Neil Alexander is confident the bug that swept through the Hearts squad at the start of the week won’t have any adverse on the team’s readiness to face Aberdeen at Tynecastle tonight.
The veteran goalkeeper was among a raft of players struck down by a bout of gastroenteritis, leading to the postponement, on Monday afternoon, of Tuesday’s match at Inverness. The players were subsequently given Tuesday and Wednesday off in an effort to clear the club of the virus and returned to Riccarton yesterday morning to prepare for this evening’s eagerly-awaited showdown with the Dons.
“I’m not feeling too bad,” Alexander told the Evening News. “It hit me at 2.30am on Monday and right through until probably 8.30am, it was constant sickness and diarrhoea every half hour or so.
“At that point I only knew that John Souttar had it coming back from the Scotland Under-21s before the Celtic game. I didn’t realise there was a problem at the club until I phoned Robbie [Neilson] on Monday morning to tell him there’s no chance I’d be able to come in. His first reaction was ‘aw naw, not you as well.’ He told me he’d had five others phoning in and then I started to hear the reports that there were others affected.”
When Alexander heard that his understudy, Jack Hamilton, had also been sent home, he was worried for his team in case the SPFL made them play the match despite only having 17-year-old rookie Kelby Mason to call on for goalkeeping duty. The 38-year-old insists, even if he’d been given until the last minute to recover, there was no way he could have played in the Highlands.
“Motherwell had a bug a few weeks ago and they were made to play the game so I was worried they wouldn’t let us call it off,” he explained. “Jack being out as well was probably a big factor in us getting the game off. Young Kelby has no experience of the first team whatsoever so it would have put us in a pretty poor position regarding goalkeepers. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do, so we’re grateful to the SPFL for calling off the game.
“I had the best intentions of maybe meeting up with the rest of the squad on Tuesday if I felt better but realistically, looking back now, there’s no way I’d have been able to play. No way. Even on Wednesday still I felt weak and my energy levels were low. It wiped me out for about 48 hours.
“I lost a lot of fluid so I just had to lie low and try and get back to some sort of normality, try to eat and keep food down. You don’t eat massive portions because you’re stomach shrinks and you’re body’s not used to eating, but slowly but surely you work your way back to normal. I’m feeling a lot better now so hopefully I’ll be 100 per cent fine for the game.”
Alexander admits he has never known such a damaging outbreak of illness in his career. “It’s very unusual for something like that to hit so many people at once but it just shows how strong the virus was,” he said. “You always get maybe one or two getting affected if there’s a few boys who hang about together, but I’ve never known anything like this before in my career.
“It’s weird because when we came back in, everyone’s got the same story to tell because we all had the same symptoms. We’ve all been in pretty much the same boat but it looks like everyone’s going to be okay. The training ground’s had a good clean so it should all be gone and out of our systems by the time we play.”
After a week of disruption, Alexander, who was in fine form in the defeat to Celtic last weekend, is relishing the chance to go back into the heat of battle as his team attempt to close the gap on second-place Aberdeen, whom they trail by 12 points with a game in hand, and lay down a marker for next season. “It’s a great game to come back to,” he said. “A sold-out game live on TV. We were really happy with the way we performed at Celtic Park and on another day we could have won so we go into the Aberdeen game with a bit of confidence from that.
“I see ourselves at a very similar level to Aberdeen. They’ve done exceptionally well and once again put in a good challenge to Celtic but I don’t think we’re far off. We look like finishing third and that’s probably where we are just now. That’s a huge compliment to everyone at the club, considering where we were two years ago. We’ve massively overachieved.
“We’ll keep going until it’s mathematically impossible to catch Aberdeen, but it’s going to be hard because we’ll have to win almost every game. We’ll give it everything, but whether we finish second or third, we can take a lot of confidence from this season.”
Alexander, meanwhile, offered words of encouragement for his frustrated deputy, Hamilton. While on Scotland Under-21 duty, the 22-year-old, who has been kept on the sidelines as a result of Alexander’s consistency, explained that he craved more first-team games in order to accelerate his development. “Jack’s impatient and eager to play, but he’s still got 20 years ahead of him,” said Alexander. “If he keeps progressing the way he’s going, he’ll have a long future but if he jumps in too soon, his career could get cut short before it really gets going. It’s okay for an outfielder because they go on for ten minutes here and there but a goalkeeper can’t do that. If he was to go in and make a mistake his career could be over before it starts so we’ve got to bring him in at the right time.
He needs games to get experience of making mistakes and how to cope with that. Being a goalkeeper is not just about making saves. It’s about dealing with the mental side. Jack’s never really had a chance to do that over a long period so it might be that he has to go out on loan to learn the negative side of the game.
“If he goes away and gets a season of games under his belt, he’ll be such a better goalkeeper for it and then he’ll be ready to step in and be No.1 for years to come at Hearts. He’s got everything in his locker to be a top goalkeeper and he has a fantastic future ahead of him but the key for him is to be patient.
“We’re very close and we talk every day. He’s probably helped me with his hunger because I know he’s pushing me. He’s breathing down my neck so it inspires me to keep my performances to the level they have been at. We both help each other out.”