Perceptions of Hearts as nothing more than a big, physical unit have been around since Robbie Neilson’s playing days at Tynecastle. They still exist even though he is now head coach. Much as he refutes the notion, he can’t erase it.
Neilson insists he is perfectly happy if people brand Hearts as overly aggressive but argues they are no more robust than any other Scottish Premiership team.
St Johnstone’s Murray Davidson is the most recent to comment on the issue, stating before last month’s meeting between the clubs: “The gaffer has emphasised that games against Hearts are really physical. He’s warned us to keep our discipline because there are a lot of fouls in their matches. I think they’ve had something like 70 fouls in the last five matches, so it’s definitely going to be a real ding-dong. They are a big, physical side so it’s a real test playing them.”
Neilson feels his players compete with the best, both in physical and technical areas. “People look at it and say we’ve got a back four that’s 6ft 2in and 6ft 3in and just think that’s physical. The boys can play football. We’ve got Alim Ozturk who’s 6ft 3 but is probably one of the best passers of a ball in Scotland. Osman Sow isn’t a physical player but because he’s 6ft 4in everyone thinks he is.
“When you look at Aberdeen, Hearts, St Johnstone, to an extent Celtic, they’re all physical teams. You need to be physical. You need that in any division. You have to be strong, you have to be quick. That’s just the way it is.
“We’re not an overly physical team, we’ve just got strong players who want to win games. People speak about foul counts but if you look at it, in most games it’s pretty even. If people want to highlight it, they can highlight it. It’s up to them. It’s always been something that’s been put on Hearts down the years – they’re a big physical team.
“Look at Celtic and the size of their team – Bitton, Ambrose, Craig Gordon. If you want to win leagues, you have to be physical, strong, quick and you have to be ready to go and compete.”
Ahead of this evening’s Scottish Cup tie against Aberdeen, Neilson added that he isn’t fazed hearing such accusations against his side. “It doesn’t tire me. I’m quite happy with it, to be honest with you. Yes, we’re a big, strong, physical team – but people just need to compete against us, then.
“It will be the same against Aberdeen, it will be a physical game. I expect Aberdeen to play Taylor, who is 6ft 4in, Considine, who is 6ft 3in, Reynolds, who is 6ft 2in, possibly Quinn, Rooney, who is 6ft 3in’’, McLean, who is 6ft.
“Everyone’s physical nowadays. If you go down to the English Premier League and you stand in a tunnel, believe me, they’re all 6ft 3in.
“We’ve got Sam Nicholson, we’ve got good players, and you have to have a balance between the two. I think people are looking too much into the physicality of it. Walker, Nicholson, King, Reilly, Pallardo, Gomis, they’re all good football players. You have to have a balance between the two.
“Everyone’s happy if they’re beating teams. If you go to a club, like Perth for instance, and they beat you 3-0, nobody mentions anything about physicality then. If you go up there and go down to ten men and you fight and you get away with a 0-0, then people speak about physicality. That’s just the nature of life.”
Nicholson, one of the most slender footballers in the Scottish Premiership, was startled to think anyone felt he was capable of a physical approach.
“I wish I was a wee bit more physical,” he smiled. “That’s just opinions. Football’s all about opinions I suppose. Looking at it from their point of view, maybe we are being physical but it’s not like I’m going to take anyone out of the game. I would disagree with that. I can’t really see me being physical.”
If anything, he is more likely to suffer brutal treatment as a winger capable of opening up an opposing defence. “I’ve been getting it since I was a wee boy anyway. It’s normal. It’s just the way football is. You’re going to get bad tackles here and there. I wouldn’t say we’re being over physical or anyone’s being over physical with us. It’s been fair and the refs have got the games under control anyway. I would disagree with the statement.
“Sometimes games can be won through winning battles in the middle of the park so it can be good having that bit of physical in you but I wouldn’t say we’re a physical team. Every team’s got physical players but I can’t really see us being a physical team. If I was a bit bigger, maybe I would say I was.
“Even in the Championship, I was getting bullied off the ball and I think that’s something I need to work on. Getting to a side of physicality where you cannot get bullied, I think that’s important and I think the majority of our team have that.”