Hearts set for the most demanding and challenging run in club history
Hearts are preparing for the most intense and demanding period in club history starting with Rangers’ visit to Tynecastle Park on Saturday.
That is the first of 12 matches in a relentless six-week block through to the World Cup break in mid-November. Never before has a Hearts team faced the challenge of so many league and European fixtures in such a short space of time.
Their upcoming schedule includes eight games during the month of October, plus another four between November 3 and November 12 prior to the winter hiatus.
There are home and away cinch Premiership matches against Rangers, a visit from Celtic, trips to Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Ross County, finishing with a home match against Livingston on Saturday, November 12.
In between those domestic assignments are four Europa Conference League ties. Hearts host Fiorentina at Tynecastle on Thursday, October 6, before travelling to Italy to play the same opponents seven days later.
They welcome Latvian champions RFS to Edinburgh on Thursday, October 27, and fly to Turkey for a final Group A meeting with Istanbul Basaksehir on Thursday, November 3.
The congested period will see the Riccarton squad pressed into action every midweek and every weekend for the next six weeks. It is an unprecedented run of games and will require manager Robbie Neilson and his coaching staff to utilise player resources carefully.
Hearts teams through the years have encountered eight games inside a month on several occasions but those did not include three taxing European fixtures – two against a traditionally strong Italian side.
Travelling to Florence and Istanbul, as well as to Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Dingwall will test players’ mental and physical resolve with very little recuperation time in between.
Hearts did play nine games in the same month back in April 1980 whilst chasing promotion from the old Scottish First Division. They had to clear a backlog of fixtures caused by cup replays and postponements during the winter months that season. The level of competition they face over the coming weeks is significantly higher, it must be said.
Coaching staff are hoping defender Craig Halkett can prove his fitness in time for Rangers’ visit this weekend. After hamstring and calf injuries, He must complete at least one full training session at Riccarton by Friday in order to be considered for selection the following day.
He will not be pushed if not completely ready. Hearts are mindful that their first meeting with Fiorentina at Tynecastle is just five days later. Sitting second in Group A of the Conference League, a result against the Italians would massively increase their chances of qualifying for the tournament’s post-Christmas knockout phase.
Teenage centre-back Lewis Neilson is expected to be available on Saturday despite withdrawing from the Scotland Under-21 squad last week. He suffered a tight hamstring during the 3-1 friendly win against Northern Ireland but his club’s medical staff say it is not a serious issue.
Recent signings like Robert Snodgrass, Orestis Kiomourtzoglou and Stephen Humphrys can expect a fair amount of game time in the weeks ahead as Hearts try to cope with new demands on their squad.