There’s been an inescapable feelgood factor surrounding Hearts this summer, and head coach Robbie Neilson is hellbent on embracing it.
Buoyed by the prospect of welcoming his first-team squad back for the first day of pre-season today, the 34-year-old was in bubbly spirits as he met the Evening News in the canteen area of the club’s Riccarton nerve centre. Don’t mistake his light-hearted demeanour for any lack of focus, though.
To underline his dedication to his new role – he became head coach just over six weeks ago – Neilson interrupted his family holiday in Moraira, on the Costa Blanca, in order to fly home and meet signing targets in person.
“I’d booked the holiday back in January but I felt I needed to come back and speak to the players,” said Neilson. “I feel it’s always important that the coach is there to speak to new players. My wife was fine with me coming home for a few days – she understands.”
Such devotion to the cause will underpin Hearts’ attempts to return to the upper echelons of Scottish football as they embark on an exciting new chapter under Ann Budge’s ownership. With Neilson and director of football Craig Levein, who both played in highly-regarded Hearts teams, leading the club’s revival bid, demands will be high. The head coach is determined that everyone at the club strives to ensure the post-administration buzz about the club is not allowed to fizzle out.
“There’s a real positivity about the place just now,” said Neilson. “In the last few years at Hearts, it’s been one bad thing after another but now it looks like it’s starting to move in the right direction, so we need to continue that. We need to tap into that feelgood factor and make a good start to the season.”
To that end, Neilson was due to outline the standards that must be maintained as his youngster-heavy squad assembled at Riccarton today for their first official gathering under the watch of he and assistant Stevie Crawford. As well as the various fitness tests that are undertaken on players after a summer break and “bits and bobs to get them going”, Neilson was also keen to reiterate to his players the importance of being good professionals, as he has already explained to his four new recruits: Morgaro Gomis, Neil Alexander, James Keatings and Soufian El Hassnoui.
“For any player coming into the club at the moment, it’s an exciting time, no matter whether they’re 17 or 36. But it’s important that the boys who are in the team inspire the young boys,” he said. “The first conversation we had with any of the signing targets was to explain what we expect of them, not just as players but also as people about the academy. It’s important that they come in and buy into the idea of helping the young ones and helping their team-mates.
“We want all the players to make sure that they look after the younger kids at the club by setting an example to them. We want them to train hard, work hard in the gym, do things right and look after themselves. All the guys that have come in know what we’re looking for.”
The importance of having good people on board continues to pervade the conversation as Neilson explains that seasoned pros will not be brought in just for the sake of raising the age profile of a squad in which only two players – Gomis and Alexander – are older than 24.
“People talk about experience but it’s important to get good players in first and foremost,” he said. “It would be the easiest thing in the world to go down to England and get a 36-year-old centre-half who’s played 600 games, but is he going to bring quality? The young boys have already got a lot of experience, and we’ve got Neil and Danny Wilson, who have both played for Rangers and been down south.
“If we find someone we think will bring the right type of experience, then we’ll bring him in, but first and foremost we’re looking for a good player, who’s a good type with a good attitude.”
Rangers, whom Hearts visit on the opening day of the league season, have been installed as Championship title favourites and have signalled their intent by signing the likes of Kenny Miller and Darren McGregor, while the predatory Kris Boyd is also on their radar.
Hibs, meanwhile, are likely to get down to business in the coming days, once new manager Alan Stubbs gets his feet under the table. Neilson, however, is unfazed by anything happening at the two clubs who are expected to be Hearts’ main promotion rivals. Comfortable with the understated but carefully-planned activity Hearts have carried out to replenish the squad, he believes they can counter any lack of star names in their ranks by ensuring that the players at his disposal are given the best possible framework in which to fulfil their potential.
“I’ll tell you after the first game of the season if Rangers are title favourites or not,” he said. “We can only look after ourselves. We’ll be as prepared as we can be. The plan is to win the league. We want to get back to the Premiership but we know it’s going to be tough. Hibs are a big club and Rangers are a big club, but we feel that if we get the right players in and work properly, we’ve got a great chance. We can compensate for what Rangers are doing because we’ve got equally good players here. They might have lots of experienced players but we’ve got boys who are young, hungry and athletic and want to do well. We want to work hard and do things a bit differently, and that’s the edge we’re going to have.”
As a player who held his own for the best part of a decade in a Hearts team that consistently competed in the highest reachesof Scottish football, Neilson won’t allow their status as a Championship club to excuse his young squad of the need for a winning mentality. He knows that to contend for the title in a league where they will be viewed as a big scalp, Hearts must find a way of being ultra-consistent.
“It’s helped me prepare for this that I’ve been a player in good Hearts teams in the past,” said Neilson, the former club captain. “I’m comfortable in the environment and I know what’s needed because this club demands success. If you play for a club like Hearts, there’s always a pressure to win every week. Rangers and Hibs will be winning games, so draws won’t be enough for us – we’ll need to keep winning. The first two games in particular are great games to be involved in. We’ll work through pre-season, getting geared up for going to Ibrox and then for Hibs at home. It’s a great start to the season.”
Neilson’s bullish outlook with regards to a formidable start to the league campaign is typical of the way he has approached the job of Hearts head coach. At just 34, he has landed one of the most-coveted positions in Scottish football at a vital stage in his club’s rebirth from the wreckage of administration. Given his relaxed and jovial manner, allied to the fact he has already got the nucleus of his squad assembled by the first day of pre-season, the Dunblane-based coach appears to have taken the elevation from Under-20s coach in his stride.
“It’s been great – really busy,” he said, reflecting on how he has found the job so far. “We’ve just been busy trying to get some players in and getting things ready for pre-season. With the large turnaround of players, we had to get new players in quickly. The spine of our team was moving on so it was important to get new guys in early to give them a chance to bond and prepare. We’ve got the majority of players we want in so we’ve managed to get a team together. There’ll be a couple more to come in but we can wait to make sure we get the right ones in.
“With regard to training, we’ve got a plan where we know every day what we’re working on right through. We know what we’re doing today and we know what we’ll be doing in six weeks’ time. I’ll be on the training pitch every day. It’ll be me, Stevie Crawford and John Hill (the sports scientist), and Neil will be looking after the goalkeepers.
“Craig Levein and Stevie have been a big help. We’ve got a good structure in place now and it’s going really well, working with Craig. I’ve known Craig since I first came to Hearts as a 16-year-old. It’s great to have him to speak to if I’ve got any ideas I’m unsure of or if I need advice. He’s given me free reign to do what I want in terms of pre-season and things like that. I run things by him and he’ll give me pointers here and there. He’s been great.”