Robbie Neilson hailed his patched-up Hearts team for kicking off their Premiership campaign with a victory and warned the rest of the top flight that they’re only going to get better once the whole squad is up to speed.
The Jambos beat St Johnstone 4-3 in a dramatic match at Tynecastle yesterday and the head coach was thrilled by the outcome considering more than half of his starting line-up have endured a disrupted pre-season.
Blazej Augustyn, Alim Ozturk, Igor Rossi, Morgaro Gomis and Juanma Delgado all started despite a shortage of match fitness, while Prince Buaben, whose only pre-season outing came as a second-half substitute against Bohemians four and a half weeks ago, was singled out for particular praise after soldiering on for the entire 90 minutes.
“I’d have settled for that before kick-off,” a relieved Neilson told the Evening News. “That team is nowhere near up to speed yet. Most of them haven’t had a proper pre-season. The only ones who have are Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson and, to an extent, Osman Sow. The rest are all playing catch-up.
“We had players coming back who have been struggling with injury. For a guy who has had about five days’ pre-season and not had a game since the 1st of July, Buaben, for me, was different class. At half-time he was struggling a bit but we asked if he could give us another ten minutes and he ended up playing the whole game. He was happy to stay on and it takes character to do that.
“We needed him to stay on and Morgaro needed him beside him and he fought on. It was the same with guys like Augustyn, Juanma and Rossi. Some of these guys haven’t played a full game in pre-season yet. It shows real character and commitment to the team.”
Neilson acknowledged that the defending could have been better for the three goals his side lost – all in the second half – but felt his new-look defence, featuring three summer signings, stood up well in general considering their lack of game time together.
“We’re disappointed to lose three goals but we’ll look at the video and see where we went wrong. I expected it to be difficult for us in the last half hour because so many boys haven’t had a real pre-season. That’s the first time we’ve had that back four together in a game so it will take time for them to bed in together. We only had two days training working on it, so they’ll only get better the more they play with each other.
“Igor was fantastic. For a guy who hasn’t played in Scottish football and has hardly trained with us, he was different class. Blazej was outstanding as well. He looks like a proper defender. Alim, still coming back to fitness, was great. They all handled themselves well and there’s a lot more to come from them once everybody gets up to speed and gets used to the pace and physicality of Scottish football.”
Nicholson won the game for Hearts with ten minutes left after an energetic St Johnstone side had fought back from 3-1 down to level at 3-3. Neilson added: “It was end to end, 100 miles an hour. They pressed us really well and made it hard for us but we played alright for our first game back in the Premiership. It’s the first time some of these boys have played in Scottish football, never mind the Premiership. It’ll take time for them to get used to the pace and the tempo. It was massive to get off the mark so early.”