Hearts boss excited by ‘massive’ challenges coming up

Rudi Skacel rounds Fraser Forster to open the scoring the last time Hearts beat Celtic in a Scottish Cup semi-final in 2012. Their last league victory was in 2011. Pic: SNS
Rudi Skacel rounds Fraser Forster to open the scoring the last time Hearts beat Celtic in a Scottish Cup semi-final in 2012. Their last league victory was in 2011. Pic: SNS
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HAVING flown to Estonia, Malta and then been left in limbo for 17 days, Hearts now come back down to earth and must hit the ground running.

Celtic, St Johnstone and Aberdeen loom on a taxing fixture list to begin the domestic season.

Visits to Le Coq Arena in Tallinn and the Hibernians Stadium in Paola were all-too-brief Europa League adventures which ultimately played havoc with league preparations. No friendly match since losing to Birkirkara on July 21 means 17 days of private training – no friendlies – to ready the Tynecastle squad for Premiership and League Cup demands.

Head coach Robbie Neilson has endured plenty criticism in the wake of Hearts’ European exit. Without question, it has been exacerbated by the gap in fixtures as fans continue to reflect on their team’s last match. Neilson isn’t the type to get flustered, thankfully.

Instead, he is excited by the hectic start to the new campaign. A league opener against Celtic at Tynecastle this Sunday is followed by a Betfred Cup tie with St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park three days later. Then comes the always-precarious trip to Pittodrie to face Aberdeen next Saturday. Neilson is confident Hearts are ready, and that they have banished the disappointment of their European defeat.

“You want to get straight back in and get hit with big games, 100 per cent,” he told the Evening News. “That’s a great way to start the season. We had a good start in the Championship two years ago and a good start in the Premiership last year. We feel the players are in good shape at the moment.

“We’ve had competitive games in Europe and these matches coming up are great to be involved in. Celtic come to Tynecastle and we’ll hopefully have a full house. We go up to St Johnstone in the League Cup, which is a great tie to be going into. Then it’s Aberdeen away at Pittodrie, which is always a massive game for us. We feel we’re in good condition, we’ve had good starts in the last two seasons and we hope to mirror that again.”

Hearts haven’t beaten Celtic for more than four years since Craig Beattie’s memorable winning penalty defeated the Glasgow club in the 2012 Scottish Cup semi-final. Tynecastle hasn’t witnessed a home win over Celtic in five years. Rudi Skacel and Ryan Stevenson scored in a 2-0 win there in October 2011.

“We just want to win this game, it doesn’t matter what the record is beforehand,” stated Neilson. “We simply want to go and compete, get a result and get our season off to a really good start. It’s something we’ve been planning now for the last two weeks. It’s all aimed at trying to get ourselves ready for this opening match.”

A training match last weekend was, somewhat unusually, Hearts’ final pre-season outing. They were forced to organise an 11-versus-11 bounce game when the English League One club Fleetwood Town pulled out of a proposed friendly at Tynecastle because manager Steven Pressley resigned.

Efforts were made to secure other opposition but the short notice made it impossible. Neilson made light of the situation and stressed there were plenty positives for those involved in the training game. “I was delighted with it. It was probably better than a friendly game in the sense that we managed to get 22 players playing 90 minutes,” he said.

“We had the full squad working for a full game, we had an official referee and two assistants involved so we managed to make it a really intense 90 minutes. It actually worked out more intense than a normal first-team game, which was pleasing.”

The American midfielder Perry Kitchen wasn’t involved and is likely to miss the Celtic match with a hamstring strain. He will be given a chance to prove his fitness but is not expected to be available. “He’s been running for the last few days so we will see how he does with some training before the end of the week. To be honest, it will be a push to try and get him back fit enough for Sunday against Celtic,” admitted Neilson.

“More realistically, it will be the Wednesday against St Johnstone in the League Cup or the Saturday against Aberdeen. I’m pleased with the way he’s come back from this problem but we just need to be a little bit careful with him.

“We need to keep him and look after him so that he’s available for the rest of the season, even if that means him missing a couple of games until this injury clears up. He was involved in the Copa America over the summer with the USA so he hasn’t had a huge rest. We’re hopeful that this break will help him, get him over this wee period and get on top of the injury.”

Celtic’s run in the Champions League qualifiers means they are embroiled in competitive action this week, in contrast to Sunday’s opponents. Will that help or hinder them ahead of a demanding fixture in Edinburgh? “It all depends how they respond. I watched them last night but we have to look after ourselves,” said Neilson. “There is stuff we’ve been working on throughout the close season. European games are slightly different but we’re going into the league campaign so we can now go and play our game.”

Brendan Rodgers, the new Celtic manager, will doubtless feel similar to his Hearts counterpart. His arrival raises the profile of Scottish football and presents Premiership managers with different challenges.

“It’s great having somebody come up to Scotland who has worked at the highest level,” explained Neilson. “You can see already he has an idea of what he’s doing with the team. It’s slightly different from what Ronny Deila did. The shape they play and the movements they make are different. I think it’s always good to come up against these guys.”