Gary MacKay: Mental fatigue in September unlikely but Europe will bring fresh challenge

I was surprised to see Robbie Neilson quoted talking about “mental fatigue” after the Livingston defeat.

Maybe it was a phrase he should have kept in his own head rather than sharing out loud. Maybe it was taken out of context or maybe it was just something he said without thinking it through.

It is only September. Yes, there have been a lot of games, and high-profile ones at that, but maybe “mental fatigue” is something Robbie will regret saying. Even if he does think there is a bit of “mental fatigue” in that changing room, saying was always going to open him up to criticism from some supporters.

At this stage of the season, in early September, I’m not sure “mental fatigue” can really be used as an explanation for poor results.

Lee McCulloch, Gordon Forrest and Robbie Neilson have all played and surely wanted to play in every game when physically able to do so. Picture: Ross Parker / SNS

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Compared to when I played, of course football has changed. The physical aspect is completely different. It is getting faster and more demanding. So I can understand why players need to be rested physically and taken out of the firing line to keep them fresh.

But mentally, I would have thought players would be happy to play. That was my experience. Robbie, Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest have all played. Surely they all wanted to play in every game.

When playing twice a week, it must be tempting to overthink things and worry about two games at once. There’s the game in front of you and the game after that. I’d be focussing on the next game immediately ahead and not worry too much about the one after that. In a bad run of form, the next game is the most important.

There was an analysis piece over the weekend asking if Robbie was “overthinking” his team rotation. For me, you should always put the best team out, or one that is capable of winning that 90 minutes. Hearts have not done that often enough over the last six games and that simply increases the pressure.

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I can understand the physical demands Robbie is talking about. Some may need to rest if there are knocks or concerns about picking up injuries. But players have opportunities to rest and to go to different environments to freshen up. Most players, in my experience, want to start every game, play 90 minutes and then think about the next game afterwards and deal with it then.

In fact, playing against a team like Istanbul Başakşehir should be mentally refreshing for Hearts players. It is not like the bread and butter opponents they normally face in domestic football.

The players will, of course, have been given video analysis and will have some knowledge about how Başakşehir play. But it is new. It is a challenge to play against guys you haven’t come up against before. In Scotland teams can play each other five times a season, so the players all know each other. The Hearts players will surely welcome that freshness this week.