Neilson won’t get carried away, but says his squad can compete
EXPECTATION would appear to be one of the many things which Robbie Neilson is in sole responsibility of managing at Hearts.
He is a man, to use a journalistic turn of phrase, who does not always speak in big headlines. At the weekend, when his team briefly moved to within three points of first place in the Ladbrokes Premiership, he responded to questions over a possible title charge with the assertion that his team is “far, far away from Celtic”.
In terms of possessing the strength in depth to actually finish top after 38 games, he is, most probably, correct.
Ninety minutes in the bearpit of Tynecastle is a different proposition entirely and tonight’s visit of Celtic in the last eight of the League Cup will give an interesting insight into where exactly Hearts are following last term’s runaway success in the Championship and their summer return to Scottish football’s top table.
Neilson is content with the progress being made by his squad, but resolutely grounded. He was aiming for the top six in the table at the start of the season and insists he would still be happy with that now. Cups, he concedes, carry greater priority than last term, but that is about as far as he will go.
Other voices from within the inner sanctum, however, hint at more ambitious goals. Neil Alexander, the goalkeeper, can hardly be described as a naïve rookie at the age of 37, but he is perfectly open about his hopes for the weeks and months ahead and they are the kind of thing the supporters will love to hear ahead of what should be a night to savour in Gorgie’s own Theatre of Dreams.
“We’ve got to believe that we can be successful this season, compete for the league and compete for every cup competition,” stated Alexander. “We’ve got a dressing room with ability.
“We definitely have the confidence that we can [win a cup]. We started the season really well, maybe better than anybody expected us to.
“We had a wee dip in results due to circumstances out of our control, but we are happy with our last two or three league games. If anybody had said to Robbie that, after a quarter of the season, we’d be a point off second place, he’d have bitten your arm off.”
The phrase “circumstances out of our control”, in order to be clear about things, refers to Willie Collum’s decision to send off Callum Paterson during a 3-2 defeat at Hamilton Academical – a red card later rescinded – that ended a seven-game winning streak and sparked off something of a wobble. I do believe, if we’d kept 11 men on the park that day, we wouldn’t have lost,” said Alexander. “It kills your momentum a wee bit and we were flying at that minute in time, but we have put it to bed.”
Ironically, the place in which they put it to bed was the home of tonight’s opponents. Hearts travelled to Celtic Park in late September, having lost three league matches on the spin, and dug in for a 0-0 draw, which, Alexander confirms, restored a degree of belief at an important time. We rode our luck a little bit, but, generally, we defended really well from the strikers to the defence,” he said.
“We’ve got to have the same approach. If we can defend well, we’ve always got a chance going forward with the players that we do have.
“Celtic have strengths and weaknesses like any team. We try and exploit their weaknesses and combat their strengths. On the back of a few disappointing results, it was important to go there and try and get something out of the game. That gave us confidence and we have shown that in the last four games in which I think we have only conceded one goal.”
What of this suggestion, then, that Hearts are not strong enough to win the league?
“If we all had that attitude, what’s the point in turning up?” enquired Alexander. “We’d all just stay at home and put our feet up.”
This is, indeed, the stuff to rally the masses and Alexander expects a thunderous atmosphere this evening.
“I hope the fantastic crowd that we have behind us can spur us on and be that 12th man that we might need,” he said. “Celtic’s budget is far greater than anyone else’s, but, individually, we’ve got to believe that we have a good group of boys, a good group of young talented individuals in the dressing room that can do well against the best teams.
“It seems we always get them in the cup, but to progress in any tournament and win silverware, you really have to beat the best – and Celtic are best, which they have proven in the last two or three years.”
Alexander, of course, knows how it is to beat Celtic in knock-out competition. He was part of the Rangers side which defeated them after extra time in the final of the League Cup in 2011 and concedes to “very good memories” from the occasion.
“A cup final at Hampden against Celtic and a winner’s medal is always nice,” he said.
Nice? It is a use of the understatement that Neilson would be proud of.
HIGH HOPES: Neil Alexander wants to see Hearts competing for trophies