Neilson’s Hearts look forwards after Championship crown

The resurgence that has seen Hearts of Midlothian romp to the title will have eased much of the pain endured as the Jambos ground slowly to a dismal relegation last season. Hearts took the title seven games before the end of the season as their promotion rivals Hibernian fell at home to Rangers – depriving the home fans of a title win at Tynecastle that their manager felt they deserved. The rookie manager, Robbie Neilson, has been a revelation; inspired with a single-minded vigour he has transmuted this energy to a young, hungry squad. Their hunger is such that it’s unlikely to imagine they will ease up before the end of the season. This is the same team who did not slow down when 5-0 up at half-time over Cowdenbeath. Instead, they steamed out and scored another five as the Fife team were flattened 10-0.

The squad’s youthful zeal comes partly from the contentious departure of a handful of popular, experienced players in the summer of 2014. Reeling from administration, new owner Ann Budge set about turning the club around. The appointment of a rookie manager and Craig Levein as Director of Football could have caused optimism for few Hearts fans that their turnaround would be so swift. Levein’s reputation suffered massively after his ignominious spell in charge of the national team, but he has operated at Hearts in a similar manner to his time at Dundee United before taking the Scotland job. With a pragmatic, frugal prioritisation of youth he has set about instilling a coaching philosophy throughout the age levels to cement a style identifiable with the Gorgie Road club.

More than this though he can be credited with allowing Neilson to take control of first team affairs; a masterstroke which saw him coax a brilliant season from an unheralded squad. His drive was initially startling to a Scottish squad unaccustomed to double, and even triple training sessions. Scotland U21 International, Callum Paterson, conceded that initially players “couldn’t be bothered” with the workload; seeing the product of such meticulous preparation has entirely convinced them of their managers efforts. On track to score 100 goals, the season has “exceeded the dreams” of owner Budge, who says that they set themselves “fairly conservative” targets at the start of the season.

On the pitch the story has been that of a compellingly vibrant group of players: pacy, tricksome youth and experienced pros to show them the ropes. A tidy possession game, revolving around two central midfield players – Morgaro Gomis and either Prince Buaben or Miguel Pallardo – has been augmented by fast inventive wing play with an emphasis on width. Allied with the work-rate instilled by their tireless manager, Hearts have had too much for the Championship, scoring plenty of goals at an average of 2.89 per game – by far the highest rate in the UK.

They will look to strengthen over the summer as they make the step up to the Premiership, but will probably be restrained, since the focus is now on youth development, and there are plenty of youngsters hoping to break into the first squad.

After a harrowing period,  it seems that Hearts have established a model that will no doubt have attracted attention. Alongside Levein’s five year plan for football development, Budge is planning a transition of ownership to the supporters who she credits with keeping the club alive. The supporters  should be thanked “that we are sitting here at all in this stadium”, Budge said, in a mark of graciousness to a fan-base who could not have expected this season’s marvellous showing while they scrapped to save their club this time last season.

Photograph: MickMacNee (CC BY 2.0)


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