The results and stats showing notable Hearts progress during unbeaten run under Robbie Neilson
Hearts’ victory over Celtic was a thunderous way to announce a Premiership return, sparking euphoric scenes throughout the district. The result also indicated that Robbie Neilson’s team may finally have banished some of last season’s horrors.
Rewind just four months to the end of March and Tynecastle Park was enveloped by depression. A Scottish Cup exit at Highland League Brora Rangers followed by home defeat against Queen of the South was the nadir in a largely soulless and totally fanless campaign.
Would anyone have backed Hearts to beat Celtic at that point? Highly unlikely. Yet with drastic improvement, a change of formation and a couple of key additions, they now look like a different team. It has been a pivotal four months indeed.
The Edinburgh club have engineered a ten-game unbeaten run since Andy Irving lunged in for an own goal to gift Queens a 3-2 victory at Tynecastle back on March 27. That was just four days after the Brora debacle, sparking supporter demonstrations outside on McLeod Street.
In the intervening ten competitive fixtures – last season’s final five Championship games, plus this season’s Premier Sports Cup group ties and the Celtic match – there has been conspicuous improvement in Hearts’ results and performances.
Tough assignments to come
They have recorded eight victories, two draws and conceded only one goal. That was Anthony Ralston’s equaliser on Saturday, which proved inconsequential to the end result. Goalkeeper Craig Gordon set a new club record of 11 successive clean sheets, while a total of 23 goals have been plundered at the opposite end across the ten matches.
There are plenty assignments as difficult as the Celtic one still to come. Hearts play most of their rivals for a top-six Premiership finish in this season’s first five games. They can enter those on a sure footing after a significant turnaround.
“It was really important to start with a win,” Neilson told the Evening News. “It’s a tough start for us this season in the league – Celtic at home, St Mirren away, Aberdeen at home, Dundee United away, Hibs at home. These are teams we expect to be pushing this season so they will be tough.
“We wanted to get three points on the board, get momentum going, get belief going and get that energy and enthusiasm. Now the job is to do it next week and then keep it going because we still have 37 games to go and we need to keep working hard.
“Last season there were a couple of really bad results which we were disappointed in. It happens in football and you have to recover from it. Last season was just about winning games.
“Winning when there are no fans can be difficult. You are playing against teams that sit in. If Saturday’s game had been played without fans, I think it would have ended 1-1 because we wouldn’t have had the support there to give us that extra yard.
“You saw the boys near the end, they were out on their feet. If that’s last season, they don’t have the energy coming from the stands. Last season is done and dusted, we won the Championship and we got the flag at the weekend.
“Now it’s about the Premiership and getting as high up the table as we can. Saturday was a good start. I thought there were periods against Celtic when we were at the top of our game and then other periods when we could have been better.
“It’s just about working away, continuing to do what we’re doing, keep working on the system and try to iron it out as much as we can.”
That system appears pretty central to the upturn. After the aforementioned Queen of the South loss, Neilson and his coaching staff converted their established four-man defence to a three. Shay Logan arrived on loan from Aberdeen to play wing-back and help with the initial transition.
He did not stay for this term, but Alex Cochrane’s season-long loan from Brighton and Hove Albion allows the formation to continue. John Souttar’s return from a ruptured Achilles and Stephen Kingsley’s regained fitness are critical to the 3-4-3 set-up.
Even substitutes will play important roles. With Celtic dominating possession in the second half of Saturday’s encounter, Neilson introduced Peter Haring in a central midfield position and altered the tactical structure from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2.
His team quickly regained a foothold in proceedings and went on to win with Souttar’s memorable late header. The slight tweak during a difficult period of the evening for the hosts had the desired effect.
“Peter allows us that balance,” he said. “He sits there and that suited us to move into a three in the middle, with Andy Halliday and Beni [Baningime] pressing on either side. We also had Boycie [Liam Boyce] playing in the No.10 position trying to stop Soro when Celtic had the ball.
“It’s good to be able to flip within the system. It was still a back three, sometimes five, but with two strikers. Sometimes you need to do that. You need to be able to adapt in these situations.”
Haring may well be asked to perform that cameo again in the weeks to come if Hearts need revitalised, or perhaps need to see a game out. The flexible formation underpins much of the improvement at Tynecastle, hinting at a brighter future ahead.