Robbie Neilson insists the Hearts team of last season wasn’t properly equipped to play the high-intensity pressing game that earned them so many plaudits on Sunday.
Supporters have been buoyed by the aggressive approach of their team to the Premiership opener against Celtic, and are hopeful of seeing them perform in such a manner for the rest of the campaign.
Neilson admits the big challenge will be ensuring they are able to maintain such a high tempo in lower-key games like tonight’s Betfred Cup tie at St Johnstone, when they don’t have the backing of a pumped-up Tynecastle crowd. However, he is confident that, with athletic new players like Tony Watt, Conor Sammon and Robbie Muirhead, as well as the fit-again Don Cowie, added to the mix, Hearts can operate at that level on a far more regular basis this term.
“It’s alright playing with that intensity against the likes of Celtic, Rangers and Hibs but we need to do it every week,” said Neilson. “We tried to do it last season but we didn’t have the players to do it, and we weren’t quite there with it. I can see us getting better at what we’re trying to do. We’ve still got a long way to go but we’re moving in the right direction.”
Hearts were jeered off after a demoralising Europa League defeat by Maltese side Birkirkara last month. However, the change in performance level and in the mood of the crowd on Sunday was stark.
“Playing in Europe is night and day compared to playing against a Scottish team,” said Neilson. “In Europe, teams will sit and you have to break them down. It can become a bit stifling, but in Scotland, it’s very open and you can really get pressing people, the way we did on Sunday.
“Although the European game was disappointing, it gave us two weeks to really work on things and set the tone for what we want to do and where we want to get to. We got there on Sunday, but that’s the easy bit. The hard bit is continuing at that standard. But the pleasing thing is that we worked on it consistently for two weeks and the players enjoyed doing it and we took it into the game.”