Forget air-conditioned World Cup stadiums - a freezing Tynecastle will warm the Hearts
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Kilmarnock’s visit concludes an early and elongated Premiership winter break after Gorgie regulars – and other fans around the globe – saw their preferred football viewing paused to accommodate World Cup 2022. Now they can turn once again to club matters.At Riccarton, Robbie Neilson and his squad are rested and recuperated from a frenetic opening to the season. Whether it’s Lawrence Shankland bursting nets, Craig Gordon guarding them, or that famous Tynie roar, five weeks is a long period without your favourite pastime.
Some injuries are healing after relentless domestic and European fixtures took their toll on the Hearts team. Management know they can prepare and analyse thoroughly with more time between games, although the current inclement weather forced training sessions indoors this week. That won’t dampen spirits with players also eager to resume league business. Tynecastle will be freezing this weekend but it is sure to warm the Hearts as they return to normality.
“It’s a lot more normal for us,” admitted Neilson, speaking to the Evening News. “We are Saturday-to-Saturday again, except for a couple of games at Christmas. It’s great having that type of schedule because it allows you to prep properly. When it’s Thursday-Sunday-Thursday-Sunday, all you do is game-recovery-game-recovery. There isn’t a lot of on-pitch stuff so now we can get back to that. We have a run of games where we would like to pick up a number of points and get ourselves going again.”
The break came at a useful time for Hearts even if stopping in mid-November did leave many other sides frustrated. Injuries to key players like Stephen Kingsley, Craig Halkett and Kye Rowles caused great difficulty during August, September and October as Premiership assignments intertwined with European ties. Games had to be crammed in due to the winter World Cup – FIFA entirely to blame on that front – giving the first few months of the season a very congested look.
“It's been different, certainly,” admitted Neilson after completing one of the most challenging periods in his managerial career. “This is the first time it’s really happened this way where we have that amount of time off. Generally, when you have the winter break in January, you get a week off and then you’re right back into training for the games restarting a couple of weeks later. This has given the boys a chance to get back fit so we should have the majority of them back by this weekend, which is great. One or two are still struggling.
“We had two periods of 12 games inside six weeks before the break, so it really was back-to-back. We only really had one free week with the international break, and even then we had boys away playing with their countries. It’s been quite a hectic schedule during that first three months or so but we knew it was going to be like that with all the European games. Now we can get back to normal domestic football, prepare properly for it and get some freshness into the group.”
Sitting joint-fifth in the league, two points behind fourth-placed Livingston and four adrift of Aberdeen in third, is a decent position for Hearts at this juncture. They have managed to stay close enough to their pre-season target of third despite the extra demands of the Europa Conference League. That can partly be attributed to the inconsistency of rival teams, but nonetheless it leaves the Edinburgh club well-placed to motor on over the festive period and into January.
Neilson and his coaching staff should be better off for the hectic experience of the last few months. If Hearts succeed in progressing to group-stage European football again next year, they will benefit from a slightly more balanced schedule. “It was great to be involved in all of it. You don’t get a lot of prep time in between, that was the biggest thing,” explained Neilson.
“Normally when you play European football – and hopefully this is how it will be next season for us – you play a couple of games and then you have a couple of weeks in between where you get back to normal domestic stuff. This season we had to go back-to-back right through. One minute you’re playing Istanbul at home, then you’re up at Aberdeen, then it’s Fiorentina, then you’re at Motherwell. It was different games one after the other really quickly so we had to adapt. We had to make sure we were ahead of the game and get things prepped.
“It was a good experience to try these different styles of play that you’re up against. There were a lot of positives and a lot we have learned from it. We got the players’ thoughts on things, including what it was like travelling and the preparation for games. We were really pleased with everything, actually. There were very few things we felt were a negative. The journeys over were great, the boys were happy with the prep and it’s most important that they are comfortable. We went through that with some of the senior players and some staff. There are one or two things we think we can polish up on but most of it was quite pleasing. Now we’re looking forward to getting back at it in the league on Saturday at Tynecastle.”