Hearts returned from their five-day pre-season trip to Ireland last night buoyed by a couple of hard-fought victories and steeled for the season ahead by some intensive training on the Emerald Isle.
Head coach Robbie Neilson admitted the quadruple sessions they had undertaken at their base on the Dublin outskirts on both Thursday and Friday had taken their toll on his players in Saturday’s friendly at Shelbourne. Nonetheless, the Scottish Premiership newcomers, backed by 200 vocal supporters enjoying the famed Dublin hospitality and the rare luxury of being able to drink in the stands, still had too much in the tank for their part-time hosts, who are now operating from Ireland’s second tier.
A first-half opener from Gary Oliver and further goals after the break from Sam Nicholson, Jordan McGhee and Juanma Delgado, with the last kick of the game, helped the Tynecastle side follow up their 2-0 win over Bohemians last Wednesday with a 4-2 victory at the atmospheric Tolka Park in Dublin’s Drumcondra district.
James English responded with a well-taken double for the hosts, and the Shels striker’s obvious delight as he celebrated his goals underlined how seriously his team – despite being midway through their league campaign – viewed the friendly. “We had two competitive games against teams in the middle of their season who were desperate to beat us, and that’s what we wanted,” mused Neilson.
As he had done in the first game against Bohs, the head coach fielded entirely different teams in each half. The most notable inclusion in the side that started the game was that of Alim Ozturk, who wore the captain’s armband in his first appearance since undergoing a stomach operation two months ago. The Turk, sporting a shaven head, raised concern among the travelling support when he left the park gingerly in the 27th minute to be replaced by recently-recruited teenager Jahmal Howlett-Mundle. It later emerged that Ozturk was merely suffering from tightness in his thigh. Upon his departure, he wrapped the skipper’s armband around the bicep of his new defensive partner, Blazej Augustyn, and the Pole’s captaincy bore almost instant fruit as Hearts went ahead in the 29th minute.
Albanian-Swiss trialist Mergim Bajraktari, who also started against Bohs, played a direct pass through the middle to Oliver, who knocked the ball past advancing home goalkeeper Greg Murray on the edge of the box and then calmly picked his spot as a flurry of Shels defenders raced back to try and salvage the situation. This was a rare moment of quality in a largely-underwhelming half from the visitors.
The performance level improved after the break, in an attacking sense at least, with new fans’ favourite Juanma setting the tone with an eye-catching moment of skill within seconds of the restart.
It was Nicholson, however, who would be Shels’ chief tormentor as the 20-year-old attacker scored one goal and played a prominent role in his side’s two others.
After English had capitalised on slackness in an all-teenage Hearts defence to level matters in the 55th minute, Nicholson, two minutes later, seized on a terrible clearance from Shels’ substitute home goalkeeper, Eric Donnelly, and ran unchecked into the penalty area to restore his team’s lead from 12 yards out.
The lively winger then pinged in a brilliant 25-yard strike which was tipped over by Donnelly before winning a free-kick just outside the box, from which McGhee curled delightfully into the net.
English then reduced his team’s deficit to one with a brilliant header past Jack Hamilton, but, in the last action of the game, Nicholson, still seemingly bursting with energy, did well to win the ball back near the half-way line before setting Osman Sow free down the left. The big Swede’s nicely-weighted cutback was expertly knocked in by Juanma, much to the delight of the travelling support.
“The game was alright,” said Neilson, clearly viewing the match primarily as a fitness exercise. “We were pretty poor in the first half. The surface was quite dry and bobbly and hard to get used to. The boys were also quite tired because they’d had two days of four sessions a day.
“The guys who came on in the second half, the likes of Nicholson, [Billy] King, Sow and Juanma, looked sharp and quick. But sometimes in these games, the first half is more difficult because the opposition are fired up and then in the second half it starts to die a death a wee bit, so you can’t read too much into it.”
Morgaro Gomis and Miguel Pallardo were the only two members of the 24-player party who didn’t feature on Saturday, with the midfielders both rested to overcome niggles. “Miguel had a wee problem with his Achilles but it’s nothing to worry about,” said Neilson. “He trained on the morning of the Shelbourne game and I was considering playing him but I decided just to let him rest it. He’ll be ready for one of the games this week. Morgaro had a wee problem with his thigh but he’ll be fine in the next couple of days.”
An unexpected bonus for Neilson and the Hearts support came in the form of Howlett-Mundle. After a steady 45-minute display against Bohs, the tall 18-year-old, signed from Crystal Palace as a development player last month, was a commanding presence in his 63 minutes against Shels.
“Jahmal’s done great,” said Neilson. “We had him in on trial from Crystal Palace before we signed him and we were impressed. He’s physical and strong and he talks well on the pitch. He’s a great kid who works hard and wants to do well. He’s a development player, he’ll be in Jack Ross’s [Under-20] squad but he’s got potential. He’s got a chance.”
As Neilson flew back into Edinburgh with his squad last night following another day’s training at the on-site pitch of their accommodation, the Johnstown House Hotel in Enfield, he declared the venture across the Irish Sea a success. “It’s been a fantastic trip,” he said. “The hotel we were staying at was really good. There was a pitch at the bottom of the hotel which was fantastic. I’ve been really pleased with the games we’ve had and with the training facilities at the hotel. It’s been exactly what we were hoping for.
“Hopefully we got some fitness out of the trip as well as helping the new guys bed in. It’s difficult for the players at this stage of pre-season but I’m sure over the next few weeks they’ll start to feel the benefits of it. It’s something we’d probably look to do next year.”
Hearts first half: Alexander, Paterson, Ozturk (Howlett-Mundle 27), Augustyn, McHattie, Oliver, Bajraktari, Anderson, Walker, El Hassnaoui, Reilly.
Hearts second half: Hamilton, Smith, McGhee, Howlett-Mundle, Henderson, King, Buchanan, Buaben, Nicholson, Sow, Juanma.