Defiance and grit are crucial in times of adversity. Hearts are hardly in crisis after recent defeats by Rangers and Hibs, but regaining their drive is vital to avoid a flat ending to an otherwise remarkable season. Head coach Robbie Neilson is very much up for the challenge.
Anyone daring to suggest Hearts’ results are irrelevant since the title was secured should avoid Neilson at all costs. The 34-year-old has been driven to succeed since being placed in charge at Tynecastle last May and isn’t for relenting. If anything, losing to his two closest rivals last week simply made him even hungrier despite the fact his team are already guaranteed their place in next season’s Scottish Premiership.
Hearts’ performances were disappointing at both Ibrox and Easter Road and Neilson isn’t prepared to accept falling standards. Next up on the fixture list is Raith Rovers this weekend before a trip to Cowdenbeath and a season-ending meeting with Rangers at home. Neilson is demanding three wins to ensure his squad enter the close season on a high. No-one should underestimate his desire, and anyone who fails to adhere to his demands will find themselves in bother.
Still smarting from the Edinburgh derby loss, Neilson stressed to the Evening News that Hearts’ season is far from over. “We need to keep winning. We’ve got three games to go and that’s three games we have to win. We play Raith Rovers, we play Cowdenbeath and then we’ve got Rangers at home in the last game of the season. That’s absolutely massive.
“We need to win that game. We need to get ourselves back up again. We need to fight and we need to be ready for it. That’s the game where we get the trophy and the performance has to be better than it was on Sunday. There needs to be a desire and a belief that we’re going to go and win.
“Every week is a challenge for us to be honest with you. I know that, when we play Raith Rovers at home on Saturday, we’ll get a performance and we’ll win. That’s it. Because we need to. We’ll be reiterating that all week, that we have to perform. We have to go to Cowdenbeath the week after and perform to set us up for the Rangers game. I want to go into that Rangers game and I want to win. I want to make sure we perform.”
The tenacity in Neilson’s voice underlines his unhappiness at losing to both Rangers and Hibs. As head coach, he takes defeats personally and wants his players to react in a similar way. Only then can they muster the necessary defiance to recover and improve. Mitigating circumstances may have played a part at Easter Road when you consider that some players – such as Adam Eckersley and Genero Zeefuik – have been told they won’t be at Hearts next season. That can affect a player’s mindset to some extent.
Mentally, with the league already done and dusted, Neilson’s players may also find motivation difficult with no real cause to play for other than pride. Hibs secured a play-off place with Sunday’s victory and are now targeting second place to avoid an extra play-off round. Hearts, by comparison, performed with little edge.
“I thought Osman Sow played well, but to be honest there aren’t many positives to take when you get beat in a derby. It’s disappointing. There needs to be more hunger from us all. It needs to be better,” continued Neilson when asked if there are any positives he can take from the derby defeat. He is adamant his players should be properly focused on each task as it arrives.
“It shouldn’t be a mental thing. We should be coming into these games being positive, trying to win them and wanting to win them. Obviously there are boys who have been told their future isn’t here. They’re still trying to perform and it can affect them slightly, but at the end of the day we’re all professionals. Professional football is about performing. I actually thought the boys I’ve spoken to did well and worked hard but it can be difficult in that situation.”
Neilson spoke calmly but firmly to his players in the away dressing room at full-time on Sunday, outlining where they stood and where he stood – and what he expects from now until the last kick of the last league ball. As far as he and his coaching team are concerned, preparations for next season start now.
“At the end I just spoke the truth about where we’ve been and where we were on Sunday. I mentioned the difference between the two, and how we’re going to go up next season and be playing in big games like that every week. We’ll be at Tannadice, Pittodrie, Parkhead, all over the place. These are difficult games against good teams and we need to make sure we perform in them. We can’t have days when we don’t perform.”