DEBATE over Hearts’ ten-man contingency plan for Ibrox has raged since it was revealed in Wednesday’s Evening News.
Whether or not it is partly mind games on the part of head coach Robbie Neilson, as his Rangers counterpart Ally McCoist claimed, it will not stop visiting players entering full-blooded tackles tomorrow.
Neilson has organised training drills involving ten men versus 11 over the last fortnight at Riccarton in preparation for Hearts opening their league campaign as an away team in Glasgow. He feels such an occasion can lead to rash challenges and that the large Ibrox crowd can sometimes influence refereeing decisions.
The possibility of a red card is backed up by statistics showing three dismissals for Hearts in their last six trips to Ibrox, but Neilson’s players are unperturbed. They remain determined to confront Rangers head on in an attempt to get their SPFL Championship campaign off to a winning start.
“I still won’t think twice about going in for a challenge at Ibrox. My job is to play football and I just get on with it, regardless of who I’m playing against. It’s just football so I just go out and play,” said Morgaro Gomis, the Senegalese midfielder who arrived in the summer on a three-year contract.
“I’ve played against Ian Black a few times when he was at Inverness and Hearts so I know him quite well. We’ve had a few kicks at each other over the years, but that’s all part of football. He’s a tough competitor and I always enjoy playing against him.
“We have been practising over the past two weeks playing 11 against ten and it’s going well so far. It’s just in case something happens and it makes sense to prepare ourselves properly for anything. I’ve really enjoyed everything we’ve been doing in training so far.
“It doesn’t reflect who we are playing against, it’s just good to be prepared because if you have to play with ten men anything can happen. Robbie is a good manager and he has prepared all of us properly for the challenge ahead. I’ve really enjoyed working under him so far.”
Winning at Ibrox may not be quite the same challenge in the aftermath of Rangers’ financial collapse, but it should not be forgotten that Hearts are also rebuilding after almost going out of business. Many young and hungry players have been recruited by Neilson and director of football Craig Levein.
Rangers have taken a different approach to their summer recruitment drive. McCoist has brought in plenty experience like 34-year-old Kenny Miller and 30-year-olds Kris Boyd and Marius Zaliukas – a former Tynecastle captain. Winning in Glasgow against such reputable names would be an ideal start to life in Scotland’s Championship, but Gomis is under no illusions about the task ahead.
“It’s going to be a tough start to the season, but it’s something to look forward to,” he continued. “It’s too early to say if a win would mean something special again because it’s only the first game of the season. Obviously, you want to start well and we want to win the game.
“Rangers are still a big club. Obviously, it’s not the same players that they had a few years ago but they still have good players there and this is not going to be easy. But it’s a challenge we are looking forward to and we’ll go there looking to win three points.”
Next on Hearts’ fixture list is the not-so-small matter of an Edinburgh derby with Hibs at Tynecastle, followed by a trip to Kirkcaldy to face Raith Rovers. The relegation of both Edinburgh clubs at the end of last season means the Championship will be the most fiercely competitive league in the country this year.
“I think this is a good league to be in because with us, Rangers, Hibs and Falkirk, it’s going to be a tough competition,” said Gomis, “but I think we are all ready for that. I think the crowds will also be bigger too, so it’s going to be great. We are looking forward to it.”