ROBBIE NEILSON today questioned his players’ desire following the 2-0 loss to Hibs at Easter Road. The Hearts head coach was visibly angered by his team’s sub-standard performance and stressed they need to learn quickly before tackling the cut-throat Scottish Premiership.
Neilson said his players had to show more hunger after a second defeat inside eight days. Last Sunday’s loss to Rangers at Ibrox was followed by the midweek win over Alloa and then yesterday’s defeat to Hibs. Hearts arrived at Easter Road hoping to complete an unbeaten season against their city rivals to add to their title win and automatic promotion. However, they were outplayed by Hibs and left with a loss which could easily have been heavier.
After the match, Neilson delivered a critical assessment of his players’ application in what was their poorest display of the season. “I don’t think there’s an issue with motivation, I just think there’s an issue with learning how to win games,” he commented. “There are fine margins. We’re quite a young team and we need to learn quickly because we’re going up to a bigger league.
“It’s about going into games with the desire to win them. It’s doesn’t matter if you’ve won the league, it’s a derby at the end of the day. Last week we got beat at Rangers and this week we’ve lost at Hibs. That’s unacceptable when you play at Hearts. You should be winning games. Next season we’re going to go to Parkhead, Tannadice, Pittodrie, big venues against better teams, and we’ll need to perform better than that.
“The hunger just wasn’t quite there, which is the most disappointing thing. You need to have that all the time, you need the desire all the time to win games when you play with Hearts. It’s okay doing it against Alloa, Livingston, Dumbarton. You have to do it in these games as well. To be fair, we’ve done that all season but the last two weeks haven’t been good enough.” Neilson added that the season won’t be allowed to peter out with three league games remaining. He wants full points to regain the momentum with which Hearts blew many teams away earlier in the campaign. “I’m disappointed for the fans. They come here and we don’t perform. I’m not worrying about the season fizzling out though, not after we spoke to the players,” he said.
“They know they’ve got three games coming up and I want nine points from Raith Rovers, Cowdenbeath and Rangers. We went 31 games and only lost once. Now we’ve gone and lost two of the last three. It’s not acceptable. If you want to play at Hearts, it has to be better than that. I thought Hibs did alright. I didn’t think they were outstanding. We let them win the game. Previously we’ve been the dominant team and we need to get back to doing that again.”
Hearts began with an unusual 3-4-1-2 formation but fell behind when Jason Cummings converted Farid El Alagui’s headed knockdown on the half-hour mark. Neilson then reverted to a 4-2-3-1 system after replacing left-sided centre-back Kevin McHattie with winger Sam Nicholson.
However, after Hibs wasted several good chances to kill the game, El Alagui sealed victory with a composed clip over the Hearts keeper Neil Alexander in the final minute of the match.
“My complaints are that we never performed the way we should have,” said Neilson. “We did alright in the first 15 minutes having started with a different shape. Then we didn’t do the things we were meant to do. We didn’t exploit the areas we wanted. We lost a goal and changed it and managed to get back in the game but then you’re 1-0 down. I thought we were better in the second half but it’s disappointing. I just felt the desire wasn’t there.”
Such a disjointed performance wasn’t what the travelling Hearts fans, who packed out the South Stand, would have expected. Yet a 2-0 Hibs win tells only part of the story. It could easily have been more. The league is won and in that sense Hearts’ primary aim is achieved, but their momentum has dropped since being confirmed as champions.
Yesterday, the visitors were far below the high standards they have set this season and paid the price with only their third league defeat of the campaign. Hibs’ passing was crisper, their movement better and they created several more scoring chances during the 90 minutes.
Their reward was a vital victory in the fight for second place in the Scottish Championship. Cummings and El Alagui were the goalscorers but Hibs also rattled the Hearts crossbar twice, and they saw substitute Dominique Malonga waste a glaring chance by refusing to pass to the unmarked Martin Boyle in the last ten minutes with the score at 1-0.
One of few positives for Hearts was the performance of Adam Eckersley at left-back. He was assured and competent in everything he did. Winger Billy King, a late substitute for Genero Zeefuik, agreed with his manager’s assessment of the 90 minutes.
“We simply didn’t play well enough and Hibs deserved to win. The manager said it wasn’t good enough. We’ve already won the league but we can’t let our performances dip,” admitted King.
“We need to keep at it till the end of the season. A lot of us are Hearts fans so it’s bitterly disappointing. We just didn’t turn up. Every week, when you play for a big club like Hearts, you need to put on a performance for the fans.”