Neilson feels Hearts can give big two a run for money

NINE points behind Celtic with one game in hand, Hearts are well positioned for a tilt at second place in the Scottish Premier League.

Momentum may have been disturbed by the postponment of this weekend's trip to Ibrox and last Sunday's match with Motherwell, but there's little doubt an enthralling November has forced the nation's football fans to sit up and take note of their credentials.

Finishing third remains the priority in the first full season of Jim Jefferies' second tenure as manager. However, should the recent prosperity continue, splitting the Old Firm would become evermore possible.

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It was Hearts, in 2006, who last separated the Glasgow duopoly in league standings. They remain the only club to do so in the last 15 years of Scottish football since Motherwell finished second in 1995. A tall order, but recent evidence suggests one which is entirely achievable.

With dominant characters like Kevin Kyle and Rudi Skacel influencing the Riccarton dressing-room, Hearts are amid an imperious vein of form which has yielded six victories from the last seven outings.

Robbie Neilson, first-choice right-back at Tynecastle in season 2005/06, remembers the mentality required to muscle in on the Old Firm, the self-belief and relentless desire to propel Hearts towards the top. He senses similar confidence within the current group. "Hopefully, it's a good thing that Hearts are third and going along nicely," he said. "Nothing is won at this time of the season, everything is decided in May so it's better to be in the right place at the right time. If Hearts keep winning the games they should be winning, while picking up points against the Old Firm and maintaining the home form, there's no reason they can't get second spot.

"It would be great to see them split the Old Firm. It would be a surprise because over the last 25 years or so everyone has struggled to break that stranglehold the top two have had. It's about hard work and whoever gets second place will be there because they deserve it. Hearts are having a good season so hopefully they can do it.

"I think you need certain types to push for second. Big Kevin Kyle has given them a physical presence up front. He's played at Kilmarnock and, being a Scottish player, he knows what it's about. Rudi is a top-class player who has that confidence and winning mentality. Him coming back instils a belief in the rest of the players.

"He can lead by example and show the younger ones how to have the necessary belief. Rudi's a winner, that's what he is. It's magnificent if you have guys like that in the dressing room to show others the way. It's been great for the club to get him back.

"He's a bit older now but you get everything with him. It's mentality and a bit of arrogance which he can back up. If you want to win games and challenge in the league, you need to have that belief in yourself."

Characters like Takis Fyssas, Steven Pressley, Julien Brellier and Paul Hartley helped drive Hearts to second place and Scottish Cup success four-and-a half years ago. Neilson, Skacel, Craig Gordon, Andy Webster and Edgaras Jankauskas were similarly influential in a team which seemed determined to upstage Scotland's traditional heavyweights.

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Their advantage, according to Neilson, was a refusal to be intimidated in Glasgow. While this week's Arctic weather has denied Hearts the chance to pit their wits against the SPL champions, Neilson was quick to stress the importance of forthcoming trips along the M8 this season.

"You need to have a belief that you're going to go there and win," continued Neilson, now with Leicester City in the English Championship.

"The Hearts team I played in a few years ago had a lot of good players with that mindset that they could go to Glasgow and win games.

"Player for player, we always thought we were better in every department. You have to believe in yourself and believe in your team-mates when you go to these places. You can't go there and keep the fingers crossed hoping to pick up a point. You should look round the dressing-room at all the boys in your team feeling you can go out and take three points."

Another central factor to this season's progress has been results achieved where others have faltered. Hearts won at Inverness in September, yet Terry Butcher's side have held both Rangers and Celtic to draws in Glasgow this season. They have also defeated Hamilton, Aberdeen, Hibernian and St Johnstone on their travels to build considerable momentum.

"Rangers and Celtic win 90 per cent of their games so it's the smaller games that can become difficult," said Neilson. "You can get yourself up for the big games but when you're away to Inverness, the Old Firm will often go there and win. If you want to challenge for second place it's important you win these games. Hearts have picked up considerably this season so it's just about continuing winning and keeping that mentality. When you're going to these away games you need to know that when you get there you're going to win. Football is generally about being in the right frame of mind."

Hearts' mindset has already altered from the start of the season. Supporters backing the initial top-six target have since re-focused their attentions on third place. They may soon have the chance to contemplate an even higher plain.