Robbie Neilson is excited by the way Hearts are shaping up this season and believes they are ready to start motoring up the Premiership table after Saturday’s goalless draw at Pittodrie brought them their first point of the campaign.
The Tynecastle side sit second bottom but are buoyed by two spirited performances from their opening league matches against Celtic and Aberdeen. Neilson believes that, with a more favourable fixture list coming up, allied to the increase in match fitness of key men like Perry Kitchen, Don Cowie and Tony Watt, Hearts will be equipped to go on a run of victories.
The head coach’s optimism is heightened by his belief that international clearance will finally be granted in time for new striker Bjorn Johnsen to be included in Saturday’s home game against Inverness Caledonian Thistle as Hearts start a run of matches against three sides who finished in the bottom six last season.
“We’ve matched Celtic and Aberdeen over 180 minutes, which is pleasing,” said Neilson. “We could have been sitting here with more points, but the fact we’ve done well even with key players still to come in bodes well. Perry Kitchen came on for 45 minutes but isn’t fully up to speed. We hope to get Bjorn Johnsen tied up this week, which will give us more competition up front. Jamie Walker’s still to come back from suspension and Tony’s still to get up to full fitness. I think there’s still a lot of progress to make with this team.
“The upcoming games will be different because teams will sit in and make it difficult for us, but it’s important that we try and carry the intensity and commitment from the games over the past week into the upcoming fixtures.”
Hearts collected another five bookings on Saturday, meaning they have been shown 17 yellow cards in their opening three domestic matches. Neilson is unfazed by this early-season trend, although he was disappointed with Faycal Rherras, who was substituted at half-time after collecting a caution for kicking the ball away.
“We’ve had quite a few bookings, but we’ve played against first, second and fourth from last year, so these games are always going to be high-intensity,” Neilson said.
“I expect the bookings to come down now when we start to play against teams we’ll probably have more possession against. We just need to manage ourselves a wee bit better.
“I was frustrated with the Rherras one, so we’ll need to have words with him about that.”
Rherras and Prince Buaben, who had also been booked, were replaced at half-time by Liam Smith and midfielder Kitchen, who returned after a month out with a muscle injury and produced an excellent second-half display.
“Both had been booked and I also felt we needed Perry in there to help the back four and give us a bit of security,” said Neilson, explaining the chances. “Rherras was playing against [Niall] McGinn, who is a very tricky winger, and one mistimed tackle and he’d have been off.”
Neilson was particularly buoyed by the performance of young trio John Souttar, Jack Hamilton and Smith as they stood up to a stiff test from Aberdeen.
“The job of myself and the rest of the staff is to keep everyone progressing, and I think you can see that,” he said. “Look at Jack Hamilton – for a young kid, he was phenomenal, dealing with all the crosses they were putting into the box. He’s getting to where we want him to be. He was really commanding.
“We spoke after the St Johnstone game about what John needs to do. He’s taken that on board and he just needs to continue that.
“Liam Smith came on in the second half against one of the best wingers in the league and was excellent.”