Any questions over Robbie Neilson’s weekly changing of the Hearts team are quickly subdued by a glance at the league table.
Sitting top of the SPFL Championship after taking 22 of the first 24 available points, Neilson is entitled to do as he pleases, according to former Hearts manager Sandy Clark.
A few fans may be perplexed by the weekly tinkering with a winning side, especially after comprehensive victories by four and five-goal margins. Clark dismisses anyone who feels they may have a right to query Neilson, pointing to the club’s results as evidence that the head coach’s methods are working perfectly.
Most of the squad at Riccarton are content to be part of a group building serious momentum in their bid for automatic promotion back to the Premiership. A few are unhappy at not getting more game time, however that is normal at pretty much every football club.
Like many observers across the country, Clark has been mightily impressed with Neilson’s work so far in his first managerial role. Overseen by Hearts director of football Craig Levein, and assisted by Stevie Crawford, he has made almost a perfect start to the league campaign.
“I don’t think he’s changing the team to keep people happy. I think he’s doing it to get results,” said Clark, now assistant manager to Darren Young at Albion Rovers. “Nobody can go through the season with 13 or 14 players. I think you need at least 20 for healthy competition and to cope with injuries and suspensions.
“Most teams who start the season well and are top of the league won’t change their team for the sake of it. They’ll change because they think it’s the right thing to get a result depending on the opposition. Do you select certain players at home? Do you need different types of players away from home? Maybe those who will dig in more and work harder? Do you need somebody with a bit more creativity? All those factors will be looked at.
“It’s working because Hearts are playing well and scoring goals. I saw them at Ibrox in the first game of the season. They got their tactics right and deserved to win the game. Last Saturday, winning 3-0 at Queen of the South is a really good result. I read that Queen of the South were a bit unfortunate to lose 3-0, but Hearts are in the winning habit so it augurs well for the rest of the season.
“While Craig is overseeing things, I’ve absolutely no doubt Robbie and Stevie Crawford are the ones doing it on a daily basis on the training pitch. I know Stevie well. They’re obviously getting their coaching and their ideas across and that’s why the team is doing well.”
Neilson has again hinted this week at changes for Saturday’s visit to Alloa. Satisfied as he was with the win at Palmerston Park, he is considering one or two alterations. To date, he has managed to keep the majority of his squad happy after signing 12 new players since being appointed head coach in May.
“Robbie and Craig have done their homework right from the summer,” Clark pointed out. “They’ve recognised the team’s weaknesses and where they need to improve, so their preparation has helped a lot.
“You’ll always get one or two players who aren’t playing and probably think they should be playing. When you’re getting good results, as Hearts are, you can point to them and ask that player, ‘are you doing better than the guy playing in your position?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then they can’t say too much.
“You’ve got to continually encourage them and reinforce the fact that they’re still in your plans. There’s a full season and it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. There will be injuries so you’ve got to be ready to take your chance.”
Players like Scott Robinson, Brad McKay and Jason Holt have gone from being first-team regulars last season to fringe players under Neilson and Crawford. Their game time has been cut, although they could still have an important part to play. Injuries and suspensions will almost certainly kick in during the winter months and Neilson will make use of the squad at his disposal.
“Most players have had minutes on the park for Hearts this season and that’s the time when you need to stake your claim,” continued Clark. “You’ve got to pick the team you think is right to win the next game. That might mean a slight change of tactics, or it might mean one or two players who have qualities better suited to a particular game. You might need a quick winger against a slow full-back or something like that.
“You also look at training. If everybody is working hard and doing well in training, then the guys getting selected have to perform at the weekend. If they don’t, they will lose their place. If you’re explaining that as the manager then you must stick to it. If somebody isn’t playing well, a striker isn’t scoring or a defender is making mistakes, then the ones on the fringes have to get a chance. It’s up to them to take that opportunity when it comes.”