Neil­son won’t get car­ried away, but says his squad can com­pete

The Herald - Sport - - LEAGUE CUP - GARY KE­OWN

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

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