From the grandeur of Ibrox, to the ferocity of Tynecastle, to the meekness of Central Park in Cowdenbeath. Hearts spent weeks identifying and signing new players who could handle every environment their team would find themselves in this season.
It was no easy task at a freshly-relegated club with only a moderate budget. Heading into his first derby as a manager, Robbie Neilson is confident he has found the right characters to cope.
The new recruits passed their first test with flying colours against Rangers last week. Now comes part two against Alan Stubbs’ revitalised Hibs side. Sunday’s match might be the first-ever league Edinburgh derby outwith the top flight, but that will in no way dilute the intensity of the occasion.
Hearts’ summer recruitment plans were put together with exactly this type of game in mind. Neilson and Craig Levein, the club’s director of football, sought out players as much for their mentality as their ability. They craved individuals with clear hunger and desire but who would not lose their composure, no matter what the circumstances.
Eight new faces arrived and there may yet be a ninth if Neilson can find a defender to provide cover while right-back Callum Paterson recovers from knee surgery. Five new boys are certain to be involved against Hibs – goalkeeper Scott Gallacher, centre-back Alim Ozturk, midfielders Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis, plus striker Osman Sow, pictured right. James Keatings, another forward, is likely to be amongst the substitutes. Goalkeeper Neil Alexander and striker Soufian El Hassnaoui are recovering from injuries.
Recalling his earliest days in the job back in May when signing plans were being discussed, Neilson explained the thought process behind them. He and Levein spent time at Riccarton strategically piecing together plans for their squad. Chief amongst their wishes was to find the right characters who could handle everything this year’s Championship would throw up – nothing more so than an Edinburgh derby.
“One of the main things we spoke about all the way along was getting guys who had a good character and a good mentality,” Neilson told the Evening News. “They had to handle certain environments and handle the pressure of playing at Hearts. It’s different from playing at other clubs.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys in the past who have come here and not been able to handle the demands and the pressure of playing here. The guys we’ve brought, I think, have been able to handle that so far.”
So how did he and Levein reach the conclusion that those named above had the required attributes for this year’s challenges?
“It’s very difficult to be able to tell. Obviously, you watch their games. You see them playing in big environments and how they handle big crowds. When they come over to sign you speak to them and try to get an idea of what they’re like as a person. Are they calm? Are they erratic? Then you can make a judgment on that.
“Every game is a test, no matter if you’re playing at Ibrox or Tynecastle or anywhere else in this league. It’s a test every week and you’ll get judged every single week. That’s one of the great things and the difficult things about being a footballer or a coach. Every week you get judged so you must make sure that you’re on it every week. Every day you’re in training, you prepare properly because you’re only one bad game away from criticism and negativity.
“There will be periods in the season when that comes, periods when we don’t perform the way we want to perform. We need to be able to handle that and that’s when the test will come.”
Neilson can pass on his own Edinburgh derby experiences as a veteran of this fixture. He spent ten years at Tynecastle as a player and was the established right-back for many of them.
“I know what it’s like,” he continued. “It’s important we try and focus on playing the way we want to play and combat what Hibs are trying to do as well. We have to be focused. It’s easy to get carried away with it, the atmosphere and the passion. The players are passionate.
“They’re all passionate but they have to be level-headed as well and not get drawn into chasing things all over the place.
“I’ll tell them it will be passionate inside the ground and there will be a lot of pressure in the first 15 or 20 minutes. There will be a lot of pressing the ball, a lot of balls getting hooked over the top. We want our guys to put their foot on the ball but there will be times when guys feel the pressure of not wanting to make a mistake. It’s up to us to make sure they take the ball and deal with it; that they don’t panic, that they’re composed on it and look for a pass.”
Hearts’ new recruits have the added burden of trying to maintain the club’s impressive derby record of recent years. Of the last 18 league matches between the Capital clubs since 2009, Hibs have won only two. Hearts have ten victories to their name.
Neilson expects the atmosphere to take over once his players step out of the Tynecastle tunnel, regardless of the fact the game is no longer a top-flight fixture.
“Once the boys are out on the pitch they’ll see that it’s a full house. It doesn’t matter if it’s the SPL or the East of Scotland League. If it’s Hearts v Hibs, everyone is at it. It’s still an intense atmosphere and the same enthusiasm. It’s going to be a huge game whether it’s in the Championship or not.”
Neilson has no fears over those who will be making derby debuts having done his homework on each and every one before they arrived.
“The boys will know what it’s like. A lot of them will have played in big games,” continued Neilson. “Morgaro and Prince have played in Dundee derbies, have played against Hearts and Hibs and will have played in big games down in England. Other guys have played in derbies abroad and other big games. So they’ll know the kind of atmosphere they are going into.
“I know one of the reasons Alim signed for us was he’d been to an Edinburgh derby with Mark de Vries. That was the reason he came. He’d opportunities to go elsewhere but he’d sampled that environment and wanted to be part of it. So he knows what to expect. The rest of the players like Danny Wilson have had quite a bit of experience of it but we’ll discuss it as well with them.”
Like their Edinburgh rivals, Hibs have changed considerably over the summer. The manager who got them relegated, Terry Butcher, has gone. Stubbs is in his place and several new players have arrived, the most notable being striker Farid El Alagui, midfielder Scott Allan and goalkeeper Mark Oxley. Neilson has already watched them play several times.
“I’ve been to watch them and they’ve been playing some good football,” he said. “They’re moving the ball about well and they’re moving it quickly. They’ve got some threatening players and they’ve got some strength up front with El Alagui.
“He is a good player who scored a lot of goals in the Championship with Falkirk. I know him very well and he’s a good finisher. They also have pace in wide areas so we know it’s going to be a hard game for us.”