PUBLIC and private comments differ greatly at Hearts right now.
Head coach Robbie Neilson is playing down talk of a title or European challenge to every media outlet and supporter he addresses. However, make no mistake, inside the dressing-room he is urging players to go for the jugular in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Saturday’s efficient 2-0 success against Hamilton brought a fourth successive league win and a fourth successive clean sheet. It propelled Hearts to within three points of league leaders Celtic, who didn’t play until yesterday. Neilson bats away any suggestion of European qualification in Hearts’ first season back in the top flight. As for talk of a title fight, he just laughs. Few can blame him.
He is wily enough at 35 to know inwardly that his team have a real chance of at least qualifying for the Europa League come next May. By then, almost two years will have passed since Hearts emerged from administration as a shell of a club and barely still alive. It would represent a stunning turnaround and Neilson would have played a huge part in the transformation.
He doesn’t want to get drawn on it publicly because he is conscious of setting targets too high too early. There is no denying Hearts are right in the mix. “You guys might [talk of a title challenge], we aren’t. We look at the Aberdeen score at the moment,” he said, conservatively. “We’re sitting above them just now but at the start of the season we wanted top six. We’re trying to stay as close as we can to the better teams within the top six. It’s a very difficult task even to stay in the top six.
“If we keep winning, we’ll be doing alright. It’s easier said than done, that’s for sure. It would be great if we could keep winning but we’ll go through another lull, that’s for sure. We won the first five, then we didn’t win any of the next five. Yes, we’ve won four in a row but we need to stay level-headed about it. The next blip will come. You always hope it’s going to be a month or six weeks down the line. When it comes, we need to be prepared and do what we did last time – get out of it as quick as we can.”
Two first-half goals were sufficient on Saturday – one from Prince Buaben and one from Arnaud Djoum. Defensive solidity played a part in the win, as did physical and brute strength against a Hamilton team which fouled persistently during the 90 minutes. The visitors battled and scrapped but lacked the creativity to get in behind the home defence. Djoum’s performance was the standout for Hearts.
Remembrance weekend was marked by a lone piper on the Tynecastle pitch prior to kick-off as fans paid their respects. Buaben opened the scoring on 26 minutes with a powerful drive from outside the penalty area which roared past the Hamilton goalkeeper Michael McGovern. Djoum doubled the advantage as half-time approached with a close-range strike after being teed up by Osman Sow.
“We played well in the first half and scored a couple of goals. In the second half it became a wee bit scrappy and we decided to try and shut it down a wee bit to take a 2-0 win,” said Neilson. “Hamilton are a good team. They compete, work hard, put you under pressure. We went with only one wide player to go narrower in midfield and win the early stages of the game. We played some good football at times.
“It’s disappointing [to have two players booked] but these things happen. We took Juanma off because the worry is that it’s such a physical game and it only takes one tackle to be sent off. I thought Bobby Madden, the referee, handled it well. It’s two physical teams and there weren’t any red cards.”
Djoum was withdrawn with 21 minutes remaining having again looked a class act. “He just had a tight hamstring, he’ll be fine,” explained Neilson. “I’ve probably asked a bit too much of him. He came here with no pre-season and no games since May. We trained him and then chucked him into the team. He’s played quite consistently. He’s got a break now and he’ll be fine after the break.”
Five Hearts players won’t get a rest during international fortnight as they head off on Scotland Under-21 duty. One of them, Callum Paterson, is pushing for promotion to the senior international squad and was watched by national coach Gordon Strachan at the weekend.
“Callum can be as good as he wants to be,” said Neil Alexander, the Hearts goalkeeper. “He’s a fantastic professional and he’s got every single attribute to be a top player. He’s been outstanding last season and this season. For a right-back to have a goalscoring record like his is great, but that’s not all he does. He can play at the highest level.
“He gets up and down like Alan Hutton does and puts great balls into the box. Callum has a fantastic spring and doesn’t get beaten in the air very often, so he can maybe go ahead of Alan Hutton for that. I would definitely have him in the Scotland squad – get him used to the environment and accustomed to how they train and play. Callum will be a big player for Scotland one day, I truly believe that.
“He’s still very young and he’s played over 100 games and captained Hearts. For Callum, it’s about development. If he can keep learning, hopefully he can get into the Scotland squad. The future looks good for him if he can keep his feet on the ground. We’re delighted to have him but we have a lot of players who can go on and have fantastic careers, like Sam Nicholson.
“The future is as big as they want it to be and they can go on and progress down south if they want to. Hopefully we can get them on long contracts. We have a really good team and these boys are doing the business for us every week. That’s what attracts scouts and other managers to watch them. Hopefully Hearts can keep a hold of these boys for a few more years.”