Exclusive: Robbie Neilson pinpoints defining week of Hearts' season with reaction to Hibs Scottish Cup semi-final draw

Hearts are already preparing for the defining week of their season after the Scottish Cup semi-final draw paired them with Edinburgh rivals Hibs.

Manager Robbie Neilson acknowledged the significance of back-to-back derbies between the two Capital clubs in April during an exclusive Evening News interview this morning.

He believes both games will have an enormous bearing on Hearts’ campaign, while Hibs are also pursuing similar goals. The two clubs want to qualify for European football and lift Scotland’s most prestigious cup come May.

Hibs visit Tynecastle Park in the Premiership on Saturday, April 9, before the semi-final at Hampden Park the following weekend. Hearts could potentially secure third place in the league encounter before facing their neighbours days later for the right to a Scottish Cup final place.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson looks forward to a Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibs.

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Neilson wants league victories over Livingston and Ross County to continue winning momentum prior to the derby double. Several Hearts players can recollect knocking Hibs out in the 2020 Scottish Cup semi-final and that experience could prove important.

“We’ve got that experience of playing in these big games but you know what it’s like in a derby,” said Neilson. “You go into it and you have to be at it because it doesn’t matter how many of them you have played in. If you aren’t 100 per cent at it and concentrated, then you’re in trouble.

“We need to make sure that we deal with games coming up first and foremost. We’ve got Livingston and then Ross County. We need to win them to make sure we got into the first derby in the league on form. I think that will be a big marker for the Scottish Cup tie a week later.

“That week in April will probably be a defining one of the season. It’s two derbies back to back – the last game before the split and then a cup semi-final. We need to get ourselves ready for it and that starts on Saturday.

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The Scottish Cup at Hampden.

“The semi is a massive game, one the whole city will be looking forward to. We had a Scottish Cup semi against Hibs a couple of years ago which went all the way to extra-time and we managed to win it. Hopefully we can do it again.

“We are desperate to get through because it keeps that season alive for us and keeps us focused. Obviously we have the league to focus on but the Scottish Cup is massive for us. We’re really happy to be in the semis.”

Excitement will build on both sides of Edinburgh as the tie approaches, but Neilson stressed no-one feels the sense of anticipation more than his players and coaches. He challenged his team to step up and seize the chance to complete a historic season.

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“The fans get excited, as the players and staff do as well. It’s what you want to be doing at the business end of the season. We are coming into the last eight games in the league. Teams are fighting to stay up, get top six, qualify for Europe, so there’s plenty to play for.

“We are in the last four of the Scottish Cup with the chance of getting to a final and, potentially, winning the trophy. This is when everyone starts stepping up to the plate.”

Rangers will meet Celtic in the other semi-final, which is expected to take place on Sunday, April 17, if Rangers are in Europa League action on Thursday, April 14. That would mean the Hearts-Hibs semi would go ahead on Saturday, April 16.

Kick-off times are unconfirmed although Neilson is not concerned by that detail. “I’m not bothered. I’m not sure what TV slot we will get. I think things will depend on how Rangers get on in Europe, that will probably determine whether their game is on the Saturday or the Sunday. We just need to deal with it.”

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The manager returned to Hearts from Dundee United in 2020 following a controversially enforced relegation to the Championship. In less than two years, he has guided the Gorgie club out of the second tier, build a 13-point lead in third place in the Premiership, and now stands one game away from a Scottish Cup final.

Beating Hibs in the semi-final would also guarantee Hearts European group-stage football next season provided they finish third in the league. Even if they lost the cup final, Celtic or Rangers would be in the Champions League so the cup’s Europa League play-off spot would go to third in the Premiership.

The losers of that play-off parachute into the Europa Conference League group phase, so there is plenty at stake.

“This is where we expect to be with a club of Hearts’ stature,” reiterated Neilson. “We should be challenging at the top end of the league, getting to cup semis, finals, and winning trophies.

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“Yes, it’s probably happened quicker than we all expected. The first season back in the Premiership is normally about stability and then building from there but we have got a good group together. Momentum is there.”

Neilson played in 2006 when Hearts beat Hibs 4-0 at Hampden and went on to win the Scottish Cup final against Gretna. “That was a massive day. I remember arriving on the bus and, from about a mile out, the streets were just a sea of maroon,” he recalled.

“We came in at the Hearts end and there was real intensity about the build-up. It was the first time Hearts and Hibs had met in a Scottish Cup semi-final.

“Gretna got through to the final the previous day so whoever won knew they would be playing a lower-league team. That semi was like the big, big game. I expect the build-up to be huge again this time.

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“The 2020 semi was strange with no fans due to Covid restrictions. Ultimately, you go on the pitch against Hibs and whether there are five people or 50,000, you are expected to win.”

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