Neil Alexander: Playing Celtic is a good test for Hearts

Neil Alexander is back in the Hearts team after he was injured on his last trip to Glasgow against Rangers
Neil Alexander is back in the Hearts team after he was injured on his last trip to Glasgow against Rangers
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Beating Hibs, Falkirk, Raith Rovers, Cowdenbeath and even the current Rangers side details a fine start to the season for Hearts.

Momentum is building under head coach Robbie Neilson, with the club free of administration and building for what looks like a bright future on and off the field.

All progress is relative, however. Tonight’s League Cup third round tie with Celtic at Parkhead will offer the clearest indication yet of how far Hearts have come in the last four months. Surging to the top of the SPFL Championship is one thing, knocking the Premiership champions out of a cup competition at their own ground is quite another.

At Riccarton, there is a healthy appetite amongst Neilson and his players to test themselves against the best, even this early in their club’s redevelopment. Twelve new players have arrived in recent weeks, many with experience of football at a higher level than Scotland’s second tier. Tonight’s game is a chance for everyone in Neilson’s squad to gauge their progress and measure just how many forward steps have been taken since Ann Budge and Craig Levein breezed into Tynecastle in mid-May with a plan to overhaul Hearts.

One of the new signings, 36-year-old goalkeeper Neil Alexander, explained to the Evening News that this evening in Glasgow’s east end is a window of opportunity for Hearts.

“It’s a game where we can go and pit our wits against the best team in the country, the reigning champions of the Premiership. It’s a huge challenge for us and it’s going to give us a huge indication of where we are,” he said.

Fuelling the hunger is a season-opening win at Ibrox, albeit against a Rangers side not as strong as before their financial collapse in 2012. Additionally, Celtic’s form under new manager Ronny Deila has been less than convincing. They have won only one of their last seven matches in all competitions.

“Winning at Ibrox has definitely helped us at the start of our own league campaign,” said Alexander. “You’re now playing against a higher standard of player, which is going to be difficult, but it’s going to give us a good idea of where we’re at. It will also let us see where we need to improve and where we want to be next season. It will show us what we could be up against next year.

“We will go out to compete and do well and, you never know, maybe cause an upset.

“We’re playing some good football, we’re scoring goals and we look a threat. We’ve got a great balance between youth and experience and there are exciting times ahead at the club. The fans are full of enthusiasm and quite rightly so.

“The pressure is on Celtic tonight because we’re expected to get beaten. Celtic have a great squad. They’ve maybe not been playing the way they would want but they’re a fantastic team.

“We have to go there and respect them and give it our all. We can go there with no pressure. We can go and enjoy the game and enjoy the occasion. Celtic are by far favourites to win and we’re the underdogs. That might go in our favour.

“We can go there, play our football and see what happens. It’s a great chance for us to show what we’re capable of.

“Celtic are the champions and they’re in the league above us. We are a young team in the Championship trying to do our best. We’ve already been to Ibrox and won this season, why can’t we go to Parkhead and win? It will be exceptionally tough but there is no pressure on us. Parkhead is a fantastic arena to play in.”

Alexander does not exactly have fond memories of Glasgow’s east end from his time with Rangers.

“Not good,” he laughed. “I’ve played there three times and lost three times. I’ve come on as a sub twice and conceded goals, and I started once there and we got beat 3-2. Going there with Rangers is totally different to anyone else going there to play Celtic.”

There is no doubt the goalkeeper’s presence and experience of tonight’s venue will be an advantage for Hearts. “You always want to play the best teams in the best stadiums so, for a lot of our young players who have never been there before, it will be a great learning curve,” he continued.

“I’ll try to give them as much of my knowledge of playing for a big club in a big stadium in front of a big crowd. I think a lot of the young boys play with no pressure anyway because of their age. They just go and enjoy the experience but, when you’re faced with these big crowds and big occasions, sometimes you can freeze.

“I’ll be talking these boys through the game and helping them relax, telling them to go and express themselves as they have been doing in the last few months. I’m sure they’ll be fine. We have a good, level-headed bunch of lads and they are looking forward to this.

“The League Cup is a nice distraction from the league. If you want to go anywhere in a cup competition, Parkhead or Ibrox are the places you want to go.

“It’s a wee bit of a concern that this could be an interruption to the league campaign but it’s a one-off game away to Celtic and we’re expected to lose. We’re confident we can go there and cause an upset.

“Our league campaign resumes on Sunday and that is the most important thing. That’s our main focus and promotion is key for us.

“I don’t think we’ll be favourites to win the cup if we win tonight. If we knock Celtic out then we are going to be up amongst the favourites but if Rangers or Celtic are still in any competition then they are the two favourites.”

Hearts knocked Celtic out of the League Cup on the last two occasions the teams met at Celtic Park. A hat-trick would confirm full steam ahead for the Tynecastle revolution.