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The Revival: Phase One Complete

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Well, there we have it. Only a couple of hours after posting about the “unlikely event” of Hibs dropping points to Rangers, former Jambos left back Lee Wallace goes and upsets the narrative with the goal that set Rangers on their way to three points at Easter Road. Not that Hearts fans are particularly upset by this. Second-placed Hibs are now 23 points behind with 21 left to play for. The title is won. It’s official. Hearts are champions and will return to the Premiership next season.

While the romantic in me would have liked to see the team clinch it with a home win against Queen of the South, the realist in me is happy to see it wrapped up by whatever means necessary. There is also smug satisfaction to be found in the fact that a Hibs defeat confirmed Hearts’ coronation.

Ten months ago when Ann Budge announced the wholesale changes taking place within the club, very few would have predicted such a ruthless charge towards title glory. Having chosen to implement a continental structure with a Director of Football, appoint a rookie head coach, and part with the services of the more experiencedmembers of the previous season’s playing staff, the new regime had a difficult task persuading the more sceptical sections of the Hearts support that this was the way forward. In every manner possible, however, the critics have been answered in resounding fashion.

Even with the rebuilding of the club still very much in its infancy, the club is unrecognisable compared to the shipwreck that was left behind by the previous owners.

Professionalism from top to bottom

From the boardroom down to the changing room, there has been professionalism and pride in everything the club has done this season. We have an owner who has the club’s best interests at heart and the right people in place to deliver long-term stability after years of turbulence and uncertainty.

Placing her trust in Craig Levein to oversee much of this restructuring is the wisest move Ann Budge has made to date. Levein’s long-term vision is to make Heart of Midlothian a self-sufficient entity, completely revamping the set-up at Riccarton so the club can benefit not only from its own young talented players, but also its own upcoming coaches (Hearts’ own “Anfield boot room” as Levein dubbed it).

Of course, this plan will take years to bear its first fruit, but in the short term the club is already sensibly living within its means. Gone are the days of inflated wage packets for underachieving mercenaries, with Levein using his contacts to tap into markets further afield and bring in bargain talent from across the continent.

Not only have these new recruits delivered value for money in terms of their footballing talent, they have demonstrated the professional characteristics on which Levein places just as much importance as ability. Each new arrival was heralded by the management team as “the right character” or “the type of personality we want in the dressing room”. The team spirit shown this season, therefore, is proof enough of Levein and Neilson’s sound judge of character. None of these players, for example, have celebrated a goal this season by barging the opposition manager to the floor. Progress.

A coach wise beyond his years

The man to have benefited most from this recruitment policy, of course, is Robbie Neilson, a man who has oozes the same professionalism and class he expects from his players.

There were groans of discontent (or at least murmurs of doubt) when Neilson was first handed the position by the new regime. I’ll admit to being surprised by the appointment, but like most reasonable fans who don’t succumb to knee-jerk reactions, I was more intrigued than anything, especially after reading Neilson’s mission statement. It was clear that this had not been a random appointment made out of sheer desperation or blind faith.

Neilson’s new bosses had been doing their homework on him and they liked the signs. A manager who favoured a high-tempo, passing style of football over the long-ball humdrum we had grown used to in recent seasons? What wasn’t to like? Except, it didn’t seem like a style one would associate with Robbie Neilson, the slightly awkward-looking right back we had watched in years gone by. Robbie Neilson the player seemed to cloud people’s judgement of what Robbie Neilson the coach could become.

Looking at how the season has panned out, many would be forgiven for thinking Neilson was a seasoned veteran of the management game. The fact that he was taking his Pro Licence in Stirling on the day Hearts were crowned champions, instead of watching the Hibs game with the rest of the squad, is symptomatic of the thorough, professional approach he takes to his work.

There is no single formula and each line-up is meticulously planned based on the opponent. His conduct in front of the press is exemplary and rarely do you hear him lambasting referees or engaging in public debate with opposition managers (despite the early-season claims made by celebrity gardener Ally McCoist, who seemed to confuse “comprehensive pre-match preparation” with “mind games”).

Neilson has led by example throughout the season and the results on the pitch show that the players have bought into his approach every step of the way. On the pitch, the triple training sessions have paid off hugely. The younger players, who understandably struggled with the pressure of the previous season, have shown greater composure and discipline on the pitch this year.

Similarly, the players have followed their manager’s lead off the pitch in never getting carried away with their success. While players from other clubs have run to the papers with catchy soundbites designed to unsettle their rivals, any interviews with Hearts players simply echoed their manager’s overall sentiment: we focus on ourselves. Nobody else.

What lies ahead?

Although the title is wrapped up, there is still a great deal to play for in the remaining seven games and Neilson insists nobody will be resting on their laurels. Aside from the professional pride of the players and coaching staff, there is still a chance to smash the points record set by Hibs during their last visit to the second tier. There is also the achievable aim of hitting a century of goals for the season. With at least four Hearts players in contention for Championship top scorer status, the hunger for goals is unlikely to subside as the season draws to a close.

Planning for next season is already well underway. Budgets are being drawn up, efforts are being made to retain the services of current players and potential recruits are being identified to bolster the squad for Premier League football. Not content with coasting to a title in his first season in management, Neilson has also indicated that this will be a summer of self-improvement, as he learns from coaches across Europe in a bid to gather fresh ideas to implement next season.

In the meantime, everyone connected with the club will enjoy a well-deserved title party when Queen of the South visit Tynecastle on Saturday. The celebrations will be wild but they will also have an underlying poignancy about them. In a season that marked both the centenary of McCrae’s Battalion and the sad passing of club legend Dave Mackay, the success enjoyed by Heart of Midlothian today provides a fitting tribute to its great servants of the past.

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on March 26, 2015.

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