Achieving a top-six place next season would outdo Hearts’ record-breaking title success this year, according to head coach Robbie Neilson.
His aim upon returning to the Scottish Premiership is a place in the top half of the league, which he feels would eclipse winning the Championship title ahead of both Hibs and Rangers.
Hearts romped to first place in Scotland’s second tier and were declared champions before the end of March. They have also set a new points total for the division and will receive the Championship trophy after this afternoon’s meeting with Rangers at Tynecastle. Neilson, a candidate for Manager of the Year, is already planning much further ahead.
“To get into the top six would be a good achievement for us. Look at what Paul [Hartley] has done at Dundee this year,” he pointed out. “He’s managed to get them into the top six. I think he should be up for Manager of the Year or be one of the contenders anyway because to take a club from the Championship to there is a huge step.
“You go from playing against part-time teams a lot of the time to playing against full-time, well organised teams with international players. It’s going to be difficult to get in there, but that’s the aim.”
Asked whether it would better this year’s achievement, Neilson replied: “Yeah, it probably would. It would be a harder achievement. I think the way we have won the league this year has been fantastic for the players and the club. But it’s done now, we move on from that and next year we need to go again and get in that top six. So if we can do that it will be a good season.
“There’s a big difference in the Premiership. There’s a big difference in the players for a start. There are better players, they are better organised and they have bigger squads. They are fitter, stronger, faster. In the Championship, if you make a mistake a lot of the time you won’t get punished for it. If you make a mistake in the Premiership you will get punished. So we still have a lot of work to do over the summer, whether it be recruitment or working with the players when we come back for pre-season to give ourselves the best chance.”
Neilson can relax at full-time this afternoon as Hearts’ season draws to a close. For Rangers counterpart Stuart McCall, the nerves are only just starting to kick in as he prepares to negotiate the Premiership play-offs. “I’ll relax after the game. Before the game we need to win it, it’s as simple as that,” said Neilson, who is adamant his players should be just as motivated as their opponents.
“There’s the pressure of the pride of this club. There’s pressure in that people will be coming from all over the world to see us lift the trophy. So it’s important we put on a performance and get a victory – because a title party is not the same if you don’t win the game. It becomes a damp squib. We must make sure we try and get the result.”
Neilson also spoke enthusiastically about the SPFL play-offs although he admitted they are mainly enjoyable because Hearts are not taking part. “The play-offs are a great idea – as long as you’re not involved in them. From my point of view, it’s going to be really exciting. If you are involved in it, it’s going to be really nerve-wracking because you just don’t know what is going to happen.
“You look at Queen of the South playing against Rangers or Hibs and Palmerston is a difficult place to go. Both teams have lost down there this season and, if I’m right, Queens have also won at Ibrox and Easter Road. So right away the team that people think are going to be the underdogs have a good chance of beating either of them. Then you look at the team from the top league coming down as well, whether it be Rangers or Hibs who they face, the pressure is going to be on them rather than the team from the lower league.”
Bringing excitement back to Scottish football and garnering interest remains high on the agenda of the game’s governing bodies, hence the return of play-offs last year. Now, with many clubs – Hearts in particular – more financially stable, Neilson believes the future looks much brighter.
“I think it has been a good year all round.
“We are seeing a bit of life come back into Scottish football because there is a lot of young talent around and teams are also a wee bit more secure. Five or six years ago, if someone came in and offered, say, £100,000 for one of the Scottish teams’ top players, then they would have gone.
“Now, we’re looking at £2 million or £3 million before they go. When we get that kind of money coming in, it can be reinvested in youth to bring more players through. I think we are starting to see things move in the right direction.”