Hearts boss Robbie Neilson admits uncertainty over Rangers selection as he keeps cards close to his chest

Robbie Neilson has no idea what to expect from Rangers when they visit Tynecastle for the final game of the cinch Premiership season, but that’s all right as he’s mainly been concentrating on his own team.

By Craig Fowler
Saturday, 14th May 2022, 7:00 am
Updated Saturday, 14th May 2022, 10:26 am

The Hearts head coach has had to perform a difficult balancing act in recent games. Since defeating Hibs in back-to-back matches to secure third spot, European football and a place in the Scottish Cup final, the major focus has been on carefully monitoring the fitness of players and getting key members back from injury in order to feature at the national stadium.

The likes of Ellis Simms and Andy Halliday have dropped in and out of the side as the staff keep a watchful eye on their ailments, while they’ve had to be patient with the likes of Michael Smith and Cammy Devlin, who were only able to return as substitutes in the midweek defeat at Motherwell.

John Souttar is yet to feature since an ankle injury sustained in a 2-2 draw with Dundee United in early March, while Craig Halkett has postponed surgery on his ankle after limping out of the semi-final in order to be available for the showdown on May 21. Both are fully expect to feature in the dress rehearsal encounter, but whether it’s from the start or off the bench remains to be seen.

Sign up to our Hearts newsletter

Hearts boss Robbie Neilson talks to the media ahead of Saturday's game with Rangers at Tynecastle. Picture: SNS

“Everyone is availability apart from Beni Baningime,” said Neilson. “Whether they are ready to start or come on... but everybody is ready for some sort of game time. Guys like Souttar, Halkett, Smith and Devlin will all be involved.

“They are all different. We had a meeting with the medical staff and the players about how they feel and what the medical staff think. Then we’ll make the decision about whether they can start the game and come off or do they need to wait until later on. So, we know exactly what we’re wanting to do.”

There will scarcely be a greater fool’s errand in Edinburgh tomorrow than trying to guess the visiting line-up prior to kick-off. Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side will be playing Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League final next Wednesday before flying immediately back from Spain to prepare for Hampden.

How the Dutchman will treat the game at Tynecastle is anyone’s guess.

“To be honest, I’ve no idea,” said Neilson when asked. “They could go really strong to keep the momentum going or go really weak to rest players. I think there will be a wee bit of both. If you look at their squad they’ve probably got a number of players who probably need a bit of game-time to be in contention for the Europa League final. So, we’ll have to wait and see.

“If you look at their team and they went with guys who didn’t play at the weekend, they would still have Scott Arfield and Aaron Ramsey and guys like that. So, it would still be a very, very strong team coming to Tynecastle, whether it’s full strength or half-strength.”

Going into five consecutive fixtures, ahead of the biggest game of the campaign (and for many, the biggest of their careers), with nothing except three points riding on the outcome has been an unusual experience for this Hearts side. The midweek defeat to Motherwell, for example, saw the away team’s hopes of clawing back a late deficit impacted by wholesale changes in order to improve fitness.

It’s a quirk those within the squad have been forced to push to the back of their minds as they look to stay sharp, gain momentum, and ensure they’re still going full-bloodied into challenges because, as any footballer will tell you, anything less than 100 per cent carries its own danger.

“It’s probably a bit strange but in terms of in the way we are building up to it we are trying not to think about it that way,” said semi-final hero Stephen Kingsley. “It is just another game and another game in preparation for the cup final.

“On paper I get that it looks a strange fixture but as players the last thing you want to be doing is thinking about next week or about getting injured. You need to be completely at it. One, because you can’t afford to not be because it is Rangers, no matter if they make changes. And, two, it could be actually worse if you hang back a bit and don’t go fully into challenges.

“We want to win every game but there is a massive boost if we do go and win, no matter what team they put out. If it is their strongest team or a weakened time, it is still all about getting the win. We have now lost two on the bounce so more than anything, whether we were playing Rangers or anyone else, it is about getting that momentum back ahead of the final.

"I think we have shown, even last season, whenever we’ve had a couple of bad results we have usually bounced back quite well.”

There's also the fact that, unless there’s a trophy parade the following Sunday, this will be the final time Hearts fans can see their players at Tynecastle this term. Whatever happens next week in Glasgow, it would be fitting to end a hugely positive league campaign on a high.

“The fans have brilliant this season,” said Neilson. “We’d like to think we can give them a good send off and that gets us ready for the final and for next year.

“There is a feel-good factor that you can take into these games. The fans sold out these tickets in a couple of hours and then they were queuing overnight to get the tickets on final release.

“There is an anticipation for the game, tomorrow will help, but we feel it’s already there.”

Message from the editor

Thank you for reading this article. If you haven't already, please consider supporting our sports coverage with a digital sports subscription.