Hearts' advantage over Rangers, how the team was named for Ibrox and the target now on Tynecastle players' backs
The holy grail for many Scottish teams is beating Rangers and Celtic regularly. Taking points in Glasgow is essential in order to mount a serious challenge to the western duopoly.
Hearts are making a decent fist of that assignment after Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Ibrox. Having beaten Celtic at Tynecastle Park in their opening Premiership match, they are laying foundations for a potentially prosperous campaign.
Winning the league is an ambition beyond the wildest dreams of even the most positively-minded fan. The last club outwith the Glasgow two to win the Scottish title was Aberdeen fully 36 years ago, a success underpinned by points earned in Parkhead and Govan under Alex Ferguson.
As a newly-promoted side, Hearts aren’t expected to break more than three decades of dominance. What they are doing is setting standards and reaching them, thus making a statement of intent in the process.
Craig Halkett’s stoppage-time equaliser on Saturday was literally the latest nod to a new-found purpose instilled by manager Robbie Neilson and his coaches. It sustained an unbeaten start which enters its tenth game when Dundee arrive in Edinburgh this weekend.
“The biggest thing for the boys is belief. It’s belief that you can go to these places and pick up points,” Neilson told the Evening News. “You need the consistency of doing that week in and week out. We have proved we can win against Celtic at home, we can go to Rangers and take something, now it’s Dundee at home.
Go at it between breaks
“It’s so important we continue this run. Whether we are playing Rangers, Celtic, Aberdeen, Hibs, Dundee, St Mirren or whoever, you need to do it every week. That is the test for everyone. Can we keep doing it?
“We have looked at these periods in between the international breaks as spells where we can go at it. You have four, five or six games and we look at what we can take out of those games. Then you get a wee break when the internationals are on.
“The next break is mid-November, then that’s it until New Year. We’ll have seven or eight games so it’s about focusing on the next one.”
Preparing for each game individually is a vital ingredient in Hearts’ progress. To that effect, they readied themselves for Ibrox with the benefit of only one player absent on international duty.
“Craig Gordon was the only one away and it definitely helped. It allows you to name the team early,” added Neilson. “We named the team last Wednesday, so that gave us Wednesday, Thursday and Friday working with the team so players knew exactly what they are going to do.
“Last season, we had Friday night games with boys coming back from internationals on the Thursday. They had absolutely no preparation. They played an international on the Wednesday night, arrived home Thursday afternoon, missed training and then turned up for the game.
“Rangers had a number of players away on international duty so, from our perspective, it does help when you only have one away.”
It also helps when you put one away in stoppage-time. “It’s a funny one that. If you are 1-0 up and lose a late goal, you feel down about it,” said Neilson. “On the other hand, if you are 1-0 down and score in the last minute, you get that lift. At the end of the day, you it’s the same point you get.
“I’d like to have gone to Ibrox and won. Yes, Rangers had chances but we also had chances and could have scored a couple. I know we all think it’s a fair result but it’s a building block for us.
“The aim is to consistently go to Glasgow and try to get three points. It’s been a while since that was done. Getting a point is good but I still think there’s more to come from the team.”
Purring along efficiently
The inference from the season’s opening weeks is that Hearts are back. Their rebuilt squad appears capable of challenging near the top of the table. Like a car with a new engine, they are purring along efficiently having moved quickly through the gears.
Yet taking anything for granted is a dangerous move in the unforgiving environment of the Scottish Premiership. Stalling is always a possibility at any moment. Weekend scorelines for Hibs and Aberdeen against both Dundee clubs underline the top flight’s propensity for surprise results.
Although they only recently rejoined the league from the division below, Hearts are acutely aware of its perils ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Dundee at Tynecastle. You need only rewind three years for the last time they were unbeaten in the Premiership come October.
They won six and drew one of their first seven fixtures in 2018/19, lost the eighth away to Rangers and soon spiralled downwards from the top of the table. They finished sixth with a goal difference of minus eight under then-manager Craig Levein.
John Souttar, Michael Smith and Peter Haring are survivors of that era and will recall being the team everyone wanted to conquer because of that unbeaten record.
“You are a target, 100 per cent. Everybody wants to be the first team to beat us,” admitted Neilson. “The longer it goes on, hopefully that target becomes a focus for us. We just need to deal with it and keep winning games as much as we can.
“The belief keeps building the longer the run goes on. On Saturday, we went into the last three or four minutes of the game and there was still that belief that we could get something out of it. It’s really important.
“I was pleased with the players but, as I said to them after the game on Saturday, it’s done now. We are no on to Dundee. There’s no point going through to Ibrox, picking up a point and then dropping points this week back at Tynecastle. We need to keep winning.”