Comment: Hearts deserve praise for winning title despite backdrop - but there's little margin for error now
The way this season has panned out for Hearts, you just knew the title would be wrapped up in odd circumstances.
Manager Robbie Neilson was in Dumfries, assistant Lee McCulloch was in Dundee and fellow coach Gordon Forrest was in Kirkcaldy, less than 24 hours after their team had battered Alloa to move within a whisker of the Championship crown.
You can imagine the three of them on the WhatsApp chat with the updates. With Raith 2-0 up on Arbroath at one point, the champagne – or cava, as Neilson quipped “given it’s the Championship – was probably put on ice, but the Red Lichties stormed back to force a draw and that, coupled with Dundee’s own draw with Morton, meant it was mission accomplished.
Winning a league in pandemic-ridden world has a weird aura around it. Neilson experienced that last year with Dundee United. He met his boss Tony Asghar for a socially-distanced beer to toast it. There would have been little revelry again given the situation right now but you suspect Neilson and his staff allowed themselves to at least enjoy the moment.
It’s not just lockdown and the absence of fans that has dulled the jubilation of clinching promotion back to the top flight, though. Hearts are engulfed in a negative atmosphere, created by the drip-drip effect of underwhelming results and performances in 2021 before, bang, they were hurtled out of the Scottish Cup by Brora Rangers. The fury from that result will take a long time to disappear, if at all.
But in the cold light of day, Hearts have achieved their ultimate goal of promotion back to Scotland’s top table with three matches to spare. The Championship is not an easy division to navigate but Neilson has done it three times now, twice with the Jambos. When owner Ann Budge poached him from Dundee United last summer, that was his remit. Job done.
Yes, the past few months have been challenging. The staff and players know their performance levels have dipped. Without making excuses, the second tier is a right pain to play in when you are top dogs. Hearts should be beating all the teams in front of them given their greater spending power, but football isn’t like that. It’s not easy breaking down ten men behind the ball week after week.
In truth, the league was won before the clocks changed. Hearts began the campaign like caged tiger, savaging all in front of them. The 6-2 win over Dundee on opening night set the tone. Ayr United, Queen of the South and Alloa have all been taken to the cleaners, Raith were thumped on their own patch, but there were also gritty wins over Inverness, Dunfermline and Dundee again. Winning the league is often not pretty. It’s the points that matter.
A chunk of the fanbase want Neilson gone, regardless of this triumph. His credit has diminished, mainly due to the Brora debacle, but Budge is highly unlikely to remove him after returning her club back to the Premiership.
Neilson et al should be congratulated for winning this league, but they will know that the pressure is on to equip the team correctly for Premiership football and hit the ground running. The hard work starts now, with little margin for error.