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The Changing of the Seasons

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Having taken a fairly lethargic end-of-season, ‘already-on-the-beach’ approach to my writing over the past couple of months, I figured it was probably too late to compose a standalone review of the campaign that just ended, especially when the new season starts on Thursday. Of course, that alarmingly early start is a direct and positive consequence of last season’s efforts, which saw Hearts finish third to secure European football for the first time since 2012.

If you were to travel back a year and ask supporters if third place in the Premiership would suffice following promotion, the vast majority would have gladly accepted. Many of those people (myself included) still see that as an achievement. Nevertheless, a disgruntled minority of supporters have grown to view this season as a “missed opportunity” in what they believe to be the “weakest top-flight Scotland has seen in years” and that the very least we should have been aiming for was third place all along.

Having grown accustomed to Hearts winning comfortably every week in the Championship, our five-game winning run at the start of this season may have led supporters to believe, somewhat naively, that the Premiership would be a similar kind of cakewalk. However, the notion that we would simply show up and demolish the likes of Inverness and St Johnstone with relative ease smacked of unjustified arrogance and the subsequent vitriol directed at Robbie Neilson was indicative of a support spoilt by short-term success.

While Neilson still enjoys the support of the majority in the stands, we have a minority calling for his head at every opportunity, and what irks me most is how difficult it is to grasp the mentality of those who do. If you were a neutral outsider who didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking the club was in the throes of an abnormally barren spell after years of success and silverware.

There have, of course, been high points in the past couple of decades, but there have been exceptional lows in that time too — full seasons of nauseating tedium under the likes of John McGlynn and Gary Locke the most recent that spring to mind. Having spent years settling for third place in the past, accepting it as the highest any club outside of Glasgow can aspire to while quietly grumbling to ourselves about Old Firm dominance, one would have thought the longer-term ambition shown by the new board would be something for fans to embrace and invest their patience in.

Patience is the operative term there, however, and that seems to be where the problem lies with the “Neilson out” contingent. Fans salivate when they hear talk of title challenges but grow restless when that success is not instantaneous, all the while ignoring the small, but very clear steps being made in the right direction (both on and off the pitch).

Unfortunately, for some supporters, long-term strategies and sustainability are of secondary importance in a results-driven business like football and as far as last season was concerned, Celtic and Aberdeen were there for the taking. What that fails to acknowledge is that this Hearts side — like the Championship-winning team before it — was assembled with set goals in mind.

In 2014, we recruited players to get us promoted and they did so at a canter. Having served their purpose, many of those players were emptied to accommodate new recruits capable of consolidating our Premiership status with a top-six finish (although as the season progressed it was evident we had a squad capable of pushing for third).

What is absolutely clear is that last season’s Hearts squad was far from the finished article and was almost certainly not put together with a title challenge in mind. Although there were opportunities to close in on second, the squad lacked the necessary quality to perform as consistently as Celtic and Aberdeen did against teams further down the table. As a result, points were dropped and the gap remained.

In spite of that, our hold on third place was rarely threatened during the season and a return to European football was secured before the league split. In both seasons under Neilson, therefore, we have recruited players within a sensible budget, with season-specific goals in mind and in both seasons those goals have been comfortably met with games to spare. On that basis, I have the utmost faith that this summer’s transfer activity has been conducted according to next season’s aspirations (i.e. a more sustained challenge at the top of the table) and that the players brought in will be capable of doing so.

Personnel changes

As far as new recruits are concerned, the priority position this summer was undoubtedly a striker and that appears to have been addressed with the arrivals of Conor Sammon and Robbie Muirhead. Even the weakest title-winning Celtic side of recent seasons reaped the benefits of a striker in form and although it is unlikely that either of our new signings will be Hearts’ 40-goal-a-season equivalent to Leigh Griffiths, a look back at the second half of last season shows how important it was that we at least found a suitable replacement for Osman Sow.

The departure of Sow during the January transfer window was arguably Hearts’ biggest watershed moment of the 2015–16 campaign. While the Swede’s goal-scoring record of 11 in 27 wasn’t likely to trouble Golden Boot contenders like Griffiths, his presence in the side brought out the best in his team-mates and gave Hearts a more potent attacking edge. With Sow in the team, Hearts scored a total of 53 goals in 27 games (an average of 1.96 goals per game). In the 17 games that followed his move to China, however, less-industrious forwards were left to lead the line and that average figure dropped to 1.12 goals per game, with Hearts finding the net on only 19 occasions.

The addition of Sammon in particular (despite being labelled as an underwhelming piece of business by some harder-to-please fans) should go some way to restoring that tenacity in the final third. The Irishman may not have had an exceptional goal-scoring record down south, but he is known to work tirelessly and unselfishly for the benefit of his teammates and proved to be more than capable of troubling opponents during his time at Kilmarnock. As a free agent with experience of playing at a higher level in England, Sammon could turn out to be another shrewd low-risk signing. Commenting on what he expected Sammon to bring to the Hearts team, John Robertson — the man who brought him to Derry City earlier in his career — said:

“On the pitch he’s strong, he’s quick and he’s powerful — a real team player. He likes to play on the defenders’ shoulder and I think that’s one of the reasons Robbie targeted him. He wants someone who can run in behind and stretch defences, allowing the space to develop in front, so he’s ideal for that.”

At the other end of the pitch, there is hope that the arrival of Belgian-Moroccan defender Faycal Rherras will finally solve last season’s problematic left-back area. Having arrived to considerable fanfare last August, many believed Juwon Oshaniwa would go on to make the position his own after Kevin McHattie’s departure left him as the only recognised left-back in the senior squad.

Unfortunately, his season could not have been more anti-climactic and, after a series of unsteady performances, the Nigerian found himself playing second fiddle to centre backs Igor Rossi and Jordan McGhee on numerous occasions. If reports of a potential move to Turkey are true and Hearts manage to cut their losses with Oshaniwa, it would be as impressive a piece of business as the seven-figure transfer fee they bagged for Osman Sow, although judging by Neilson’s comments the other day, there is little chance of that actually happening:

“I need cover at left-back and Faycal and Juwon will compete for the left-back position. I’ve not got any plans to let Juwon go, none at all. I’m trying to build a squad, so I can’t afford to let too many go.”

One position that does appear to have been settled for the time being is goalkeeper, with Neilson announcing last week that Jack Hamilton is to go into the new season as Hearts’ number one. As last season drew to a close, much of the discussion seemed to focus on where Hamilton’s immediate future lay, with a season-long loan at a Championship club looking like the best option for his development and the most probable going by Neilson’s comments at the time.

Since then, those plans appear to have changed dramatically after the departure of Neil Alexander and the apparent breakdown in talks with reported target Matt Gilks. Having signed for Aberdeen last week, Alexander recently expressed his disappointment with his departure from Tynecastle, citing a lack of loyalty from the Hearts management. Speaking on Sunday, however, Neilson was keen to stress that the latest development was very much a conscious decision:

“We could have put him out (on loan) for another year, which I was looking at doing. But I think now this is his chance. Going away with the national team is a different environment and a difficult environment, and to hear he did so well fills me with confidence that he can go and do that in these big games. We could have gone out and got an experienced number one, but I just think he is at a level now where he can do it and we trust him to do it.”

With Gilks having since signed for Rangers, there is a sense that the Hearts management may have played their cards too quickly as far as Alexander was concerned and that the sudden turnaround with Hamilton is a way of masking their misjudgement of the situation. Having said that, the club has always maintained its long-term ambition is to promote home-grown talent and even if there has been an oversight, it’s worked out very much in Hamilton’s favour. It’s therefore up to him to take advantage of the opportunity, and although there may be trepidation about his relative inexperience, our track record with young keepers over the past decade has been strong enough to justify giving him a chance.

Room for improvement but Neilson is learning

While there will be plenty of focus on the new signings and how big an impact they can make, there will be just as much interest in Robbie Neilson as he enters his third season in charge. After a comprehensive defeat at home to Aberdeen last September, it wasn’t long before Neilson’s record in the so-called “big games” was once again being called into question, with supporters suggesting the head coach was failing to learn from previous mistakes by offering rival teams too much respect.

Last season’s cup ties against Hibs, particularly the gutless nature of the replay at Easter Road, did little to quell that view and the fact that Hibs eventually won the cup (for the first time in 114 years) will always be a stick with which some supporters beat Neilson. However, as important as derbies are, derbies alone do not define a manager, and as far as performances against our league rivals were concerned, there was a gradual improvement as the season went on.

The subsequent meetings with the Dons, in particular, went some way to belying the “big game bottler” theory. Although Jordan McGhee’s inexplicable handball in the box proved to be the unfortunate difference between a hard-earned point and defeat in the first match at Pittodrie, the remaining three games all went Hearts’ way, with the league and cup games at Tynecastle arguably two of Hearts’ best showings.

The next step, of course, will be to build on that progress and aim for a similar turnaround in fortunes against Celtic next season. Last season was by no means terrible but although performances were largely positive, the gap in quality was still noticeable at times, particularly in the last meeting at Tynecastle. Brendan Rodgers’ arrival and any subsequent investment from the Celtic board will certainly make it difficult to narrow that gap any time soon, but with every new season comes renewed optimism, and having re-adjusted to life in the Premiership as convincingly as they did last year, this slightly older, more battle-hardened Hearts side will see the league opener in August as an early chance to lay down a marker against the champions.

However, before that day comes, we still have the fruits of last season’s labour to enjoy, beginning with FC Infonet’s visit to Tynecastle on Thursday, which will be a decent opportunity to see the new recruits in competitive action.

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on June 27, 2016.

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