When Scott Wilson announces Hearts on to the Tynecastle pitch as league champions instead of mere league leaders tomorrow, the irony won’t be lost on Neil Alexander.
Three years ago, the goalkeeper began a journey to return to Scotland’s top flight by 2015. The plan was to do it with Rangers. Never for a moment did he expect to finish it at Hearts.
Alexander helped the Ibrox club win the Third Division in 2012/13 following their liquidation. At the time, he was focused on moving through the leagues as part of Rangers’ projected rejuvenation. Now, he is part of a rampant Hearts squad which has won the league and in turn stopped their Glasgow counterparts achieving three automatic promotions in a row.
Hearts won the Scottish Championship last weekend, forcing Rangers and their Edinburgh rivals Hibs to negotiate the lottery of play-offs if they want back into the Premiership. Alexander, 37, is delighted to be anticipating top-level football again, but even he is astonished at the turn of events over the last two years.
“The plan three years ago was to stay with Rangers through the leagues and be part of something big in the club’s history, helping them get from the Third Division back to the top flight. That was the intention for me but it never worked out that way,” Alexander explained to the Evening News.
He left Ibrox in summer 2013 after a contract wrangle and spent a year at Crystal Palace before joining Hearts as player/goalkeeping coach.
“I truly believe in fate and I believe things happen for a reason. Maybe I was meant to leave Rangers and end up here, and maybe things were meant to happen this way.
“I’m so grateful to Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson for giving me the opportunity to come here, both as a player and to start my coaching development.
“I don’t think anyone could have dreamed at the start of the season how this year would go. I thought Rangers were favourites for the league by a mile and we could possibly just be playing for a play-off place. It’s phenomenal the way the last eight months or so have gone and we’re thrilled with it.
“I can only look after myself and do what’s best for my family. Whatever happened at Rangers didn’t work out but I’ve been fortunate to end up at Hearts.
“Things have gone really well for me personally, on and off the pitch, and I’m really enjoying the coaching side of it.”
Alexander won leagues and cups at Rangers but the emphatic nature of Hearts’ title success this year is especially memorable for a player who supported them as a child. “To win the league in 29 games is a fantastic achievement and something we’re really proud of,” he said.
“Obviously it would’ve been nice to do it at Tynecastle on the full-time whistle in front of a packed crowd. However, to get over the line in whatever way was great.
“All the boys were at Tynecastle watching the Hibs-Rangers game on Sunday and when the final whistle went there was a lot of celebrating. Winning this league is definitely up there for me. I’m proud of everything I’ve achieved and I’ve been extremely fortunate to win a lot in my career.
“But to do it with Hearts, and be part of the coaching staff as well as playing, and to do it in such emphatic fashion definitely ranks as one of my biggest achievements. We’ve done really well this year and I’m proud to say I’ve played my part.
“The way we’ve done it, with the football we’ve played and to win it so early, I’ve never done anything like it. In the Third Division with Rangers, we won it with five or six games to spare but that was a bit of a rollercoaster season. We lost some games and drew a few but the standard of football and goals we’ve scored this season have been phenomenal. To be involved in that has given me a new lease of life and it’s been so enjoyable being part of the team. It’s been exciting.
“We have such a good winning mentality in the squad now. That dressing room is just full of winners. Even in training that’s apparent because the boys hate to lose even in the bounce games.
“That’s something we’ve really improved on. The mentality in the dressing room is fantastic. Boys here don’t accept second place or losing. Everything we do, we want to win. We had that at Rangers for so long and it’s quite a hard thing to have in football.”
Queen of the South are the visitors at Tynecastle tomorrow, with home supporters planning a party to acclaim their heroes. Alexander and his colleagues will see their names etched in club folklore as the team which revitalised Hearts following their financial collapse and relegation.
The keeper is a mix of pride and modesty. “We see ourselves as just doing our jobs. We came to Hearts with a target of getting promotion and we’ve done that. If the fans want to think more of it or label us, then great, but we’ve just done our jobs.”
Although the pressure is off, head coach Neilson will not allow his players to lose focus. “The pressure is off now but the manager wants us to keep on winning,” said Alexander.
“We can go out and play and relax and know the job is done. Our aim was promotion and we’ve achieved that with games to spare. That’s not saying we’ll take our foot off the gas because we won’t. We want to win every game that’s left.
“We want to enjoy what we’ve done but we’ve got a chance to break the Championship’s record points tally , and we could possibly get over 100 goals as well.
“These are little things that the manager still wants to achieve this season.”