Hearts players must handle European expectations or they will be replaced

Although the Europa League anthem isn’t yet ringing out through the streets of Gorgie, Hearts’ European quest is definitely entering its most crucial phase.

Wednesday, 2nd March 2022, 7:00 am

It is now March, traditionally the time of year when final league placings can be won and lost. Aberdeen visit Tynecastle Park tonight on a spring evening with an unshakeable intensity in the air.

The next few weeks will determine whether Robbie Neilson and his coaching staff can deliver on their pre-season target – European football as a newly-promoted club.

Neilson, of course, achieved that remarkable feat in his previous spell in charge of Hearts. Indeed, that brief Europa League qualifying foray against Infonet Tallinn and Birkirkara back in 2016 remains the last continental adventure in the west side of Edinburgh.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson with sporting director Joe Savage.

With an 11-point advantage sitting third in the cinch Premiership, the cherished European dream is Hearts’ to throw away right now. Seeing it through will involve handling the pressure, staying physically and mentally strong, and refusing to buckle no matter the obstacle.

Neilson is perfectly content for his team to shoulder such expectations less than a year since they emerged from the lower divisions. It is, in his view, simply a prerequisite when you don that maroon jersey. Something he did with distinction during ten years as a player at Tynecastle.

Criticism rose sharply last month after one league win in six prior to Saturday’s much-needed 2-0 victory at St Mirren. The public carping was a timely reminder entering the business end of the season that being a Hearts player comes with certain obligations.

“We have our own expectations,” said Neilson. “When we came up from the Championship, we spoke externally about the top six. Realistically, we were looking for top three or top four. That's what we want and that's where I believe this team should be.

“We have a good group here and, when you're playing at Hearts, you have to expect the pressure to be there. If you can't handle the pressure, somebody else comes in and plays instead of you.

“I think it's great. We want to be winning games week in and week out. If we don't win games, then there should be an expectation level where there is going to be criticism coming.”

European knowledge is one of the reasons Hearts handed midfielder Andy Halliday a two-year contract extension on Monday. Europa League ties with Rangers mean he knows the requirements at that level.

“Yes we’re trying to bring the average age down, but you also need experienced players who have been there and got the t-shirt,” explained Neilson. “Andy falls into the same bracket as Michael Smith. He’s played at the highest level, has great experience and can cover a number of position for us.

“He brings that understanding of what’s expected when you’re at a big club, the pressures that come with it and how to deal with it. These guys coming in who are 21, 22, 23, need people around them they can talk to who understand.

“Touch wood we can keep going in the form we’re going in and we can get there. Andy has got great experience in Europe, England and up here in Scotland. It’s important you have guys like that in the squad.”

Performances between now and the end of May may yet determine whether one or two others stay at Hearts. “In football that’s it, you have to perform on the pitch. If you do that then you have a chance of staying for longer. We also have to try to progress the club forward, which is really important to us,” said Neilson.

After Aberdeen on the fixture list comes a trip to Dundee United. Both clubs aspire to be where Hearts are in the league but the substantial points difference makes catching them difficult. “I had a points target at the start of the season and we’re still on course to do it,” said Neilson.

“We looked over the last ten or 12 years to see what you had to get to almost guarantee third. We’re not far off that at the moment. A lot of the time that’s dependent on the rest of the teams in the league.

“With the league this season being extremely competitive, nobody has really been able to put wins together. Generally you’ll have a Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen, going on runs, but everyone seems to be stalling a wee bit. We’ve got a target we want to get to and we’ll continually try to push for it.

“I said it at the start of the season this league is probably the most competitive it’s been for a long time. You’ve got the big city teams, three derby teams. It’s difficult to get a run of games in.

“We managed to do it at the start of the season. In the middle of the season we had a wee blip for three or four weeks, then we’ve managed to get back on it. If we can get that early-season form back again then we should be happy with our campaign.”

Aberdeen are currently ninth in the Premiership but only three points off fourth spot, an indication of the competitive side Neilson mentioned. The Pittodrie club are unbeaten in two games since Jim Goodwin took charge as manager but they haven’t won any of their last eight.

“Your plans don’t change too much. It’s the same players out there at the end of the day,” Neilson said of tonight’s visitors. “Jim will maybe tinker with the shape a wee bit. It was 4-3-3 at the weekend and I expect it to be much the same.

“We’re at home, we’ll play how we want to play and if we can put on a performance then we should have enough to win the game.”

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