Just as Robbie Muirhead is finding form at Hearts, he faces the unsettling prospect of losing his manager.
If, as expected, Hearts v Rangers tonight proves to be Robbie Neilson’s last match in charge at Tynecastle, Muirhead will be entitled to a sigh of resignation.
The 20-year-old produced his finest display in maroon so far in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Motherwell. He arrived on a 12-month contract in June and has spent the intervening five months regaining confidence under Neilson’s command.
Just as he is gaining momentum and showing why Hearts took a chance on his prodigious but developing talent, the source of the confidence may well be gone by Thursday morning. Neilson’s imminent exit for MK Dons would mean Muirhead needing to impress another manager and, effectively, start all over again.
A repeat of Saturday’s display this evening would therefore help his case massively. The prospective candidates to replace Neilson will be watching with interest as BT Sport broadcast live from Gorgie.
Muirhead ran Motherwell’s Richard Tait all afternoon up and down the left flank, delivered crosses into the penalty box and claimed an assist with the corner for Hearts’ second goal.
“That’s my best performance for Hearts so far. It was my first start at Tynecastle and I thought I played well,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I was happy with my game. I thought everybody had a great game on Saturday. We win as a team and lose as a team and everybody played well.
“If you get into the team then it’s based on your performances. I’ve played in a few under-20 games and I thought, if I played well in them and I’m doing well in training, then I can be in the gaffer’s thoughts. After that, I need to come off the bench in first-team games and impress him.
“Robbie Neilson spoke to me a few times earlier in the season. He said I just had to be patient and wait for my chance. When that time comes, I just need to take my chance. I feel like I took it against Motherwell.
“As the game went on, I grew into it more and got more confident. Maybe in the first 20 minutes I wasn’t involved too much but as time went on I got on the ball more and became more confident.”
The assist was an added bonus, although there was a pre-planned element to it. “I was pleased with that because it’s something we worked on the day before the game in training,” he continued.
“It’s good when you practice a move in training and then see it come off in games. It makes the hard work all worth it. The plan was for me to swing the corner in and Bjorn Johnsen to run towards the front post to get his head on it.”
Neilson pinpointed Muirhead’s industry as central to his weekend success and is considering keeping him in the starting line-up against Rangers.
“I thought the key was his work-rate,” said Neilson. “He caused Motherwell a lot of problems because, right fromt he start of the game, he ran them. He ran back, he ran forward, and eventually he got his rewards because he wore the guy he was playing against [Tait] down. That’s a big part of it. We have boys here who are really fit.”
Rangers have their own issues to attend to as manager Mark Warburton strives to find the right combination within his team. The Ibrox club prised three points from Firhill on Saturday lunchtime thanks to an injury-time winner from striker Joe Dodoo. They arrive at Tynecastle in decent form, with only two defeats in their last 11 matches.
However, Hearts will usurp them and move into second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership if they win tonight. “We watched a bit of the Rangers game on Saturday before we started getting changed for our match. We saw how they played,” said Muirhead.
“The boys are fully confident about what we need to do tonight. We have a chance to catch up with Rangers and Aberdeen, even though we’ve dropped points in our last few games. The aim is to claw the ground back and get back in front of both of them again.
“Our performances at home have been decent. We’ve only lost to Celtic at Tynecastle this season, so it’s one game. If we make this place a fortress and win as many home games as we can, we can pick up the majority of our points that way.”
Muirhead’s aim is to retain his place in Hearts’ starting line-up regardless of who is in charge. He is eager to build a run of games for himself between now and January, when the Premiership goes into a month-long hibernation.
“If I play the way I did against Motherwell, I don’t see why I can’t get a run in the team between now and the winter break,” he said.
Beyond that, he knows the clock is ticking on his Hearts contract but is determined not to become distracted by the matter.
“I’m just focusing on my football for the moment. That’s the main thing for me. To earn yourself a contract, you’ve got to be playing games and you’ve got to be playing well. It’s really up to me if I want to get my deal extended.”
Crucially, Muirhead now harbours the belief that he can earn a longer stay at Tynecastyle. His confidence has grown and he is reaping the benefits on the pitch having been frozen out at Dundee United under Mixu Paatelainen.
“When you don’t play for six months, as I did before I came here, I think it gets to you psychologically,” he conceded. You start to lose a little bit of faith in yourself and your ability.
“The more you play, and especially if you’re playing well, that confidence comes back. I think that’s what’s happening with me just now and I want it to continue. I’m just trying to be as confident as I can.”