Robbie Neilson has fingers crossed for Hearts players' fitness

ROBBIE NEILSON will spend the next week praying his Hearts youngsters return unscathed from Scotland Under-21 duty. Sam Nicholson, John Souttar, Jack Hamilton, Jordan McGhee and Liam Smith are all with Ricky Sbragia's group for vital European Championship qualifiers against France and Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, 23rd March 2016, 5:30 am
Updated Wednesday, 23rd March 2016, 8:49 am
Liam Smith, centre, one of several Hearts players on Scotland Under-21 duty. Pic: SNS

Neilson is delighted seeing his players receive international recognition but is naturally concerned about their well-being. He can ill-afford injuries with Hearts aiming to secure a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds after the international break.

The head coach plans to travel to Angers tomorrow night to watch his Scotland Under-21 contingent in action against the highly-regarded French. Thereafter, he will almost certainly be in Paisley next Tuesday for the visit of Northern Ireland.

All five of the Hearts players are expected to feature over the two matches, leaving Neilson with no option but to cross his fingers they don’t sustain any knocks.

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“It’s great for them to get away and play,” he told the Evening News. “The Under-21s is a good opportunity and good experience for them, but you’re always hoping they come back fit. It’s part of being good players that they get this international recognition. It’s a great boost for them.

“They will certainly get a tough test against the French Under-21s. It will be a really difficult game for them. Hopefully it’s an experience they will enjoy, and then there’s Northern Ireland after that.”

Hearts entered international fortnight after a disappointing 3-0 defeat by St Johnstone at Tynecastle on Saturday. Neilson, whilst frustrated that a four-game winning run was brought to a shuddering halt, is not unduly despondent.

He explained that minor blips are par for the course during a long season. “I don’t think we’ll make a habit of it. If you look at it this season, we’ve had maybe three or four bad performances,” he said.

“That’s difficult to take at the time but you need to be realistic and look at it. We are progressing, we’re going to have ups and downs, we’re going to have hiccups along the way. We have to try and be consistent and keep doing the right things.”