Fifteen minutes in and Hearts are spraying the ball about in comfort, hitting bold passes with players alert to receive it on the half-turn.
This is how it should be. The fluidity on display is genuinely encouraging from the men from Gorgie. John Souttar glides into an inside-right role which enables Michael Smith to drift into the middle of the park before launching an inch-perfect pass to set Andy Halliday away on the opposite flank.
Whilst the attack broke down eventually, it was what came next that was perhaps the most telling sign that Saturday would be a happy Heart of Midlothian day. The ball was smashed clear back to Craig Halkett, but Alex Cochrane and Souttar immediately drifted wide, and delivered crisp passes wide to advance the play rapidly. No possession for the sake of it, just snappy one and two-touch passing. The missing ingredient from last season had magically appeared at Tannadice – tempo.
That tempo continued and after almost two minutes of relentless probing, a relieved applause emanated from Dundee United fans for Jeando Fuchs, who intercepted the ball in the same way a determined child would finally get a touch of the football from a toying adult. Rinse and repeat – the possession dominance continued for the Jam Tarts, which culminated in a now-expected Liam Boyce goal.
Despite a brief second half surge from United, Hearts stood firm, and recorded their most comfortable away performance so far this season with a well-taken finish from Armand Gnanduillet. Josh Ginnelly’s appearance around the 60-minute mark had exactly the impact Robbie Neilson would have hoped for, as his energy and direct running gave the United defenders a rough afternoon. As Neilson himself stated after the game, it was a vastly changed substitute bench from the previous week against Aberdeen. Suddenly a threadbare squad is bursting at the seams with options.
The ability of Joe Savage to pluck a shining diamond out of the Premier League may be Neilson’s ace in the hole yet. A quick peek into the pedigree of the signings made this summer is enough to finally believe the manager when he peddles out the oft-repeated ‘quality over quantity’ line. New arrivals Ben Woodburn and Taylor Moore have experience at a level greater than the Scottish Premiership, whilst both are young and at the ‘make or break’ stage in their club careers. Beni Baningime is of course the pick of them all so far: watching his performances, it is scarcely believable Hearts have secured him on a three-year deal.
This market may be vital in the future for Hearts. Indeed, it is what could set apart Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen from the rest of the non-Glasgow sides in the league. Identifying young British-based players from the top English leagues and offering them a mainstream media-generating platform for regular first team football suddenly looks that bit more attractive for a fledging British star, following the successful cases of James Maddison and, to a lesser extent, Jimmy Dunne.
The season is far too early to call anything yet, however the parallels with Neilson’s first season in charge at Premiership level are striking. Win against Hibs in the derby and Hearts will have made it four wins from five, compared with season 2015/16’s five wins from the opening five. The difference this time around is Neilson’s side will have faced three of the top four sides in those opening games. Whilst it’s a superb opening milestone to potentially reach for a regular newly-promoted side, Hearts will be judged slightly differently due to higher budgets and expectations.
That budget and a demanding fan base in Gorgie ensure that European football must be targeted this campaign, despite public statements that top six is the key ambition. Hearts can certainly qualify for Europe and should look to the recent Europa Conference League playoff fixtures as inspiration. The club could vastly increase its revenues through participation, and even if the club falls short of third or fourth, fifth place may well be enough to land a shot at this particular glory.
A win versus Hibs in two weeks would be the tastiest cherry on top of a superb start for Hearts. The knives had been razor-sharp for Robbie Neilson since Brora, and he has responded to all the calls for his head with a tweaked formation, increased pace in the team and a knack of grinding out results from difficult fixtures in the top league.
If the St Mirren win produced a tiny shoot of optimism, the United one feels like an explosive surge. With the riotous away fans at Tannadice and glimpses of three new faces, Jambos fans are suddenly dreaming bigger.
Hearts’ home games will take care of themselves this season, which is perhaps why the Aberdeen result smarted so much for fans. The win at Dundee United was the first time the Jambos have won two away games on the trot since February 2019. Make no mistake, away victories are where Robbie Neilson will truly silence any lingering doubters. Results so far indicate he is well on his way to doing so.