HEARTS could reach second in the Ladbrokes Premiership today if results go their way, with chances of European qualification increasing by the week.
Despite being the newly-promoted club, they have returned to Scotland’s top flight with considerable force. Full-back Juwon Oshaniwa admits they are now looking at a possible Europa League place.
Provided Aberdeen don’t win at Celtic Park and Hearts take three points at Firhill this afternoon, the Edinburgh club will leapfrog their Pittodrie rivals in the league table. Talk of a lofty finish continues to be played down by the Tynecastle head coach Robbie Neilson but Oshaniwa is more forthright in his views. The Nigerian internationalist, who arrived in Scotland from Israel’s FC Ashdod in August, stressed Hearts are now looking towards a European dream.
“That is why every game in the Premiership is so important for us,” he said.
“The league is still fresh but the target is at least we should end up in the top six. We keep working and fighting for this. We pick those points up that we were able to pick up early, so that at the end we are successful and are celebrated at the end of the season.
“For a team just coming from the Championship and putting up such an effective performance in their first season, it’s going to be an achievement even if we secure a ticket for European competition. That is our target and our goal and we are not relenting until we achieve it. We’ve got a collection of good young players. The technical crew understand management. I think we can achieve our goal if we never relent or if we never get tired.”
Asked about the prospect of moving into second place, Neilson was typically more reserved. “We just try to focus on the Partick game,” he said. “We will know the [Aberdeen] score when it comes in and, yes, we could go second but the focus is on getting the result for us. I don’t really want to take the players’ focus away from their game. I would prefer them to get the three points and then we can look to see where we are.
“They have all got phones and people text them but it’s not something we want to highlight because we want them focused on getting three points and not worrying about what happens elsewhere.
“The start we have had has been great and the aim we had was to be in the top six and that’s still what we want to do. We are only 12 games into the season so there is still a long way to go. There are still 26 games left and we need to make them count. We don’t think that’s us made it, we’re not stable yet in the Premiership. We know we still have to work hard.”
So impressed is Oshaniwa with his new coaching staff that he was not surprised to see Neilson linked with Aston Villa this week. Bookmaker Skybet named the 35-year-old sixth favourite to take over at the Midlands club, behind Remi Garde, Gus Poyet, David Moyes, Nigel Pearson and Brendan Rodgers.
Oshaniwa regards Neilson as one of the finest coaches he has worked with in his career so far. “I’m not surprised. Even before my arrival, I read a lot about Hearts since he took over. Even when I came here, I saw the kind of experience he’s got. He has a good relationship with players. He’s a young coach who is ambitious and he always wants you to give everything. Such passion will always attain a greater height. For me, this is a good start for him.
“I was telling my colleagues who used to play in the [Nigerian] national team that this is a coach I love so much. His philosophy, everything is perfect. I’m not surprised he is being linked with other clubs.”
Neilson has pledged to stay in Edinburgh for the foreseeable future but Oshaniwa expects he will get an opportunity to head to England eventually. “Football is all about movement and you can never tell what his journey is going to be. It all depends on him making the move or not. I expect this sort of stuff to come his way,” continued the defender.
“I read about the team and about the record he had with the team before they came back into the Premiership. He’s been a good manager. I came here to stay with him and work with him, with the sound philosophy he’s got. I have worked with other managers but he is talented and gifted. Every manager has their own philosophy but I saw something distinct in Robbie. He is so quick, he is so sweet, it is awesome to work with him.
“To be a sound gaffer, it’s not about on the pitch alone. You need to have a good relationship with the players. This is one of the characteristics he’s got. He’s got good relationships with us. He knows how to talk to us, he probably knows what every one of us wants, what are our dos and don’ts. This can carry the family to greater heights. If you are a family man, you know what your wife wants and what your children want. This is the family he is running. He’s got good relationships with us and he’s moving us ahead.”