Robbie Neilson believes Hearts are emerging from the toughest period of the season and can now see light at the end of the tunnel in their pursuit of the Scottish Championship title.
However, the head coach today stressed the need to remain relentless in order to secure league success.
The Edinburgh club have a sizeable advantage over rivals Hibs and Rangers at the top of the table as they head to Queen of the South this afternoon. With winter turning to spring, Neilson feels the most arduous months of the campaign are now behind his squad.
He praised his players for keeping momentum during the winter months and looked forward to lighter days and better pitches during the title run-in.
“I think the hardest part of the season is probably from about December to around now,” said Neilson. “Once you get into March, the sun comes out, the training is a wee bit better. It’s not windy and wet and it’s not pitch black in the morning. And you have the light at the end of the tunnel with the end of the season and the break. I think we have managed to get through it.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world [during that period] to come in and say, ‘it’s wet outside, let’s just work on the bikes or go down to the pool’. You might get away with that for a week or two, but six weeks down the line that’s when it hits you. To be fair to the players, they have worked hard every day. They’ve been in doing double and triple sessions and we are still fit and ready for this run-in.
“The target is to get over the line as quickly as possible and, to do that, we need to win every game. Keep winning, keep winning; that’s the focus. Even if we do finally secure the title, there is the pride of continuing to win football matches. I don’t think we will giving up, even if we do cross that line.”
Hearts’ performances during the winter were not as free-flowing as earlier in the season. Neilson explained that different factors were behind this. “The work rate should always be there,” he said.
“The dedication and giving it 100 per cent should always be there. At this time of the year, technique and pace can dip a little.
“We are lucky that, for example, we had [Sam] Nicholson doing well, then [Billy] King comes in, and now [Jamie] Walker is doing really well. I have guys that can come in and out. It’s not like a forty-game grind for every player.”
Nonetheless, this week’s training at Riccarton has centred around improving certain aspects of the team following the narrow 1-0 victory over Livingston last weekend. “I think there are a lot of things we can be doing better and we have worked on them this week,” continued Neilson.
“We’ll change our shape this afternoon and look to implement the things we have been working on. We are lucky enough to have plenty of options so guys will come in against Queens to give us something a bit different.
“At this time of the season, you are playing teams for the third time. It’s important to have new faces and new ideas, so you don’t become too predictable.”