Hearts looked decidedly flat in Lanarkshire last night but head coach Robbie Neilson intends to cut them some slack.
An intense beginning to their pre-season campaign, including double training sessions most days, left Neilson’s players fatigued as they lost to a late header by Hamilton Accies’ Grant Gillespie.
Two friendlies in England last week plus demanding double sessions in between appear to have taken a toll, but Neilson is unperturbed. He is confident the arduous exertions will pay off when the competitive football starts. Losing to Hamilton in an uninspiring friendly is being viewed as nothing more than a minor irritation.
“We’ve been away, played Thursday and Sunday and had really hard double sessions in between,” he told the Evening News. “The players also had a really hard double on Tuesday so there isn’t going to be that sharpness there. There wasn’t a real tempo or a spring in their step. Sometimes you need to let them away with it a wee bit.
“We’ll do double sessions throughout the season at different times so we have to build it up just now. Myself, Stevie Crawford [assistant coach] and the sports scientists have spoken quite a bit about the volume of training and it takes time. You can’t do it in three or four days.
“I’m a great believer that the more you train, the better you get. But you have to train with a purpose.
“There no point training for five hours when you can fit it all into half an hour. Our sessions aren’t long but they’re intense and the players take a wee bit of time to get used to that. I think they’re buying into it and enjoying themselves.
“Losing last night’s game is an aside at the moment. I would rather lose last night and win the first league game, than win last night and lose on the opening day. It’s important to iron things out at this stage.
“Today and we’ll look at the video and go over stuff that can be altered.
“We spoke at half-time last night about standards, about having a bit of bottle to take the ball. Even when you’re tired, you need to do it. We didn’t do that in the first half and we were a wee bit better in the second half.
“We’ve taken quite a lot of hard games. We’ve had Hamilton, a top-flight team, then it’s Man City, Dundee and St Johnstone. It would be easy to play lower league teams and score five or six goals but, ultimately, you aren’t going to get a lot out of it. This is a tough pre-season for us but it will stand us in good stead when the season starts.”
On a night when Argentina met the Netherlnads in the World Cup semi-final, Hearts fittingly donned an away shirt with sky blue and white stripes accompanied by black shorts. They didn’t quite manage to mimmick Lionel Messi and his colleagues in an unremarkable game on New Douglas Park’s synthetic pitch.
The first shot on target came from Hamilton’s Louis Longridge in the 17th minute, which rebounded off the back of Hearts’ recent signing Alim Ozturk. Seconds later, an almighty boom from a firecracker set off in the away end woke everyone up after a tepid opening to the match. The veteran Jason Scotland had two efforts at goal smothered by well-timed blocks from Danny Wilson and Kevin McHattie on 25 minutes before Hearts came to life.
Jamie Walker unleashed a venomous strike off the underside of the crossbar before Dale Carrick’s header from a corner flew narrowly over the same piece of metalwork.
Hearts fashioned another attack ten minutes from the interval when Sam Nicholson’s through pass found Walker, but Michael McGovern pushed his left-footed strike for a corner.
Play switched to the opposite end as Hamilton appealed strongly for a penalty. Longridge capitalised when Callum Paterson missed a long ball forward and drove a cross which struck Ozturk on the arm inside the box. Referee Andy Dallas was unmoved and play continued.
James Keatings, playing against the team he left just a few weeks ago, produced a fine finish facing away from goal after Walker found him with a headed knockback in the 43rd minute. To his frustration, he was denied a first goal for his new club by an offside flag against the winger.
Former Hibs winger Danny Galbraith entered the fray as a trialist for Hamilton for the second half. He is seeking to win a contract at New Douglas Park after leaving the Irish club Limerick.
The second period was regularly interrupted by substitutions as both managers sought to use their full squad. Walker had a shot saved at the near post and Alexander saved Dougie Imrie’s free-kick at the opposite end.
Hearts trialist Prince Buaben got another opportunity to impress when he replaced Jason Holt in midfield. Hamilton then introduced another trialist in the shape of Polish goalkeeper Dawid Smug. He is available on a free transfer from Italian giants Internazionale having failed to graduate from their under-20 side. Smug showed just why he has struggled in Italy in the game’s most bizarre moment two minutes from time. Living up to his name, quite literally, he allowed a passback to roll past him and was then seen sprinting back towards goal in a panic as the ball trundled just inches wide.
Hamilton finally produced a winner in the final minute. Galbraith delivered a precise cross from the right which was headed perfectly into the corner of the net by substitute Grant Gillespie from around eight yards.
Hamilton (4-2-3-1): McGovern (Smug 56); Gordon (Watson 46), Devlin (Trialist), Garcia Tena (Trialist), Hendrie (MacDonald 46); MacKinnon (Trialist), Neil (Gillespie 34), Crawford (Lyon 46); Ryan (Imrie 46), Scotland (Antoine Curier 46), Longridge (Galbraith 46).
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander (Hamilton 72); Paterson (L Smith 70), Ozturk (McKay 70), Wilson (McGhee 70), McHattie; Holt (Buaben 63), Gomis (Beith 63); Walker (Robinson 63), Carrick (King 70), Nicholson (D Smith 70); Keatings (Oliver 63).
Referee: Andy Dallas.