ROBBIE NEILSON today heaped praise on his Hearts players for running Celtic close in last night’s League Cup quarter-final.
The head coach said his team’s performance showed the progress made at Tynecastle just 16 months since emerging from administration.
Goals from Leigh Griffiths and Tom Rogic took Celtic through to the semi-final witha 2-1 win despite Arnaud Djoum’s first goal for the hosts in stoppage-time.
The game was poised evenly at 0-0 until a fine individual strike by Griffiths broke the deadlock on 72 minutes.
Although frustrated Hearts conceded what he felt were cheap goals, Neilson had nothing but acclaim for his team. “I thought we competed well. We’ve come a long way in 18 months if you think about it,” he said.
“A couple of years ago we almost didn’t have a club. We managed to get promoted from the Championship last year. Now we’re sitting disappointed after a narrow 2-1 defeat by the league champions. That shows how far we’ve come. It’s a huge turnaround and shows we’re going the right way.
“Celtic were hanging on a bit towards the end of the game. We’ve still got a long way to go but I thought last night shows we’re heading in the right direction.
Look at our team and all the boys who have come through the youth academy - Nicholson, Walker, King, McGhee, Paterson.
“That’s what we’re about. It’s about giving these guys opportunities and I thought they were great last night. To a man, they worked so hard and they showed real quality.
“They’ve pushed a team full of international players on big money really far.”
Griffiths opened the scoring before his low cross fed Rogic for Celtic’s second and Neilson conceded he wasn’t happy with how his team defended. “We didn’t look like we were going to concede but we should’ve stopped that first goal,” he explained.
“We had a free-kick just before it. We played it long and then ended up coming out of position to try and win the ball back. Celtic broke and got a goal from a position we were in control of. Things like that can be worked on. It’s not a situation where they’ve played through us, it’s something we could’ve controlled a bit better.”
Hearts full-back Callum Paterson admitted he and his team-mates were frustrated, especially after seeing an effort from Osman Sow disallowed for offside with the scoreline blank.
“It was very frustrating after a good result of the weekend,” said Paterson. “We lost two slack goals. We’ve been working on stopping crosses from the right and left side but we didn’t do it last night and that’s how Celtic scored their goals.
“I didn’t think Osman’s effort was offside but it didn’t go our way. Celtic are a good team and we gave them all the respect they needed. We didn’t lie down to them at all, we just showed them the respect they needed and tried to catch them on the break. It’s two slack goals that have killed us.
“Everyone knows Griffiths is a good player. He’s a Scotland internationalist and he scores goals and that’s what he did today. We’re kicking ourselves but we look at the league now and move on.”