Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson admits pressure is building on his players as the title run-in intensifies.
However, as he prepares his team for the second match of a double header against Livingston tomorrow, Neilson feels they are coping well with the tension involved in trying to secure first place in the Scottish Championship.
Neilson conceded there is a strain on his squad entering a critical phase in the season. They are overwhelming favourites to win the league and achieve promotion back to the Premiership, and he feels opponents are using the high stakes to their advantage. He outlined the need for a return to the high-tempo passing game which brought Hearts many plaudits earlier in the campaign.
The Edinburgh club sit 19 points clear at the top of the league after an uneasy 3-2 win over Livingston at the Energy Assets Arena last weekend.
They laboured for long periods in the game against a resilient home team before late goals from new signing Kenny Anderson and winger Jamie Walker secured a vital win.
“We weren’t great last Saturday, to be honest. We didn’t pass the ball as well as we can,” he said. “The pitch wasn’t great, it was kind of bobbly and Livingston were pressing us really aggressively. The strain of pushing for the title can make people a little bit nervous. We need to make sure we get back to the free-flowing football we showed at the start of the season, but that can be difficult at this time of year.
“Trying to win the league brings its own pressure on top of people. I think our players are handling it well. They’ve shown good character and good strength. We had to do that on Saturday and we got the result.”
Asked if pressure is unavoidable at this stage of the campaign with a title in sight, Neilson replied: “I don’t know if it’s real pressure on us, I think it’s more the case that you get teams playing against you that probably have no pressure.
“There’s no pressure on Livi at all. They’re bottom of the league playing against the team top of the league. I was at their game last Tuesday night against Alloa and there was big pressure on both teams. The game was totally different from our game on Saturday. Players don’t have freedom to go and press because they’re worried about losing goals.
“We’ll get that at this point of the season against lots of teams. People say we should win these games but it’s really hard to do it. You need to work hard, be committed, make tackles and sometimes ride your luck a bit as well.”