Exactly three years ago, Hearts and Aberdeen were preparing to play out the dying embers of the season in the doldrums of the bottom six.
The financially-crippled Tynecastle team, with Gary Locke having recently replaced John McGlynn as manager, would end up in tenth, while the malaise-gripped Pittodrie side, who had just brought in Derek McInnes to replace Craig Brown, finished just four points better off in eighth place.
The intervening period has brought a remarkable transformation at both of these Scottish football powerhouses. Tomorrow night, they collide in Gorgie as two members of the Premiership’s top three. Aberdeen are second, with eyes on first. Hearts are well clear in third, with designs on leapfrogging their visitors.
Former Scotland left-back Gary Naysmith, who wound down his career as a full-time footballer at Aberdeen in the aforementioned 2012/13 campaign, will be an intrigued spectator at a sold-out Tynecastle. He believes Robbie Neilson, his former Hearts team-mate, and McInnes, the man who released him from Pittodrie, deserve all the plaudits going for leading his old teams back to the sharp end of Scottish football.
“It’s been a long time since Aberdeen and Hearts were both up the top at the same time,” Naysmith, manager of East Fife, told the Evening News. “It’s fantastic because, for the size of the clubs that they are and the fanbase they both have, they should be right up there. I was only at Aberdeen for a year but it’s a big club. Both Aberdeen and Hearts are very much of a similar size. When they get success, the fans come out in real numbers. It’s very pleasing for me to see them both doing so well.
“The managers have to take the credit for the turnaround. What Robbie’s done in his first two years has been unbelievable. Being a relatively new manager myself, I can appreciate what he’ll have put into it to be as successful as he has in such a short space of time. I only worked with Derek for two months but you knew straight away that he knew what he wanted to do. I really liked the way he was starting to go about things when I was there. Derek and [assistant] Tony Docherty were really hands on and were changing bits and pieces around the club that were making it more professional.
“When I was there, there was a sense of underachievement around Aberdeen because they had been in the bottom six for a good few seasons in a row. There were a lot of things that weren’t right and Derek was quick to point that out when he came in. I thoroughly enjoyed working under him and was actually desperate to get kept on because I thought they were going to build something special there. Unfortunately he released me, but I’ve not got a problem with that. We had a good respect for each other and we still keep in touch now.
“Robbie and Derek are similar in the sense that they’ve not really had a bad time yet. They have had the occasional bad results, but generally the two of them have just been on an upward curve since they got their current jobs. They’re two very good managers. Fans won’t thank me for saying this, but you’ve got to think that teams down south will be looking at Derek and Robbie because of the level of success they’ve had in the last few seasons.”
Tomorrow’s match provides both McInnes and Neilson with a chance to further enhance their burgeoning reputations in front of the television cameras. Naysmith believes Aberdeen, 12 points clear in second having played a game more, are slightly ahead of Hearts in terms of their overall evolution but feels the Tynecastle side are equipped to pull off a result tomorrow and signal their intent for next season.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s a sell-out, on television, on a Friday night, under the lights so it’s all set up for a good game. Aberdeen and Hearts have proven that they’re two of the top three teams in the country. Hearts still have aspirations of catching Aberdeen, and Celtic drawing with Dundee on Tuesday will have given Aberdeen renewed hope that they can win the league. There’s not a lot between the teams in terms of playing capabilities. Both teams need to win it for different reasons but it wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up a draw.
“I think Aberdeen’s team is a bit more settled than Hearts. They’ve had the basis of that team for a bit longer whereas Hearts got promoted and then had to make a lot of changes to their squad. It will take them a bit of time to get where they want to be. Aberdeen are probably a season in front of Hearts in terms of the team getting to know each other. That can be a big factor. I think Aberdeen are just shading it at the moment but I don’t think it’s a given that they’ll finish above Hearts next season.”
Naysmith is enthused about the way next season’s Premiership is shaping up, with Rangers now assured of promotion and Hibs also in with a shout of returning to the top flight. He expects Aberdeen, Hearts and Rangers to give Celtic a run for their money, which would be in stark contrast to the 2012/13 campaign when all three of these Scottish football heavyweights were in relative oblivion.
“Personally, I think it’s great that Rangers are coming back up and, even as a Hearts fan, I’d also like to see Hibs back up,” said Naysmith. “We’ve got four of the big five back in the top league and that can only be beneficial for Scottish football. It’s going to be an extremely exciting league next season. You’d expect Celtic, with the finances they have, to kick on again but Aberdeen have shown this season that they can be challenged without having the same resources. Rangers are going to spend money. Their fans are going to demand that they challenge next season. In terms of Hearts, I think they just need to keep building. They’re just out of administration, so they’re still a work in process. They could throw money at it but that’s not the way to go about it. It might be another few years before they can realistically challenge Celtic, but there’s definitely improvement being made and in one-off games they are capable of beating them.
“With Robbie and [director of football] Craig Levein’s contacts, they’ve been able to bring in players who most of us hadn’t heard of but who have come in and done the business. It’s also good to see that they’re not scared to give the youngsters a chance. I was delighted to see young Liam Smith, who we had on loan at East Fife, get in when Callum Paterson got injured. A lot of clubs wouldn’t have put a young kid in when they’re going for second place, but Liam hasn’t looked out of place. Hearts are ahead of virtually every other club in Scotland in terms of bringing through young boys. Five or six of their main players have come through the academy. That’s definitely something that can help give them an edge and move them forward.”