Robbie Neilson is adamant Hearts will match Rangers for experience and know-how at Tynecastle tomorrow, stressing that he wants his team to compete physically with their visitors from Ibrox.
The Hearts head coach is preparing his players to stand up to Rangers while also trying to outplay them in a footballing sense. He believes there is no gulf in experience between the two teams, even though Rangers have three seasoned top-flight title winners in Lee McCulloch, Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller.
Neilson pointed out that younger players at Hearts learned much during difficult times last season. Their club was relegated after entering administration and being deducted 15 points. The experience has steeled them for this year’s challenge of trying to achieve automatic promotion back to the Scottish Premiership.
They are currently unbeaten at the top of the Championship with a six-point advantage over Rangers in second place.
“There are probably two or three Rangers players with more experience than our boys, but I think the majority of them are on a par with us,” explained Neilson. “We have guys who have played a lot of top-flight games, played in England and played abroad.
“There is a lot of experience in Miller, Boyd and McCulloch, but other than that there isn’t a lot of experience of championship-winning teams at a high level. Our boys played in the Premiership last year and, although they found it hard, it was a great grounding for them, playing at the highest level.
“There is definitely experience in the team, so I don’t have any issues about that.
“We need to go and compete first and foremost. Rangers are a strong, physical team with a lot of experience so we need to make sure we compete physically. We also need to pass the ball when we get the opportunity. We’ve been working all week on that.”
Hearts will move nine points clear of Rangers if they win tomorrow. The Glasgow club continue to be beset by financial problems while former directors try to regain control. However, Neilson does not expect background issues to affect Ally McCoist or any of his players.
“It doesn’t mean anything to the players,” he said. “I had the same situation at Hearts during the Romanov era. There were issues in the background with managers and coaches coming and going and there always seemed to be something going on. You just need to continue concentrating on football and I’m sure the Rangers players will do that. They’re experienced enough to know they can only control what happens on the pitch.
“Once you get out on that pitch, or even on the training ground, you just go and play. You get into the warm-up and the crowd starts singing and everyone forgets about what’s going on at the rest of the club.
“It’s going to be a great crowd but we’re very lucky that all season there have been full houses and great atmospheres. Our boys are used to playing in that environment.
“The test is handling all the build-up to it before kick-off, then the first five or ten minutes. We had a test last week when Rangers dropped points and we had to go to Falkirk and try to pick some up. Going down to Queen of the South on the astroturf is a test. Alloa is a test. Every week is a different one for us and we just need to try and rise to it. Thankfully, so far, we’ve dealt with them all.”