Allegations of diving by Hearts players are beginning to grate with Robbie Neilson, the club’s head coach.
Just a few weeks ago, he was defending his team against the common “big, physical Hearts” label. Now they stand accused of being so dainty that they fall over if someone breathes too hard on them. They certainly cannot be both.
Neilson spoke to the Evening News about the frustration of seeing his players penalised for simulation and stressed something must be done to address an ongoing problem. He revealed Hearts never instruct players to dive to win fouls or penalty kicks, but do demand that they run at and commit opponents.
Tony Watt is the latest to suffer, although the caution he received from referee Craig Thomson during Saturday’s 3-1 win over Hamilton has been appealed by Tynecastle officials. They paid a £500 fee to lodge the club’s case with the Scottish Football Association, stating there was contact when Hamilton’s teenage defender Shaun Want challenged Watt inside the visitors’ penalty area in the first half. The cash will be refunded if Hearts are successful with their appeal, which is expected to be heard before the week is out.
In the same game, questions were raised over the second-half penalty awarded to Hearts for Want’s sliding challenge on Sam Nicholson. Whether there was or wasn’t contact has generated much debate. All of this, of course, follows Jamie Walker’s two-game ban for diving in the season’s opening league game against Celtic.
Neilson is defiant on the subject. He emphatically declared that Hearts do not deserve to be branded a team of divers. His contention is that their attacking style of play is always likely to draw fouls.
“We definitely feel it’s unfair,” said Neilson. “I think the referee has looked at the one on Saturday because Tony’s arms go up. There is definite contact because the boy [Want] swings and catches his foot. From our perspective, it’s a penalty. It’s not a dive. We need to get on top of this. Every time we go into the box and there’s contact, we’re getting tarred with diving, which is disappointing.
“We’ve gone from being tagged as a big, physical team three weeks ago to now, where we’re apparently lightweight and go down easily. I think, when you’re winning games, people are always going to find something to use and have a nibble at you. The players understand that. They know it’s part of football.
“The way we play, especially at Tynecastle, we dominate a lot of possession. Because of that, we spend the majority of our time in and around the other team’s penalty box. Also, the types of players we have are guys who will go at people one-v-one and use real pace. There will be more contact in the box and more fouls given up in and around the box. That’s just the way it is.
“Teams play different ways. Some will go direct and play the ball into the box, so there’s no build-up and no one-v-ones. Certain teams keep it at the back and only go forward sporadically.
“The way we play, we are always going to be in and around the opposition box. With the pace we have in the team, there is going to be contact round about there.”
The situation is threatening to get out of control as people queue up to lambast Hearts for feigning contact in tackles. Neilson is willing to harness a siege mentality at Riccarton if necessary but would prefer officials and the public to take a more realistic and balanced viewpoint. Simulation is a contentious issue in football at present, although the head coach is irked to think people believe it is something Hearts practice and condone.
“No, not at all. The players at Hearts are instructed to entertain the fans,” he stated. “We want them to go at opponents in one-v-one situations. If people are going to foul them, then it’s a foul. That’s it. You don’t want to get to the stage in football where nobody wants to take anybody on. Then you won’t see any fouls or contact.
“Tynecastle is about entertaining people, and to entertain people you have to take opponents on. You need to run at players at pace and provide entertainment in one-v-one situations. Our players do that, which is exactly what we want them to do.”
Watt, Nicholson and Walker are three of the most attack-minded and talented players in the Scottish league, so in that respect it is no surprise to see them involved in challenges in the final third of the pitch. Neilson simply wants to nail the perception that they are attempting to cheat to gain an advantage.
He and his coaching staff feel strongly that their squad are being wrongly branded as divers. As Watt’s appeal proves, they are prepared to give unyielding support to anyone in maroon who they feel has been harshly treated by a referee.
“We just have to stay with the players and keep them going. We’ll try to keep ourselves up near the top of the league. The longer we can do that, the better it will be for us.”