Why Hearts fans should get off Robbie Neilson's back regarding performances against Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow

Wednesday’s loss to Rangers brought with it another wave of outcry from Hearts supporters online deriding Robbie Neilson’s supposedly “negative” approach when playing the Old Firm in Glasgow. And it’s all pretty unfair.
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Aberdeen went to Ibrox less than two weeks ago when the Govan side were also struggling. Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men had been wholly unconvincing in victories over Motherwell and Dundee, got embarrassed by Liverpool and easily defeat by Napoli, and needed an injury-time goal to draw with Livingston. And yet they absolutely demolished the Dons despite going a goal down. It was a 4-1 win but it could seriously have been 8-1.

As fans often demand of Hearts in Glasgow, Aberdeen boss Jim Goodwin decided to “have a go” and found out it wasn’t the best of ideas in retrospect. Sure, they opened the scoring thanks to their gameplan, but at the back they were exposed time and again. Aberdeen went with a back three matched up against the Rangers forward line and each of them lost their individual battles consistently throughout the contest. That’s because Fashion Sakala, Ryan Kent and Antonio Colak are a higher calibre of player than Anthony Stewart, Liam Scales and Ross McCrorie.

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There was actually some positivity in Hearts’ performance on Wednesday evening. They had to kick it long on occasion, as is to be expected, but largely they tried to pass it out from the back. This was designed to beat the Rangers press and therefore create further space in behind to potentially hurt them. This wasn’t a case of sitting back and simply concentrating on manning the penalty area.

Craig Gordon saves from Rangers striker Antonio Colak with Hearts defender Toby Sibbick applying the pressure. Picture: SNSCraig Gordon saves from Rangers striker Antonio Colak with Hearts defender Toby Sibbick applying the pressure. Picture: SNS
Craig Gordon saves from Rangers striker Antonio Colak with Hearts defender Toby Sibbick applying the pressure. Picture: SNS

It didn’t work because, for all their recent struggles, Rangers still have much better players. They didn’t play particularly well on Wednesday, but to win in Glasgow you need them to perform poorly and your players to individually and collectively perform at their best. The latter didn’t happen.

There were some fine individual showings and the defence was organised very well. Kye Rowles and Toby Sibbick were the stand-outs in terms of repelling Rangers attacks, while Robert Snodgrass deserves a commendation for the manner in which his composure on the football made the gameplan close to working. His midfield partners in Andy Halliday and Cammy Devlin are also two players who, while maybe known for their battling qualities above all else, are still a duo who like to attack the penalty area, further underlining the fact this wasn’t a backs-to-the-wall design from management.

It was in attack Hearts lacked quality. Lawrence Shankland had a tough task in dropping off the front and linking play in a crowded midfield, sometimes without any real options out wide, but he still gave away possession too easily at times with some erratic passing. He was partnered by Josh Ginnelly. The winger has finally started to show some consistency of late and looks to have won the right-wing spot from Alan Forrest in the team’s typically preferred 4-2-3-1 system, but while the speedster threatened on a couple of occasions, notably at the very start of both the first and second half, he didn’t do enough to consistently ask questions of the home defence.

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Did the wing-backs sit back too much? Could the midfield have pushed forward a bit more? Perhaps. But to return to our earlier example, Goodwin let Aberdeen off the leash, thinking Rangers were a soft touch, and they got murdered.

“But what about Livingston?” I hear you cry. Well, firstly, they’re the only team to get a point at Ibrox this season domestically (Rangers have only lost once at Ibrox in the league in three years!). Secondly, they did so by surrendering the football and letting Rangers come at them. They had 19 per cent possession and five shots to Rangers’ 24. Even when playing at the top of your game, you typically need a little luck in Glasgow to come away with a result against either of the Old Firm. Rangers were poor against Livingston but still created enough chances to win the game a couple of times over. It’s just very hard to win through there.

Instead of derision, Neilson should be praised for the manner in which this Hearts have team bounced back from a ridiculous amount of adversity so far this season to be in a position where, if results go their way this weekend, they could be sitting in third place going into the World Cup break. Time and again the Hearts boss faces up to some real pressure from the fans and he always manages to drag it back. The players clearly want to play for him and he, along with the recruitment team, have assembled a tremendously talented group.

In this writer’s opinion, to constantly deride him for being unable to get “closer” to Celtic and Rangers is just plain dumb. Which miracle worker is replacing him? It’s not a case of lacking belief. The financial gap between the two and the rest of Scottish football is absolutely ridiculous. It’s a wonder the other ten ever manage to take any points off them at all and speaks to the gallusness of Scots culture that we routinely give them a bloody nose.

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The club have a plan in place to bridge the gap, but it’s going to take time. They need to consistently reach the group stages of European competition, smartly reinvest the money and eventually make themselves a stand-alone force in the Scottish football landscape: not as good as the Old Firm on paper, but good enough to consistently beat everyone else so that they can put serious pressure on a Celtic or Rangers side struggling in a particular campaign. It likely won’t happen, but besides a sugar daddy investor it’s the only realistic chance.

Neilson has consistently had Hearts better than the rest for the majority of his two spells in charge. Is he perfect? No. But come on, give the guy a break.

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