Hearts to ‘step it up a gear’ in friendlies

Hearts boss Robbie Neilson watches on at Central Park last night
Hearts boss Robbie Neilson watches on at Central Park last night
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ROBBIE NEILSON wants Hearts to up their game in their last two pre-season friendlies against Preston North End and Everton.

The head coach admitted matches up until now have been solely about fitness but stressed that a stern test awaits for his players against both English sides. Hearts play Preston at Deepdale this Saturday followed by Everton’s visit to Tynecastle a week on Sunday. They then head into competitive fixtures, starting with a League Cup tie at home to Arbroath on Thursday, July 30. Then comes the first league game of the season against St Johnstone on Sunday, August 2.

Neilson watched a young Hearts team draw 1-1 at Cowdenbeath last night and explained that friendlies now become more meaningful as the new season approaches. “The first part of pre-season is just playing games to get game time,” he told the Evening News.

“There isn’t really a lot of focus on it, although we work hard in training. We’re mixing and matching in games, bringing boys in and playing people out of position. It’s difficult to get any rhythm as it’s really just a fitness exercise.

“Now we really start gearing up. We’ve got Preston on Saturday, then there’s full week to go to the Everton game. Then we start building towards the first game of the season.

“We will get a good test from both Preston and Everton. There’s a lot of quality down in England and it will be a test in both these matches.

“The first game of the season is the most important, so it’s about getting there in the best condition we possibly can.

“I’m only taking 18 players down to Preston. I’d rested about eight of them last night and the night before.

“We used about 22 boys against Stirling and Cowdenbeath so I’m cutting it right down now as we’re gearing up for the first-team games.

“The squad will become solely a first-team squad because Jack Ross is taking the under-20 players up north.”