Riccarton is a hive of excitement right now with Hearts top of the Championship and looking strong.
Another new signing has arrived, Spanish midfielder Miguel Pallardo, and head coach Robbie Neilson is Manager of the Month. It would be easy to employ that well-trodden phrase and claim there is a buzz about the place.
Not since those remarkable few weeks under George Burley in 2005 have Hearts fans been able to wallow in such a feelgood factor at the start of a campaign. The plan is for momentum to continue at Dumbarton tomorrow as the Edinburgh club seek a fifth successive league win. The only black spot so far this season is a 4-1 Petrofac Training Cup loss at Livingston.
Burley managed eight league wins on the spin before a 2-2 draw at Falkirk and a 1-1 draw at Celtic Park signalled the end of his brief but memorable Tynecastle tenure. Neilson played every minute of every game under Burley, pictured below right, and remembers the growing anticipation as talk of title success gathered pace into the autumn. He also recalls Burley’s ruthless sacking by club owner Vladimir Romanov despite Hearts being unbeaten at the top of the Scottish Premier League after ten games. That is partly why the current incumbent refuses to become hysterical about the early-season success. Romanov is long gone from Gorgie with Ann Budge having kickstarted a new era in control of the club. Her background suggests she is far more likely to embrace the prosperity than do anything to destabilise it.
“George Burley won eight league games on the bounce and we lost to Livingston in the cup that season too,” smiled Neilson. “George had a great start to the season and who knows what might have happened, but the situation was different and the club was different back then. Hearts is a different environment now.”
That said, the head coach is exactly where he wanted to be at this stage in the season. Manager of the Month is seen as nothing more than a nice bonus. “This is a different pressure being at the top. It is about grinding results out and Hearts are in a good position. I’d rather be the team being chased than the ones doing the chasing.
“It is only four games in, if we get awards at the end of the season then we will know that we have done well and had a successful campaign. Who won the last manager of the month in the Championship? Nobody remembers. It is not a huge thing but it is a pat on the back for the coaching staff and the players. There are guys coming in here at eight in the morning and not leaving until eight at night. They have all worked hard and it is results on the park that are our reward. We are taking it one game at a time as there are still 32 games to go. We are only four games in and, although we have started well, we know there will be periods when it will be difficult this season.
“We have a hard game against Dumbarton tomorrow and it is a different environment from what we are used to. We have gone to Ibrox, played in the Edinburgh derby and gone to Raith Rovers, where we took 4000 supporters. We are now going to Dumbarton where there will only be about 2000 fans. Those places are hard to go to get results. We might have to play a different type of football when we get there. We’ve built up for the Rangers and Hibs games and we have gained momentum since. We are now prepared and go out and win games.”
Pallardo, 28, arrives as a free agent with reputable Spanish clubs like Valencia, Getafe and Levante on his CV. He signed a contract until the end of the season to become Neilson’s 12th signing of a busy but carefully-planned summer.
“Yes it’s quite a coup. He’s got a good pedigree,” said Neilson. “Miguel has played a lot of games in La Liga. He’s played for big teams and made some big moves so I’m delighted to get him in. He’s made a big commitment. He’s got a wife and two young kids who will stay over in Spain until January and then move over here. He is a defensive midfielder, he sits in front of the back four and protects and breaks moves down.
“As you would expect from someone who has played a lot in La Liga, he’s got great technique. He understands the game, he moves the ball quickly and intelligently into attacking areas. He’s still a bit away in terms of fitness but he will be a great addition to the squad and the team.”
Pallardo will be part of Hearts’ squad for the trip to Dumbarton but is not fully match fit yet. “We will see how he trains. I don’t want to put a timescale on it but he will be part of the squad tomorrow and we will judge it from there.
“We had a call during the transfer window to say he was available, then another call after the window shut. He came over to have a look and he liked the club, the environment and the city. He liked what he heard and he decided to sign. I was delighted because I’ve been looking for someone in that position, to give us more strength in depth. I think he will do us a great turn. He’s played over 100 games in La Liga for top clubs and that kind of player would grace any club in Scotland. It will be great to have him about the place too, for the younger players to see how to go about their business and to look after themselves.
“We are serious about trying to get promoted. We need strength in our squad to do that. We had Prince Buaben sent off a fortnight ago and he will be missing for two games. It’s important that we have players who can come in and fill in and if they do well then Prince has to wait. The competition is there, guys know they have to do their best in training if they want to keep their place in the team.
“It’s good to be able to make this signing but that’s our business done now. The team is settled and we will reassess in January. John Murray is already scouting for potential players in January.”