Hearts boss braced for intense Premiership battle next season
Betting on next season's Scottish Premiership may well be the preserve of the fool. Ladbrokes, lead sponsor of the SPFL, encourage anyone to have a flutter. It may be wise to avoid such a feisty and '¨competitive division, though.
Champions Celtic will have a new manager and new recruits as they aim for a fifth successive league title. Aberdeen will regroup and reorganise, possibly with some extra funding for manager Derek McInnes, ready for another title assualt. Hearts finished a creditable third this season but are already eyeing improvement with “three to four” new signings.
Then there’s Rangers. They remain the most unpredictable of the four but, with such weighty financial clout, they could well challenge this season’s top three despite being a newly-promoted club.
Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, is preparing for an intense battle with Scotland’s traditional heavyweights. Predicting a winner is inadvisable at this moment.
“It will be another good league. Rangers coming up, with the financial backing they have, they’re expected to be up the top end of the league,” said Neilson.
“Celtic, with the players they have and their form over the last couple of years, will be up near the top as well. It’s up to ourselves and Aberdeen to try and get there as well. It will make the league more entertaining, that’s for sure.
“The more good teams in the league, the more difficult it is to pick up points. You’re playing harder games. From a playing and coaching point of view, that’s the games you want to be involved in. You want to take part in big games which are open.”
The four clubs named above are all certain to take points from one another. So-called smaller sides like St Johnstone, Motherwell and Ross County will hover hoping to capitalise on any slip-up. On their day, they could also cause problems for the top sides.
“They will, yes. There are a lot of good teams in the league,” continued Neilson, who leads Hearts to Pittodrie to face Aberdeen tomorrow night. “Ross County took a point at Tynecastle on Saturday. They’re a good side, a good club with a lot of good players. Other teams will build over the summer. I expect it to be a difficult league and everyone can beat each other. It’s the team that is able to go on a run which will take themselves away.”
Reinforcements will arrive at Tynecastle over the next few weeks ahead of the club’s forthcoming European campaign. A June 30 start in the Europa League leaves little time to negotiate with signing targets.
With Polish centre-back Blazej Augustyn and Spanish midfielder Miguel Pallardo confirmed as leaving, Hearts are scouring every market possible for new blood.
“Two years ago, you could look at Ligue 2 in France and pick up players,” explained Neilson. “Now you can’t do that because a lot of guys came out of there and did really well. Everyone is looking there now. So then you look somewhere else, the Dutch market or the Belgian market and places like that. Then it changes again and you look elsewhere. We’re always looking.
“You have players who come in and do well, some do okay, and then some who don’t do so well. When you bring guys in, it’s always a gamble. You just hope you get your fair share of ones who will do well. I think we’ve managed to do that so far.”
Matches with Aberdeen tomorrow and St Johnstone on Sunday bring the curtain down on a season which has exceeded the expectations of everyone at Hearts. That doesn’t mean Neilson is happy for his players to relax. One win in the last seven games – at home against Aberdeen a month ago – isn’t the form with which he wanted to finish the campaign.
“It’s a big game for us at Aberdeen. When you play at Pittodrie with a good crowd on TV, the atmosphere is there before it. The players feed off that so I’m expecting a good game. We’ve played Aberdeen four times already, Aberdeen have won twice and we’ve won twice. Hopefully we can get the upper hand on them and try to take that momentum into next year.”
It is, nonetheless, a strangely low-key build-up given the clubs involved occupy second and third place in the league.
“If you asked Derek [McInnes], he’d probably have liked the Celtic and Hearts games right after the split. We’re probably the same,” admitted Neilson. “We’d have liked those games straight away and it keeps you in there if you can get a result.
“The way it’s worked out, there’s a gap between us and Aberdeen and then another gap between them and Celtic. There’s pride and points on the line for us but, positionally, it’s not really that relevant.
“You look back and say, ‘we should have got three points here or taken a point there’. Every team does that. Aberdeen and Celtic do it. Overall, it’s been a good season for us and a good learning curve for everyone at the club. We came up from the Championship aiming for the top six and we managed to get third place. It gives us a good platform to build for next year.”
They are starting from a higher-than-expected plain, thanks to the outstanding progress made in the last two years. After winning the Championship at a canter last season, a more modest campaign this time round was predicted.
“You never really know until you start playing games,” Neilson went on. “We did well in the Championship last year and should go and progress in the top flight but it’s taking a step up. You’re never 100 per cent sure if players can go and do it.
“It’s the same bringing people in from abroad. You watch them in a different league and judge them on it because that’s the level they’re playing at. When you bring them into a different league, it’s a different kind of football and different pressure playing in front of 17,000 every week.
“The aim for this season was top six, that was it. That’s what we wanted to do. Everything was based on the top six and anything above that was a bonus. We managed to get above it so we’re ahead of target. It now means next season we need to build again and try to sustain that progression.”
With accelerated progress comes raised expectations, but Neilson is fully prepared for added pressure.
“That’s football at every club, they all have expectations whether you’re at the bottom of the league or the top. It’s the nature of the beast and we understand that. We need to make sure the players we’re bringing in are better than the ones leaving.”