Stability is key if Hearts are to build on this season’s success

by Apr 27, 2022

Robbie Neilson’s thunderous roar after leading Hearts to another cup final in his second spell looks set to become meme worthy.

As he basked in the glory of consecutive victories over our hopeless rivals, he may even have afforded himself a wry smile. After all, it was a little over a year ago that his second Tynecastle tenure was in full-blown crisis mode, as fans furiously protested about results and the direction of the club. Some even demanded his sacking. Cool heads prevailed in the end, with Hearts choosing to focus on the long term rather than a quick fix.

Stability is a delicate balancing act these days at a football club, as Hibs owner Ron Gordon is now discovering. Gone are the days of clubs relentlessly sticking by a manager when a bad patch of form materialises, as owners now shoot from the hip and dump their managers before things worsen. The decision to not hit that panic button is now paying dividends for Hearts.

To an outsider looking at Neilson’s overall record a year ago, it would have seemed baffling to hear calls for his head. Why would a manager whose Hearts CV includes two promotions and a 58% win record, as well as a cup winner’s medal as a player, be so harshly judged by the club’s fans? The answer, as always lies in the detail. The calls to sack Neilson only really increased in volume last season after successive defeats to non-league Brora Rangers and Queen of the South, the lowest ebbs in a series of dire displays.

Of course, not all anger was directed solely at Neilson, with plenty reserved for a board many felt had contributed to the downward spiral into second-tier football long before Covid or the SPFL had an impact. However, as the happiness exuded around Hampden on Saturday afternoon and the warm glow of double derby success washed over everyone present, it felt as though the club – and Neilson in particular – had finally shrugged off those previous woes.

The difference in Hearts since the return to the top flight has been truly staggering. By confirming a third-place finish and a Scottish Cup final appearance in May, the club has guaranteed European group stage football until December and all the financial perks that come with it. A remarkable achievement when you consider the grim journey we’ve been on the last few years.

The difference in Hearts since the return to the top flight has been truly staggering. By confirming a third-place finish and a Scottish Cup final appearance in May, the club has guaranteed European group stage football until December and all the financial perks that come with it. A remarkable achievement when you consider the grim journey we’ve been on the last few years.

It should be said Neilson was not alone in this. You only need to look at examples such as Mike Edwards at Liverpool to understand what a harmonious backroom relationship between the board, Director of Football and Head Coach can do for a club. Joe Savage’s revamping of the entire backroom set up at Tynecastle has only served to highlight some of the baffling recruitment decisions made in the years before his arrival.

Long gone are the days of scattergun approaches to transfers and the endless cycle of failed ‘project players’, with Savage and his newly-appointed recruitment team making some seriously shrewd signings so far. Cammy Devlin, Beni Baningime, Ellis Simms and Barrie McKay have all produced exhilarating displays in a Hearts shirt and can be considered outstanding acquisitions. Others, such as Taylor Moore, Ben Woodburn and Toby Sibbick, have all provided depth with varying degrees of success, but would all likely start for the majority of Scottish Premiership clubs, despite being mere squad options at Hearts this season.

So where next? It’s a thrilling time to be a Hearts fan and the excitement regarding next season is already tangible, with so much to look forward to. The extra money arriving from European football is potentially game changing, with the Scotsman referring to it as “the biggest jackpot in Hearts’ history”. How Hearts use that money is crucial and with the carrot of European football at our disposal, we may find we have the capacity to shop in Waitrose this summer, while our domestic rivals rummage through the reduced aisles at Home Bargains.

However, the importance of stability cannot be underestimated either. While recruitment has been impressive, so too has the clinical approach to player retention, with the club keen to ensure there are no repeats of the John Souttar situation. Now, when a player shows notable improvement or sell-on potential, Joe Savage slaps a freshly-inked contract onto the table. In taking such a proactive approach, the club has tied down a number of key assets for what ought to be their peak years: the extensions of the marvellous Stephen Kingsley and McKay were the most eye catching, but the decision to renew Craig Halkett’s deal may be the jewel in the crown after a renaissance season in maroon.

Halkett epitomises the profile of player Hearts should target this summer. Without turning this into a who’s who of out of contract Premiership stars, Hearts should always be mindful of the Halketts of the Scottish footballing world. Players who are well versed in the dark arts of the direct and unforgiving Scottish game. Players producing impressive numbers for their teams. Players who are hungry to make that step up from playing in front of half-empty stands to 17,000 expectant home fans.

This profile of player can provide an element of continuity and stability at a club like Hearts, where squad turnover has been alarmingly high in recent years. Supplementing that reliable core with high-quality signings on a par with Beni Baningime and Barrie McKay could extend the gap between us and the chasing pack, while simultaneously narrowing the chasm between us and the Old Firm.

As Maroon Tinted Spectacles’ own Iain Lobban suggested in a recent chat with FansBet, it feels like we could be on the cusp of a truly transformative period in the club’s history. Off-the-field, the club’s infrastructure has improved immeasurably since the last time we secured European football and with the handover to the Foundation of Hearts providing stable ground, it feels as though the club is better-equipped than ever before to capitalise on the financial rewards of the team’s success and grow accordingly.

There is a sense of ‘everyone together’ in Gorgie right now, something that hasn’t been seen since the very beginning of the 2014/15 season. A lot of the hard work is done in the background, but the results are clear for all to see on the green grass of Tynecastle.