The cool demeanour of Robbie Neilson is crucial at Riccarton right now. Two successive defeats for the first time in his tenure shouldn’t mean a clamour for panic buttons. The Ladbrokes Premiership table shows Hearts remain third, three points behind leaders Aberdeen, whose game in hand is tonight against Hamilton. It is therefore a time for composure and perspective.
Neilson isn’t short on those commodities and has for some time been preparing for a situation like this. Starting the season with five wins was exhilarating for Hearts supporters, but consecutive losses against Hamilton and Inverness prove their team is far from infallible. The key now is to put those results into context and maintain stable minds with Aberdeen and Celtic next on the league fixture list.
As the Premiership’s newly-promoted club, talk of Hearts winning the title after those first five fixtures was premature. Nonetheless, they have already demonstrated an ability to compete in Scotland’s top flight. They have beaten St Johnstone and Dundee – two clubs who finished in the top half of last season’s table – but remain fragile away from home. In short, five wins and two defeats from the opening seven fixtures is a start many would have gladly accepted two months ago.
The sense of anger and disappointment felt at both New Douglas Park and the Caledonian Stadium will have dissipated slightly by now. Retaining belief is very much the theme of this week for Hearts as they build up for Aberdeen’s visit to Tynecastle. Improvement in performance is vital, especially given their insipid display on Friday night. Yet Neilson, pictured right, will know there is no reason to fret. He and his coaching staff have conveyed their displeasure and now it is about restoring some confidence within the squad.
“After the Hamilton game, the manager wasn’t happy,” explained midfielder Prince Buaben. “He’s the type of manager who can be angry and let you know he’s angry, then he gives you another kick to say: ‘Don’t worry about it’. The games are gone and you can’t change the past. There is another game coming up.
“When we lost against Hamilton, you should’ve seen us in training. Everybody was strong and buzzing. Friday night was obviously different, but we just have to keep going. I don’t think the manager is always calm on the inside. When he’s angry, he’s really angry. Obviously, he wants the players to do well but he’s got the right to be angry if we perform like we did at Inverness. I had seen him angry before, but he’s a really good manager.
“The players just have to keep their heads up. There is a big game coming on Sunday so we have to forget about what happened at Inverness. The manager is probably going to try to give the boys a little boost because we can’t change what’s happened now. We’ll try to kick on.”
Buaben explained why losing games from time to time is a necessary part of football. “This needs to happen because, if it doesn’t happen, then we are perfect,” he said. “No-one is perfect so it’s good that this has happened now.
“It gives us a kick because we need to wake up and think about getting back to winning. At the beginning of the season, people doubted us and said we weren’t going to do well in the Premiership. We’ve already proved people wrong and shown we can compete in this league. So far, we’ve done really well. The last two results haven’t been great, but there is a long way to go.
“This is football, it’s going to happen. You can’t come to a ground every week thinking you’re going to win. These things happen and, when they do, you just have to keep your head up and think about the next game.
“We’ve stepped up into a higher league, a league that is going to be strong and physical. We just have to keep working hard to get results. We could have done better at Inverness. We should have played our own game. We like to pass the ball and we didn’t pass it well on Friday.”
Key players like Morgaro Gomis, Jamie Walker, Miguel Pallardo and Blazej Augustyn were missing from the starting line-up in the Highlands. That meant a first league start for teenager Sean McKirdy, who acquitted himself well against the Scottish Cup holders. Buaben was by his side in central midfield and noticed the youngster’s mature approach.
“Anyone who comes in can do the job in this team,” he continued. “Sean is 17-years-old, playing Premiership football. That’s great and you can see he is a good player. When Inverness scored first, the game changes and we didn’t deal with that as a team. Now we just have to move on.
“Everyone has their own opinions. The manager always tells us he believes in us and it’s important we believe in ourselves. We still believe we can do really well this season. We need to get back into training and take what we do in training on to the field. The manager goes on every week about belief.”
It is a point which will be reiterated again and again over the next few days. Aberdeen maintained their 100 per cent record by beating champions Celtic at the weekend and may well arrive in Edinburgh with seven wins from seven after facing Hamilton. Buaben isn’t daunted, though.
“Tynecastle. It’s not an easy place to come to is it? We’ll see what happens.”