-off semi-final. The Ibrox club then suffered a 6-1 aggregate defeat by Motherwell in the final, meaning they and Hibs both stay in the Championship. They are joined by St Mirren, who were relegated from the Premiership.
Although he knew securing first place would not be easy, Neilson acknowledged the sense of achievement at Tynecastle following the fates of both Hibs and Rangers. He is now preparing for a swift return to the top flight when the new campaign begins on August 1.
“I always knew it was going to be difficult,” he told the Evening News. “Right from the start we aimed to win the league because, if you don’t, you end up in the play-offs. It’s so difficult once you’re in that situation because of the way it’s set up. If you finish third or fourth, you’ve got six games.
“It was really important for us that we won the league. The Championship is going to be really exciting again next year with Rangers, Hibs, St Mirren coming down, Falkirk looking to bolster their squad, Morton coming up with a good squad.
“It’s going to be another interesting league and that’s why we knew, if we didn’t go up first time, second time would be just as hard. Teams were always going to move up and down.”
Neilson intends to add new players over the coming weeks, with Gavin Reilly expected to be the first arrival. Negotiations for his move from Queen of the South are almost complete and he should be paraded at Tynecastle next week. In addition to the striker, Neilson wants another three or four new players but is content to wait to find the right candidates to fill voids in his squad.