Lewis Neilson's transformation means Hearts will get a different player after Partick Thistle's promotion push

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The young defender is confident of making an impact at Tynecastle

It is easy to forget Lewis Neilson is only 20 and still learning his trade. The teenager who joined Hearts from Dundee United two years ago is now a refined and repolished defender after a season-long loan at Partick Thistle. He has unfinished business there as the Premiership promotion play-offs begin, but is also keen to testing his fine-tuned credentials back at base.

Neilson will report to Riccarton for pre-season training next month hoping to carry a sense of satisfaction after helping Thistle back into the top flight. The catastrophic implosion 12 months ago when a 3-0 aggregate lead in the play-off final was overhauled by Ross County and ended in relegation is still a sensitive subject around Firhill. Neilson can feel some pressure and expectation building ahead of this evening’s promotion play-off quarter-final first leg at Airdrie.

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He feels ready and able to deal with it despite his own youthfulness. The Dundonian has been playing senior football for four years, experienced the Premiership, European ties and now a promotion push. He has used the season wisely by identifying areas of his game requiring attention and is confident Hearts fans will see a rather different player next term.

“I’m focused on Thistle and getting promoted, but all throughout the season it has been at the back of my mind,” admitted Neilson, speaking exclusively to the Edinburgh News. “Naisy [head coach Steven Naismith] has been to quite a few games and [first-team coach] Gordon Forrest has been texting me to see how I’m getting on. I know they are always watching and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going back to Hearts in the summer to challenge for a place.

“Between the top end of the Champ and bottom end of the Prem, I don’t think there is too much difference at all in terms of quality. There is maybe a wee bit more football played in the Premiership but I think it has suited me being in the Championship. I’ve been able to do a lot more defending, which I wanted to work on. I feel I’ve always been pretty good on the ball but I wanted to work on defending my box, winning my headers, the dark arts of the game.

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“I think I’m a lot more mature in terms of my decision-making. I think I’m a lot more aggressive in defensive duels, which was lacking last season. I’m a lot more confident in myself that I’m able to go and compete in the Hearts squad. If we get to the play-off finals, I was saying to my dad that I will have played 45 games for Thistle this season. That’s a lot, especially compared to what I would have got at Hearts this season.

“I’m going back with a lot more experience. The Hearts fans probably saw spells of what I can do before but I will be a lot more consistent next season, especially if I’m able to get a run of games under my belt and become comfortable in the team.”

He has achieved all of that and more in Glasgow. Neilson’s performances have earned him mainstay status in Thistle’s defence and full trust from manager Kris Doolan. He will need to hit those levels again against Rhys McCabe’s Airdrie, something of a surprise package in this season’s Championship with an impressive passing football philosophy.

“We’ve been pretty consistent in third place so the play-offs always looked likely. I’ve been looking forward to them for a while now,” said Neilson. “It’s a lot of games inside three weeks but a great chance to push for promotion, which I think we deserve. This is the first season I haven’t felt like a young player. I’ve felt part of a squad. To help get the boys promoted and play my part would be brilliant.

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“My first start was Thistle’s third game of the season and I’ve played 90 minutes in every game ever since. Speaking to Naisy at the start of the season, he said he just wanted me to go and get game time. He wasn’t too fussed about the level but the top end of the Championship is still a good level. Staying fit all season and getting all that experience has been great.

“Airdrie are a really good side who deserve to be in this position with the football they have been playing. They like to pop the ball about, especially at home, but we have fared well against them this season. We beat them 4-0 only a couple of weeks ago. It’s a lot of games but it gives me a chance to go and get extra experience.”

Demands are considerable for any team finishing third or fourth and coveting promotion in Scotland. They must navigate three two-legged ties - a quarter-final, semi-final and a final - to be successful. “We spoke about it in a meeting yesterday morning that we really only need to win three games,” explained Neilson. “If we take care of the first leg in each tie, then we can see out the second leg. Hopefully we put a marker down at Airdrie.

“It’s a good group of boys with great quality and the coaching staff are really good. With the fanbase, Thistle are more than capable of competing in the Premiership so there is that expectation, 100 per cent. After the heartache last year, we need to go one step further and get promoted.”

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There will, unsurprisingly, be a touch of nerves. “Whether it’s a game going for promotion or one that doesn’t mean anything, I always get a wee bit nervy before games. I know I need to prove myself in every game if I’m going to go back to Hearts and compete for a spot. Once the game kicks off, the nerves go away and I do my thing.”