Robbie Neilson reflects on a prosperous 2021 for Hearts, and says head-to-heads with Hibs, Aberdeen and Motherwell will be crucial in race for third

Sitting third in the Premiership, five points ahead of fourth-placed Motherwell and seven points above city rivals Hibs, is an extremely welcome position for Hearts entering 2022.

Wednesday, 29th December 2021, 1:31 pm
Updated Thursday, 30th December 2021, 1:48 pm
The arrival of sporting director Joe Savage has changed the recruitment strategy at Hearts
The arrival of sporting director Joe Savage has changed the recruitment strategy at Hearts

Perhaps it’s more than they expected as a club newly promoted to the top flight. Perhaps it’s more than others expected after a few unconvincing displays en route to the Championship title last season. Either way, standards have been raised significantly since then.

Recruitment methods have improved, resulting in younger signings who aspire to develop further and help Hearts in the process. The improvement shows in statistics like only one defeat at Tynecastle Park so far this term, plus the best away record outwith Celtic and Rangers.

Manager Robbie Neilson won the Championship title with Hearts in 2015 and followed up with European qualification 12 months later. He is on course to repeat that feat in his second spell with the club, although it is far from straightforward.

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Tynecastle had no fans during Sunday's match against Ross County. Robbie Neilson is not expecting full crowds to be allowed when the Cinch Premiership resumes

In an exclusive Evening News interview, Neilson explained why the challenge will get tougher when the Premiership resumes after the winter break. “It's certainly not easy. These teams are established in the Premiership,” he said.

Motherwell, Aberdeen and Hibs have done well for the last few seasons in and around the top six. You have to come up and prove you are better than these teams.

“It's a hard task. We are only 20 games in and there are still another 18 to go. They will get harder and harder, and the pressure will come on as well.”

The catalyst for a place in the Europa Conference League qualifying rounds may well be those fixtures against teams immediately below. Neilson is not necessarily surprised by Hearts’ current league position but he knows too well the fickle nature of top-level sport.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson is preparing for the second half of the season.

“You never know when you're coming up how you will fare,” he said. “We felt we had a good squad here but once you actually hit the ground running and play all the other teams, then you figure out where you are.

“Aberdeen, Hibs and Motherwell are really strong teams. So, although we are sitting third and five points clear at the moment, they aren't going to lose a lot of games this season. I think a lot of it will come down to head-to-heads with them. They are all good sides.”

Hearts’ renaissance since a controversially-enforced relegation from the Premiership in summer 2020 has been steady and carefully co-ordinated. Joe Savage arrived as sporting director 12 months ago and is working in tandem with Neilson to gradually improve the squad.

Signings like Beni Baningime, Cammy Devlin, Alex Cochrane and Barrie McKay have given Neilson’s side fresh impetus and youthful zest. Nathaniel Atkinson will soon arrive from Melbourne City as another promising talent.

At least one new forward is expected to come in during the January transfer window after an approach was made for the Japanese forward Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa. A recognised No.9 may also be on the cards with Armand Gnanduillet likely to leave.

“We have just brought boys in who are hungry and at a good age,” said Neilson. “Joe and I spoke when he first came in. It was about getting people who are hungry to be here.

“We don't want Hearts to be the last stop in a player's career. When we came in, that's what it was for a number of players – the final hurrah.

“We need boys who are hungry and want to do well for the club. When they do well for the club, they do well for themselves. That's the profile. The people we are looking to bring in are low-20s to mid-20s with a hunger to do well. They give you that energy.

“That, along with the way we play, allows us to pick the right type of player to come into the system.”

If this season is to transpire as a successful one for Hearts, it would seem only fair that supporters get to witness it in person after the difficulties endured in recent years.

Crowd limits are currently set to 500 across Scottish football due to rising Covid cases. Neilson suspects it may be some time before stadiums are full again.

“You want the fans back in, 100 per cent,” he stated. “Will it be full houses? Probably not, but at least getting some in would help create some atmosphere. You saw at the start of the season when we had about 5,000 at Tynecastle against Celtic that the atmosphere was brilliant.

“If we can get some fans in, then build it up if we have to, then fine. The Ross County game on Boxing Day was difficult. There was just that flatness about the whole place. We did 18 months with no fans and thought it was finished. We got everyone back and then, all of a sudden, we're back to the silence again.

“The sooner we get the fans back in the better. One of the big things about being at Hearts is Tynecastle, the atmosphere and intensity that it brings. That's what you look forward to. Then you go into these games with nobody in the ground and the atmosphere just isn't there. It's like a bounce game.

“It does make it difficult, especially for us. You saw last season that a lot of the home teams struggled without the home advantage and fanbase behind them.

“Sunday was difficult because Ross County are a decent team and we had no fans there, so it doesn't put that pressure on the opposition. That made the result [2-1 to Hearts] even better in my opinion.”

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