Robbie Neilson relishing Hearts’ role in title race

Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson cuts a relaxed figure during training ahead of today's trip to Dundee. Pic: SNS
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson cuts a relaxed figure during training ahead of today's trip to Dundee. Pic: SNS
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ROBBIE NEILSON wants Hearts to seize their moment over the next few weeks. The business end of the season is here, the Edinburgh club are challenging for European football and will have a major say in who wins the Ladbrokes Premiership. It is a time to savour for anyone with Tynecastle leanings.

Heading to Dens Park this afternoon, Neilson knows his team are well positioned. He simply wants them to achieve their potential and enjoy their influence on the title race. Catching Aberdeen and Celtic will be difficult. The Pittodrie club are nine points ahead of Hearts in second place, with Celtic a point better off at the league summit.

“It’s good for everyone. We’d like to get as close as we can,” he said. “We play Aberdeen twice, we play Celtic twice before the season ends. We’re going to have a big say in where it goes.

“It’s going to be very difficult for us to get close to either of them because they’re good teams in good form. But we have to keep winning and if we do that it keeps that cushion from fourth place and gives us a chance to get as close as we can.”

“I’m excited to be playing big games. The last five games of the season, actually, our last eight or nine games, are going to be big games. We play St Johnstone, Celtic, Inverness and Aberdeen and then we hit the split and the last five, so we are talking about nine games that are against top teams in the country. It will be a difficult run in but one we are looking forward to being involved in.

“I haven’t been surprised by Aberdeen, they are a good team and last year’s experience has stood them in good stead as well. They learned from that and you see them the other night against Partick. Maybe last season, being 1-0 down they may have got a draw out of it but this year they know they have to win so they go and win the game. If you want to challenge at the top of the league then you have to do that.”

The closest challengers to Hearts are Ross County and St Johnstone, who sit joint fourth in the table but are some 14 points behind the Tynecastle club. That gap could increase today if Hearts secure a result at Dens Park.

Seeing his club in such rude health given where they were when he took charge in summer 2014 is a source of huge satisfaction for Neilson. That doesn’t mean he is ready to party on the basis of reaching the “mission accomplished” stage. He still harbours aspirations to go higher.

“We were a Championship team that got ourselves promoted. We wanted to get top-six and believed if we did that then we would have done well,” he pointed out.

“Now we are sitting in a good position and we still want to aim up. Yes, it’s been a great season so far but you always want to aim as high as you can get. We’ve got nine big games ahead of us and they are really important to us.”

The potential for a slip-up is clear against a Dundee side smarting from last week’s 4-0 Scottish Cup reverse at Ibrox. In contrast, Hearts have won their last three matches without conceding a goal and travel to Tayside with plenty confidence.

“You go into a game after winning one week and everyone says you are on form. Then you lose a game and everyone says you are hungry going into the next game,” said Neilson.

“You don’t know until the game starts. They have a very good strikeforce, they have four guys up front who can score goals and they have carried the team throughout the season. We know it will be a difficult game.”

In the opposite dugout this afternoon will be Neilson’s former Hearts team-mate, Paul Hartley. The pair are familiar with the European chase from their playing days, although Hartley’s Dundee side are chasing a top-six place.

“I see him now and again. I saw him on Wednesday night at St Johnstone so I was having a chat with him. He’s on the Pro Licence course with me and he’s doing a great job. He got Dundee promoted and then consolidated in the league and they are settled now and pushing for the top six. Yes, they had a difficult result last week but their priority will be that top-six place and I’m sure it will be back to business against us.”