Riccarton will remain open during the shortest close-season break in Hearts’ history.
Coaching staff have training sessions planned to ready players for a June 30 start in the Europa League first qualifying round. Although holidays will be brief, those involved relish the prospect of a hectic summer.
Hearts’ final game of this season is against St Johnstone in ten days’ time. Pre-season training for the 2016/17 campaign starts just four weeks later on June 15. The first competitive game is a European tie two weeks after that, potentially somewhere like Macedonia, Armenia or Albania. Chances of a proper disconnect from football this year are slim for Robbie Neilson and his players.
They wouldn’t have it any other way, however. Qualifying for Europe was beyond Hearts’ wildest imaginations this time last year. They achieved promotion from the Championship aiming to consolidate in the Premiership, yet those projections were obliterated. Finishing third brings an unexpected return to Continental competition.
Time is against them, so Neilson and his fellow coaches want players to maintain fitness during their four-week hiatus. Riccarton would normally shut down for at least a few weeks, but not this year.
“We know we don’t have a lot of time off in the summer,” Neilson said. “With these qualification games, it makes it a lot shorter than normal. That’s what happens when the team is successful and they get into Europe. They have to come back in earlier so we’re prepared for it and we’ll deal with it.
“We welcome it, 100 per cent. The players will have four weeks off and, by the end of that time, they’ll be desperate to get back in and desperate to go again. There are some big games coming up right at the start of the season.
“The academy will be open right throughout the close season for them to come in if they want. There will be programmes put in place, so we’ll be ready to start again. It’s important we get a bit of a break but it’s also important we get ready for these European games.
“It’s entirely up to the players what they want to do. The younger ones will be in right through the summer but the older ones can come in and out as they please. To be honest, after a week or two away from here, you’re desperate to get back in again. It’s always the same. They’ll be away for a time and when they’re ready to come in, they’ll come in. We’ll prepare things for them if they want to do some work.”
The remaining three league matches of this season have little riding on them given Hearts are unlikely to finish any higher than third. Ross County visit Tynecastle this weekend, then the Edinburgh club travel to Pittodrie next Thursday before ending their campaign at home to St Johnstone.
Neilson stressed that momentum gained from these fixtures will carry into next season, particularly due to the shortness of the break. “We just want to try and win the games. It’s three big games for us against good teams,” he explained. “We want to get results, enjoy the games and put in good performance. Hopefully, we can carry that through into next season because we don’t have a huge break.
“The key thing is we must keep working on the things we want to take into next season. Going into the new campaign, we’ll need to change our style a wee bit again and we’ll need to recruit new players. There are things we can do better, things we can definitely improve on to help us win more games. That starts from now because we’re trying to implement those things right away.”
Three to four new recruits will arrive and some existing squad members will depart over the next few weeks. A new goalkeeper is wanted as back-up for first-choice Neil Alexander. That would allow 22-year-old Jack Hamilton to spend season 2016/17 on loan at another club gaining vital first-team experience. He is viewed as Alexander’s long-term successor.
“I’d like to get Jack some game time because I think he needs to go and play,” said Neilson. “The idea is to try and get him out on loan at a really good level and get him playing regularly. Then we’ll bring him back and he’ll hopefully challenge for the number one spot.
“I want to get him a club as high up as I can. He’s good enough to play in the Championship no problem, and possibly even the Premiership. He just needs to play week in and week out for a year, get 35 or 40 games under his belt and then come back and be ready to go.”
Hamilton expressed his frustrations recently after spending most of the season sitting on the bench watching Alexander. “That’s just the role of a goalkeeper, there’s only one who can play,” continued Neilson. “If you’re an outfield player, you can play in several different positions. If you’re a goalie, you just need to wait for your chance.
“Neil has done really well this season so it’s been difficult for Jack to get in. He understands that and he’s been patient. He’ll eventually get his shot. Ideally, we would probably have loaned Jack out this season but we just didn’t have the opportunity because of the size of the squad. I’d like to try and get him out next year.”
So who might take his place as Alexander’s deputy? The American Chris Konopka, 31, was on trial at Riccarton last month but wasn’t offered a contract. “We’ve sourced a few keepers and spoken to them. It’s just a case of trying to get the right one. It can take a while to get things sorted out,” said Neilson.