In the last five years, of the seven teams who have gone up from Scotland’s second tier, only two have found the jump to the top flight too much to handle.
Dundee, unprepared after being catapulted in following Rangers’ demise just weeks before the big kick-off two seasons ago, and Dunfermline, the year before, are the only sides among this number to finish bottom in their first campaign after being promoted.
The other five – Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Ross County, Partick Thistle, Hamilton Accies and Dundee, second time around – all made the transition with minimum fuss.
Inverness finished seventh; Partick were tenth, but started strongly and only diced with the relegation play-off in the closing weeks of last season; Hamilton briefly topped the Premiership earlier this season and would surely have made the top six if Alex Neil had remained in charge; and both County and Dundee, this season, made the top six.
After clinching the Championship title in record-breaking fashion this season, there is little recent evidence to suggest revitalised Hearts, traditionally among the five biggest clubs in the country, will have any problem reacquainting themselves with life in the Premiership next term.
“Hearts will take the jump in their stride, I’ve got no doubt about that,” said Derek Adams, who led Ross County to fifth in their debut season in the top flight two years ago. “I don’t think there’s a major gulf between the two divisions. You look at Dundee and Hamilton coming up this year and doing well, then there’s Ross County, Partick and Inverness. They’ve all been able to do well and stay in the division. I don’t believe the jump is as big as people say it is.”
Despite tying up the Championship title in March, with seven games still to play, Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has already indicated that his squad will be significantly strengthened for their Premiership return. Brad McKay, Scott Robinson, Genero Zeefuik and Adam Eckersley will depart, while the under-contract James Keatings has been told he can leave if he wishes. Several new arrivals are anticipated.
“I think the fact Hearts are talking about signing five players and letting players go who have played a big part this season shows they mean business,” Adams continued.
“With the fanbase they have and the quality of player they’ll be able to get in, top six would be the least they would hope for. Resource-wise, they’re in a far better place than the other teams who have come up.
“Their potential obviously far outweighs what the likes of Ross County had when we came up.”
Dundee, last season’s Championship winners, have made it into the top six this season despite winning only 11 of their 32 matches so far. Adams is adamant that Hearts will have no problems following suit and believes they will be challenging for a Europa League place at this time next year.
“Even if they didn’t add to their squad, they’d still be good enough to make it into the top six,” he said. “They’ve got a good blend of youth and experience. Even their young players have experience of the Premiership from the year they got relegated. I’m sure they’ll have another fantastic season. If you look at the teams in the top six this year, they have dropped a lot of points. Hearts have got a good quality group, they’ll add in the summer and they’ve got a fantastic fanbase. They’ll be wanting to get into the top four and the potential to do that is there.”
Adams certainly doesn’t anticipate Hearts being anywhere near a relegation battle next season. In addition to the quality of their squad, he believes the winning mentality and buoyancy they have developed this season will serve them well against clubs who have toiled for momentum in the top flight this term.
“A big part of why newly-promoted teams do so well in the Premiership is down to positive momentum,” said Adams. “When they first went up, Hamilton, Partick and Ross County didn’t change their teams much. They had a positive vibe from the previous season and enthusiasm which served them well.
“The teams who have already been in the Premiership and finished near the bottom the season before tend to be the teams that struggle.
“They know the pressure that there is to stay in the league, whereas the ones coming up have that momentum.”
While Hearts are the most dominant Championship winners on record, County made a pretty good fist of their own title-winning season three years ago. Adams’ side collected 79 points, which, prior to this season, was the highest tally since Falkirk got 81 in 2002/03. After losing in their second match of the season, County then went 34 games unbeaten until the end of the campaign.
Adams decided that only a little tinkering was required for the step up to the top flight. However, he acknowledges why Hearts, with loftier ambitions than mere survival, will feel the need to upgrade their squad.
“There are similarities between the way my Ross County team and Hearts went about their business,” said Adams. “We went 34 games unbeaten and Hearts went for a long period unbeaten so we were both able to put a lot of teams out of sight very quickly. When we went up, we kept relatively the same squad that won the First Division and for a period we did well. Then we added some more experience and quality in the January window. As a manager, it’s about weighing up where you think you’re going to be during the season and where you want to finish up. Our main aim at first was just to survive. That’s the aim for many clubs, but we ended up finishing fifth. Robbie Neilson will probably change his squad about quite a bit but they’ve already got a strong enough team to do very well as it is.”
County won the league in April with five games to spare, while Hearts won it even earlier. The Tynecastle side, having lost only one game until the end of March, have now lost two of their last three. While County, driven by the prospect of maintaining an unbeaten run, were able to win four of their last five games after securing the title, Adams has sympathy with Hearts with regards to maintaining motivation levels after their main objective has been achieved.
“There’s always a possibility that the players believe they’re going on holiday once they’ve won the league,” he said. “From our point of view, we wanted to continue our unbeaten run into the Premier League and get to 40 in a row unbeaten, which we did. Hearts had already lost their unbeaten record before they won the league, so the foot was always going to come off the gas.”