Robbie Neilson talks excitedly about the prospect of Hearts players Arnaud Djoum and Faycal Rherras performing at the African Cup of Nations, even though he may lose them for vital league matches against Celtic, Rangers and Motherwell.
The tournament takes place in Gabon from January 14 to February 5, with Djoum and Rherras hoping to be included in the Cameroon and Morocco squads respectively. Depending on each nation’s progress, they could be unavailable for those three Hearts fixtures following the Premiership’s winter break.
Neilson insists exposure at one of the world’s biggest competitions can only be positive for the Edinburgh club, though. Both Djoum and Rherras have progressed into senior international football since arriving at Tynecastle, and Neilson intends to use that as an incentive for signing new players in January and beyond.
“It would be great in that we have brought in two guys who weren’t internationals and they’ve come here, they’ve played, they’ve done well and now they’ve got into their international squads,” he said. “So it’s more so that, when we’re trying to recruit other players, we can show what we’ve managed to do and what they have managed to do by coming here and lifting their platform and profile.”
What about being without them for important games, particularly against Celtic and Rangers? “Hopefully, if they make it right the way through, they will only miss two or three games at most. I was speaking to Arnaud about it the other day and, if he makes the squad, they meet up on January 2, and then they should finish up in early February. So it isn’t that long a tournament for them. It’s pleasing for them. Obviously, there will be a couple of games here they’ll end up missing but we just need to deal with it.”
There is also the possibility that one or both could return tired, but Neilson is unperturbed. “They’ll be fine,” he said. “We’ve had that many breaks this season with the international breaks and this and that that we probably don’t need the winter break! I would prefer just to keep going but that’s the way it is.”
The Hearts squad regrouped at Riccarton this week following an international break which saw most used sparingly by their countries. They now head to Hamilton on Monday night to resume domestic business in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
“They’ve all come back in good spirits, to be honest with you,” said Neilson. “Rherras started against Togo and did well, he played 45 minutes. Arnaud didn’t get any game time but I think he was pleased again just to be involved in the hope he can get to the African Cup of Nations squad. Callum [Paterson] was disappointed not to get the start [for Scotland against England] but to take part in a game like that and get some game time was great for his experience. And Jack [Hamilton] just enjoyed being there.”
Neilson maintained that Paterson and Hamilton have not been unduly affected by Scotland’s loss at Wembley.
“Not at all, I’ve said before they just like being involved. Jack and Callum are still young players getting into these squads. Going away is great experience for them.
“It only affects players when they are really key players in the squad and they take the flak for it. Jack and Callum are younger players who are just enjoying the experience.”
Neilson was quick to declare his support for the widely-criticised Gordon Strachan. The national coach’s future is now settled, offering further positive news for the Hearts players in the Scotland squad.
“Gordon obviously likes them and they stay in the squad, which is a positive for us,” said Neilson. “I know there’s been a lot of negative press recently about Scotland but it’s important we keep some sort of continuity there with Gordon. He’s a really good coach, probably the best for the job at the moment. It’s a tough job for anyone.
“Here, I get a lot of time with the players. At international level, you’re lucky if you get a couple of days. Some guys in England will play on the Sunday for their clubs, then they have to recover Monday and Tuesday. If you’ve got a game Friday, it’s difficult to prepare the team. Gordon’s got the experience to do that. I think we’ve got to get behind him. I said that before the England game.
“We need to support the players and the structure. If you look at the stats at any level when you change a manager, it very rarely makes much of a difference. You might get a hit for one game.
“Craig [Levein, Hearts director of football and Strachan’s predecessor] and I talk all the time about different things. It’s a conversation we’ve had. It’s a big jump to go from club football to international football because you don’t get time to prepare. The next international is March so, until then you don’t have time to prep your players. It’s a job Gordon is very good at. I think he gets the players behind him and I think we have to try and back him.”