Hearts’ designs on overhauling Aberdeen rest heavily on tonight’s match in Inverness. After victory over the Pittodrie club at a raucous Tynecastle on Friday evening, a nine-point gap will reduce to six if Hearts win their game in hand in the Highlands. There should be no greater motivation than the chance to close in further.
Third place and a spot in the Europa League qualifying rounds are all but secured. The gap down to Motherwell in fourth is 15 points, which could become 18 later tonight. Consequently, the remainder of the season at Tynecastle centres around trying to reel in Aberdeen and steal second.
No-one will complain if Robbie Neilson and his players fail given they have already far exceeded all expectations in their first season back in the Ladbrokes Premiership. All the same, it would be another unexpected bonus to complete the season as the second best team in the country behind Celtic.
If the Parkhead club complete a league and Scottish Cup double, the club finishing second would also begin season 2016/17 in the Europa League’s second qualifying round rather than the first – meaning an extra two-week break and a July 14 start instead of June 30.
There is much work to be done, and many permutations to consider, before that stage. For now, Hearts require three points in Inverness to maintain ambitions of catching Aberdeen during the five post-split fixtures.
“It’s massive. We’re trying to do as well as we can and inch towards Aberdeen with a huge performance,” said recent signing Perry Kitchen. “Any time you’re in a big competition like Europe, it’s a great stage and a great opportunity to represent yourself and your club well.
“You want to be playing against good teams in big competitions, so it would be another added bonus. I’ve been in some big games here already and I feel I’ve been put in to experience those big games. Playing at Celtic Park is a huge opportunity. I think the coaches have done well giving me ideas of what to expect.”
Neilson pointed out the financial and prestigious benefits if Hearts can win tonight and eventually usurp Aberdeen.
“It is a big game. We had a great result on Friday night against Aberdeen but if you don’t back that up in Inverness then it was a waste of time,” he stressed. “It was a big three points but we need another three points tonight. We need to go up there, win and get closer to Aberdeen and put some pressure on them for the split.
“Second place would be huge for the club. The target at the start of the season was to try and get into the top-six. We were looking to compete with the Dundees, St Johnstones and Ross Countys; sides like that. We are now trying to challenge Aberdeen. If we can get second place, which is still a big ask, it means a boost financially, the players might get more holiday time and more time to prepare for the Europa League games – which could make it easier to get into the group stages. It is a huge incentive.
“You get slightly more money, which would be great for the club. The budget will be set for next year, so it won’t make a big difference to recruitment. However, it will affect the money that goes into things like the Academy and the main stand.”
History shows Hearts rarely find it easy on the banks of the Moray Firth. They haven’t won in seven visits to the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium, and have only four victories from 15 matches there since the merger of Inverness Caledonian and Inverness Thistle in 1994. They know they can’t afford to freeze at one of Scotland’s coldest footballing venues.
Neilson and his squad made the three-hour coach journey north yesterday afternoon, which some players found easier than others. “This is a short trip for me,” smiled Kitchen, mindful of gruelling journeys across the USA with former club DC United. “The closest trip I had in DC was to Philadelphia, and that was a little over a two-hour drive. A three-hour drive seems pretty easy.
“About 95 per cent of the away games in the US involve aeroplanes. When we went to New York we’d take a train, but the rest were flights. I guess it’s what you’re used to but, for me, going to Inverness seems easy. You just take a three-hour bus ride and you’re there.”
He is fully aware that a different environment awaits in the north of Scotland compared to the electricity of Tynecastle on Friday. “It was just incredible, one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in. The place was very much alive and to get the win for the fans is huge. It was exactly what I expected. Before I signed for Hearts, I saw three games and it’s a great environment. Those are the kind of fans you want to be playing in front of.
“There’s always an adjustment period but I’ve enjoyed it here so far and I feel like I’m settling in. I don’t think it’s been a culture shock. The MLS is definitely fast-paced at times, it’s tough to get on the ball and there’s always a guy in your face. The games I’ve had here have definitely been intense and fun to be a part of.
“I’m learning as we go. I’ve been here little over a month now so I’m still understanding my team-mates and how they like to play. We’ve gone over Inverness and we know it’s going to be tough but it’s an opportunity for us to try and get closer to Aberdeen as we head into the important part of the season.”
Neilson concurred. “It’s a totally different game in Inverness. We go from a full house at Tynecastle – 17,000 – to Inverness, where there will be 3,500, so we need to create our own atmosphere and try to get the right result. That is a challenge for any team. Most weeks we have a sellout at home, with huge backing and a big atmosphere. When you go elsewhere and don’t have that, it can be difficult. It’s up to the staff and the players to motivate each other onto the three points.”