The beaming smile on Neil Alexander’s face is visible from a distance as he strolls across the tarmac. He arrives ready to discuss Hearts’ recent form and especially their impenetrable defence. It’s probably his favourite subject at the moment.
The goalkeeper hasn’t conceded a goal in four games, all of which ended in victory. Hearts’ tilt at qualifying for Europe is unflinching due a 17-point gap between them in third place and the chasing pack below.
Scenes at full-time on Saturday were exactly what Alexander desired when he joined his boyhood heroes in summer 2014. He strolled off the Dens Park pitch following the 1-0 win over Dundee against the backdrop of 1400 Hearts fans rejoicing about their club’s impending European campaign. It is hard to take in, although that is partly why he is baring such a grin.
Two years ago this very month, Ukio Bankas Investment Group threatened to liquidate Heart of Midlothian Football Club. Administration ravaged Tynecastle, followed by relegation and a myriad of other problems engulfing the place at the time. Alexander didn’t arrive until a few months later but he remembers finding a club on its knees. The recovery has been both dramatic and breathtaking.
Walking off the pitch on Saturday, all of the above were at the forefront of his mind. Pride in four clean sheets was up there, too. At 37, he is revelling in a very productive twilight period in his career.
“That back four were absolutely fantastic against Dundee,” he told the Evening News. They have been all season but, in the last four games, I couldn’t ask anything more from the boys in front of me. Even the midfield has been superb. It was a great performance against Dundee on a very tough and bobbly pitch. I thought we dominated the game right from the start. We created chances and could’ve made it a lot more comfortable for ourselves. It was a fantastic display at a hard away ground.”
Of the four-man Hearts defence at the weekend, three were just 19 years old – Liam Smith, John Souttar and Jordan McGhee. “It looks good for the future when you look at that,” continued Alexander. “I can’t speak highly enough of the boys in front of me lately. They make my job a hell of a lot easier. There’s still a lot of hard work to be done but we’re really pleased with where we are this season.
“We missed Igor [Rossi] but Jordan came in and did fantastic and that has been the story of the season. We’ve had a lot of injuries in the back four, it’s been chopped and changed. Credit to the boys who have come in. They’ve done tremendously well and given the manager a real headache. Their attitude and application has been solid.”
After 1-0 wins over Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle and Dundee this month, there is becoming a slight air of predictability about the latter stages of Hearts matches as the opposition try to force an equaliser. Alexander knows what to expect and explained why he and his colleagues are fully prepared for what’s coming.
“You’re always hoping the boys up front are going to get that second goal and kill things off. Of the last four games, we’ve won three of them 1-0. The last ten minutes are edgy, we’re hanging on a wee bit and defending deep. We’re really good at it, though. We’ve done a lot of work on the training ground, we work hard on it and we’re confident each individual will do his job.
“Robbie Neilson’s training is fantastic. The strikers are always doing finishing and things like that with Stevie Crawford [Neilson’s assistant]. Robbie takes the defenders and works with them and the midfield. We work really hard on defending and attacking and we’re reaping the rewards and benefits.”
The Ladbrokes Premiership table offers fulsome proof of that. Hearts’ position in third place is all but secure and it appears, barring a monumental collapse, that European football will return to Gorgie this summer after a four-year absence.
“If someone had said we’d get third at the start of the season, we’d have bitten their arm off for it,” admitted Alexander. “It’s a fantastic achievement for a team that’s come up from the Championship, a young team at that. We need to see it through, though. We’ve played some fantastic football and scored a lot of goals. Okay, we’ve had a couple of bad days but the team is young. It’s a real pleasure to play in this team and I’m really enjoying my football.
“Maybe we’ve overachieved. Top six was the target but there’s still a possibility we can kick on if Aberdeen slip up. They are doing really well just now. We’ll just keep trying to put pressure on the top two.
“European football for a club that was in administration, when you look where they’ve come from in the last two years, would be phenomenal. The support is magnificent and it means a lot to the boys that the fans are right behind us from the first minute. It helps when you’re under the cosh as well.
“We’ve had one poor week in a season. We lost to Hibs in a cup game that could’ve gone either way, it just wasn’t our night. The Dundee United match after it could’ve gone either way as well, so that was disappointing. We had a bad few days and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. You’re always going to have highs and lows and, if that’s as bad as it’s going to get, then we’ll take it. Overall, it’s been a really positive season if we do finish third or higher.”