Hearts enter a tournament second on their priority list this weekend when Celtic arrive at Tynecastle in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup.
Head coach Robbie Neilson openly admits that league success takes precedence over everything this season, but he also knows the value of the national cup competition.
Neilson won the Scottish Cup as a Hearts player in 2006 and is acutely aware of the affection for the old trophy in and around Gorgie. Three times in the last 16 years has it been inscribed with the name “Heart of Midlothian FC”. The 1998 win over Rangers ended 36 years without a major trophy and, for many Hearts fans, the 5-1 win over Hibs in the 2012 final is a stick to forever beat their greatest rivals with. Consequently, supporters feel a much greater affinity with the Scottish Cup than the lesser-ranking League Cup.
Hearts’ relegation from the Scottish Premiership last season meant winning the league became the primary aim in Neilson’s maiden campaign as a manager. His pre-season agenda stated as much. Returning top-flight football to Tynecastle was first on the list, then came Scottish Cup success, followed by other tournaments which Hearts are already eliminated from – the League Cup and Petrofac Training Cup.
Celtic’s visit on Sunday could easily be viewed as an unwanted distraction when Hearts wish to continue their league momentum after beating Rangers. Neilson does not subscribe to such a theory. He wants his players as pumped up and motivated this weekend as they were last week against the other half of Glasgow.
“It’s a great game for us to have,” he told the Evening News. “The priority at the start of the season for us was the league, then the Scottish Cup, then the League Cup, then the Petrofac Cup.
“We want to do well in the Scottish Cup and this is a big draw for us. It’s a good opportunity for us to go and test ourselves again against a strong team.
“The Scottish Cup is a huge tournament for us and we want to do well in it. This is a difficult game but, in a cup tie at Tynecastle, we definitely have a chance. We got a big result against Rangers and it’s great for the confidence so we want to carry that into the game on Sunday.
“You plan to try and win every game and we’ve managed to just about do that in the league. We’ve won 12 out of 14 but that’s because we have a good group of players, who have good attitudes and work hard. I could tell that right from the start of the season. I knew they would work hard and they’re getting rewards. Everyone can see that their efforts are being rewarded. We’re still doing double and triple training sessions. If you want to do anything in football, you’re going to need to put the hours in and work hard.”
For all the effort expended to beat Rangers, Hearts will need to up the ante again this week if they are to progress in the cup. It was Celtic who ended their League Cup campaign with a 3-0 defeat at a sparsely-populated Parkhead in September. Only 15,000 people attended that match, leading to an eerie and uninspiring atmosphere.
Sunday’s crowd may be slightly less in number but Tynecastle’s acoustics will ensure a rather different ambience. “It’s a different atmosphere at Tynecastle and we’ll probably be playing a slightly different Celtic team as well,” observed Neilson. “It’s going to be really difficult because Celtic are a good side. I’ve watched them a few times and I’ll watch them again tonight in the Europa League [against Red Bull Salzburg]. That will give us an idea of what we’re up against. It is up another level [from Rangers]. Celtic are the top team in Scotland so we know how hard this will be.”
The task becomes even tougher without top goalscorer Osman Sow and captain Danny Wilson. Sow will not risked due to a thigh problem and Wilson is touch and go due to a troublesome hamstring injury. Defensively, Neilson is unperturbed. Brad McKay has been an assured deputy for Wilson at centre-back in the last three matches, helping record clean sheets in wins against Raith Rovers and Rangers. Jordan McGhee is also in contention.
“We have a strong defensive unit with a strong group of players,” said Neilson. “There are seven or eight good defenders in there so we know there are guys coming in who will do very well for us. It provides good competition for places. I’m pleased with the way things are going defensively at the moment, we just need to keep doing it.”
In midfield, expect the Spaniard Miguel Pallardo, pictured, to be given another key role alongside the dynamic Morgaro Gomis. Pallardo was a standout against Rangers and showed no inhibitions amid a deafening atmosphere. “He’s used to playing in big games in La Liga so I’ve no issues with putting him in for this one.
“I’ll decide towards the end of the week what we’re going to do and we’ll take it from there,” said Neilson, who was particularly happy with Pallardo’s performance in only his second start for Hearts last week.
“Miguel is a great guy. He’s come over from Spain and didn’t really speak any English,” he said. “We’ve tried to settle him in and tried to help him. He’s taken to the group and he’s a great character. Last season he was playing in La Liga, the top level in Spain.
“He’s come here and had to sit out a bit until he got his fitness, and he’s waited for his opportunity in the team.
“He’s managed to come in and he’s another addition that we can use this season. Miguel does a lot of work that people don’t see. He does a lot of covering and makes interceptions and passes.”