One graphic declaring ‘Champions’.
That’s all the celebration that was needed on Saturday night, as Hearts were duly confirmed to have won the Scottish Championship following – rather fittingly – rival sides dropping crucial points. Immediately, supporters’ heads turned to scrutinise ‘What next?’ for their beloved football club.
Neilson in or out? Does a 6-0 trouncing of a part-time relegation-bound club change opinions? In all honesty, it probably won’t and shouldn’t. There is a lingering feeling from many supporters that Neilson has achieved the bare minimum of what was asked this season, all whilst pocketing considerable extra embarrassment along the way. Concerns rightly remain amongst fans that this was the sole objective, rather than part of a wider remit.
One such desire from fans was to see a healthy number of young academy players this season. The ballpark figure for a ‘healthy number’ would have been around four players from the age of 18-20. Currently Euan Henderson has ticked the criteria, despite barely holding a regular place this season. His memorable roadrunner impression, and superb dinked finish would have been one of the bigger reliefs from Friday night for Robbie Neilson. You could almost imagine his thoughts: ‘Brilliant, a youth player performing! Try and pin that one on me now, critics!’
Andy Irving is of course the other player who Neilson may try to demand credit for. Whilst Irving has played considerable minutes for Hearts during this campaign, he looks to be on his way out of the door at Tynecastle. He displays obvious technical talent on the ball, however it was intriguing to note the quicker pace of passing against Alloa, as Irving watched on from the bench.
There is a fairly lengthy list of fresh-faced graduates who may have helped the manager achieve this target throughout the campaign. Connor Smith, Harry Cochrane, Cammy Logan, Scott McGill, and Chris Hamilton all currently share the ‘highly touted’ crown in Gorgie. Individually they might not make the grade at Hearts, but supporters are willing to dish out plenty servings of leeway when they see an academy player proudly sporting the Hearts badge. Watching the desire of young, hungry players such as Euan Henderson on Friday night is evidence that enthusiasm and fearlessness can go a long way to increase the team’s tempo and will to win.
Youngsters aside, there is another issue fans have griped with this campaign. The style of play has alarmingly regressed, though ‘style of play’ is perhaps a strong phrase for a Hearts side who were winning with little fanfare prior to Christmas. Following the harrowing Scottish Cup final defeat, the players have staggered around punch-drunk during games, grinding through them whilst screeching the brakes on any flowing football.
The Brora defeat was the culmination of months of deterioration. It was ultimately the breaking point for fans still willing to back Robbie Neilson. Whilst a third Championship title is positive on his CV, and he still has a small level of credit in the bank from his first Premiership spell with Hearts, the club doesn’t look like it has a great deal of improvement on the horizon. Another squad rebuild is looming, and whilst noises continue to emit publicly from Tynecastle that he has long-term backing, knives are as sharp as they will ever be for fans eager to see Neilson exit Gorgie.
If Neilson stays, as is looking more likely, the club will hope that key men like Peter Haring and John Souttar retain consistent levels of fitness. Both strolled it against Alloa, and Hearts finally looked like a side brimming with confidence, with comfort in their tactical shape and bravery on the ball. Whilst the fact it was against the poorest side in the league may have been a factor, after an uninspired opening 20 minutes Hearts finally looked like they may have found a successful formula for next season. The change in formation to a 3-4-3/3-5-2 hinted that Neilson might just be learning, listening, and adapting to the criticism.
There are three games left in the Championship season. Time to put the feet up and have a cigar? Certainly not. Robbie Neilson may well discover that the next three matches against Morton, Inverness and Raith represent an opportunity to showcase a newfound freshness and confidence to his side. In an ideal world, the knock-on benefits could entice players to a club that indicates it is finally moving in a forward direction.
These matches also offer the beleaguered manager a chance to audition to fans and the board that maybe, just maybe, he can bring the club back to the level he left it at during his first spell. Revert to the previous standard of mediocrity, and the background noise will only increase before it becomes impossible to ignore calls for his head. Your move, Robbie.