“We knew what we wanted to bring in. I wanted a tight group of players who have real quality.” The continued evolution at Hearts pleases head coach Robbie Neilson after relentless recruitment since New Year. Bonds within his squad are strengthening, creating a togetherness which augurs well for the future.
Neilson knew 12 months ago his team, despite a record-breaking promotion campaign in the Championship, needed attention. It was ill-equipped to challenge for the Premiership title, which is the ultimate ambition at Tynecastle. He and director of football Craig Levein began plans to overhaul key areas of the squad, the results of which are clear to see.
Don Cowie, John Souttar, Perry Kitchen, Faycal Rherras, Conor Sammon, Robbie Muirhead, Tony Watt, Bjorn Johnsen, Krystian Nowak and Viktor Noring have all arrived since January. With the exception of reserve goalkeeper Noring and back-up defender Nowak, they all played in the last two wins against Inverness and Partick Thistle. They are the core of the new generation in Gorgie.
“We need to be patient and just wait for this team to come together,” says Neilson in an exclusive Evening News interview. “You can see flashes of it, we had some good periods against Inverness and again against Partick Thistle. There are still a lot of things that we need to iron out.
“We’re always building. We’re not at the stage where we can turn up at Firhill and just win games. We’re not there and I don’t think we’ll ever get there, to be honest, because Partick are a good team. There are a lot of good teams in this league. We have to work hard for anything we get and we have to get a wee touch of luck as well.
“There’s a really good team spirit here now. I can feel it growing. We spoke at length about the recruitment in January and the recruitment in the summer. We knew what we wanted to bring in. I wanted a tight group of players who have real quality.
“You saw that on Saturday with our bench. We had three guys who came on but there were another four who didn’t get on to the pitch. They were: Alim Ozturk – the club captain; Robbie Muirhead – a really good player with real potential who scored goals at Dundee United, Kilmarnock and Partick Thistle; Prince Buaben – one of our top players for the last two years; Viktor Noring – a top goalkeeper who is pushing Jack Hamilton all the way.
“The squad here isn’t big, it’s not huge by any means, but it’s a squad with real quality in it now.”
Attracting players of such stature inevitably means you lose some of them during international fortnight. Callum Paterson, Jack Hamilton, John Souttar, Sam Nicholson, Liam Smith, Arnaud Djoum, Watt and Rherras are off representing their countries right now. Neilson admits there are positives and negatives for Hearts.
“We’ve got quite a few boys away so the problem is trying to get them back in time for the Hamilton game next weekend,” he explains. “It’s great for them that they’ll be away playing international football, and that’s good for Hearts as a club too. The downside is it affects the preparation a little bit so we need to take care of that. The pleasing thing is we’ve gone into an international break on the back of three points. That’s a lift for the club.”
It is also a boost for him personally. Two successive victories have catapulted Hearts to a respectable third in the Ladbrokes Premiership just two weeks since fans called for Neilson to be sacked. Losing to Celtic and St Johnstone on the back of an unexpected European exit caused some consternation amongst the Tynecastle natives.
The manager isn’t the sort to take it to heart. Nonetheless, it is much easier to reflect with a smile when your team is just two points off the league summit. While others panicked, Neilson stayed typically calm and resolute that his team would recover quickly. “That’s the nature of the game nowadays. You’re judged within a day,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you did last week, it’s what you’re doing right now that people judge you on. You have to accept that and you need to try to bat it away. Your focus has to stay on what you can affect, which is the next game.
“That’s what you look forward to and that’s all you can control, how your team plays next Saturday. As soon as you lose a game or draw a game, you analyse it to try and get as much as you can from it. The reason you do that is to try to make your team better for the following week.
“I’ve no problem with that kind of [public] scrutiny. I played in Scotland for years, I played down in England and I know it’s part and parcel of the game. You have to accept it and you get used to it. You go home and focus on your next day at training and, beyond that, the next game. You have to do it and be relentless.”
That goes for signings, too. Neilson’s approach is to constantly improve his team and drive them towards a higher platform. He has just begun his second season as a top-flight manager and, despite some public carping, is faring well. With his team now beginning to settle and gel, he could fare even better over the coming weeks and months.