Neil Alexander has already watched at close quarters as Annan celebrated the two biggest results in their history – tomorrow he’ll be hellbent on ensuring he isn’t party to a third glory day for the Dumfries and Galloway minnows.
Hearts, preparing for their first competitive game of the post-administration era, may be red-hot favourites to ease past the League Two side in this weekend’s Petrofac Training Cup first-round clash at Tynecastle, but their goalkeeper won’t be taking an thing for granted.
After all, it was only 16 months ago that Alexander was part of a relatively strong Rangers team humbled by a 2-1 defeat against Annan at Ibrox. To add to the sense of calamity surrounding that result, the Ibrox side had already been made aware of the Galabank side’s peskiness when they were held to a goalless draw earlier in the 2012-13 campaign.
“I know from past experiences of playing Annan that it’s going to be a tough game,” Alexander said on the eve of his competitive debut for the club he supported as a boy. “We had drawn 0-0 away to them earlier in the season so we knew it was going to be a tough game, but at a club like Rangers you’re always expected to win your home games, so it was very disappointing when they beat us. It was a game we should have won.”
With memories of those setbacks still vivid, Alexander, although hopeful of a straightforward victory, certainly won’t be anticipating an easy day’s work in Gorgie tomorrow afternoon.
“It was just over a year ago that they won at Ibrox, so they’ll come to Tynecastle thinking they’ve got a decent chance,” he continued. “They won’t get many chances to play at places like Ibrox and Tynecastle in their career, so their boys will be coming here thinking this is their cup final.
“They’ll give it everything they’ve got, so we’ve got to be prepared for that and hopefully outplay them on the day. The pressure’s all on us because we’re the home team and they’re complete underdogs with nothing to lose. They’ll try and make it hard for us – they’ll be well-organised and disciplined, so we’ll have to be at our best to break them down and get a result. It’ll be a tough game for us and there’s no way we’ll be taking it for granted. We’ll be raring to go. If we go about our business like we have been for most of pre-season, we’re pretty confident that we’ll score a few goals.”
Annan finished second in SPFL Two last season and missed out on promotion when they were thrashed by Stirling Albion in the play-offs.
Since entering the league set-up in 2008 following the demise of Gretna, they have developed a habit of making life difficult for higher-ranked teams.
Helped by surprise wins over the likes of Livingston and Morton along the way, they have reached the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup in two of the previous three years, and Alexander believes that facing a team so adept at raising their game for one-off cup games will stand Hearts in good stead for a season in the Championship where they will find themselves cast as one of the big fish.
“Teams are going to come and play us this season with nothing to lose and they’ll fancy their chances of causing an upset, so we’ll have to raise our game,” explained the goalkeeper, who is well-versed in being part of a team everyone wants to beat from his time at Rangers.
“We have to make sure we work harder than them, pass the ball better than them, create more chances than them and be more solid at the back than them.”
Hearts go into their first competitive game under Robbie Neilson on the back of a gruelling run of pre-season friendlies which has yielded two victories and four defeats. Aside from the immediate aftermath of the 3-0 loss at Dundee in midweek, when the head coach was critical of a flat display from his fringe men, the vibe has largely been positive from the Hearts camp since they returned for pre-season training four weeks ago.
Alexander is hoping a good performance at Tynecastle tomorrow can further enhance the bubble of optimism that has been swelling among the Hearts support this summer since they exited administration.
“We had a really good performance against Manchester City and then a bit of a disappointment against Dundee but you always have your ups and downs in pre-season.
“There’s still a few weeks to go until the league starts, so we’re still at the development phase and players are getting their match fitness. I don’t want to get too carried away but we’re coming together nicely. I think we’re on the right track.
“Pre-season’s been tough but that’s us into the back end of it. Now we get into the competitive games, which gives us something to look forward to, so hopefully we can put on a good performance and get a good result.
“It was nice to play at Tynecastle last Friday night – there was a great crowd and it was a great occasion – but I’m looking forward to running out there for a competitive game. Hopefully we can score a few goals and put on a good show.”
Neilson, meanwhile, insists he won’t be in sentimental mood as he oversees his first competitive game in charge of Hearts at 34 years of age.
“I won’t really be taking any time out before the game to take it in or anything like that,” he said. “I just take things as they come. I’m used to the environment at Tynecastle as a player, so I don’t really get overawed by anything like that.
“I just like to work hard day-to-day and make sure I give the players the best possible chance to win games.
“Over the summer and in pre-season, you’re just focused on getting the fitness levels up and implementing some things you want to do, but it’s when the competitive games come that you really see where the team is and where the players are in terms of what you’re trying to coach them.”
While eager to gauge his squad’s progress, Neilson insists the priority tomorrow is simply to make sure Hearts are in the second round of the Petrofac Training Cup come teatime.
The head coach is taking no chances on that score and has been to watch the part-timers in action.
“We want to go and win this tournament,” he declared. “We won’t be using it as an extra training game or anything like that. In any competitive game, we need to try and win it. I’ve been down to watch Annan a couple of times.
“I managed to get some video of them and we’ve had a look at that, so we’re certainly preparing for them as we would any other game.It’s a home game against a lower-league team, so we have to perform.
“We’ll put out a strong team. I’ve got a rough idea of what I think my strongest team is, but we’ve got a strong 16 to 18 to pick from. A lot of boys have performed well in pre-season, even ones that I was considering putting out on loan.
“I’ll take another look at those boys over the next couple of weeks and decide whether they’ll become part of the squad.”