It’s been a rollercoaster few years for Heart of Midlothian Football Club, but after financial rescue and a surprise runaway success in the Scottish Championship last season, what are the Jambos’ realistic aims for 2015/16. MATT LESLIE looks at the campaign ahead.
The new Scottish Premier League season gets under way this weekend and Hearts fans will be delighted at the return of top-flight football following a year’s absence.
Given the emphatic manner in which the Championship was won (and the subsequent promotion back to the big time that accompanied it), there is a buoyancy amongst many Jambos.
There were those who this time last year were bracing themselves of the prospect of not making it back at the first attempt.
That included those at boardroom level as well.
With Edinburgh rivals Hibernian and the young incarnation of the new Rangers Football Club also being in the second tier, Hearts owner, Ann Budge, stated that the club had budgeted in the short-term for two seasons away from top-flight football.
So to not only trump their main rivals, but also leave them trailing in their wake as promotion was wrapped up before the clocks jumped forward an hour was indeed a worthy achievement.
Indeed, two other clubs – instead of Hearts – are now implementing financial plans for a successive lower league season.
Hearts meanwhile have been able to bring forward their own blueprint by a year which has also been boosted by a record season-ticket sales intake for the club.
But this is where the hard work really starts.
Under the new management of Robbie Neilson who was in his first season as a head coach, Hearts held the luxury of being an unknown quantity.
Had previous incumbent Gary Locke’s contract been renewed, other teams in the Championship – including Rangers and Hibs – would have known how to prepare against the Jambos having had a look at Locke’s style of play from the previous season.
Neilson had the element of surprise on his side – especially as his tactics would be markedly different from his predecessor’s – and by the time a shell-shocked Championship fully realised what this particular Hearts side were about, their confidence was sky-high to the point of being near-unbreakable.
However, Neilson no longer has that card up his sleeve.
Just as players who burst onto the scene in spectacular fashion only to fall to ‘second season syndrome’ as their tormented markers from the previous year have wised up to them, the same can apply to managers.
Neilson’s plan A is a good one when his players execute it.
A slick passing game built around a core midfield of Mongaro Gomis, Miguel Pallardo and Prince Buaben combined with threats from the wide areas from Jamie Walker and one of Sam Nicholson and Billy King worked to great effect last season.
The obvious difference this time round will be that all the other teams in the Premier League will be full-time, fitter and have much more skill about them than past opposition.
Even the most dyed-in-the-wool Hearts fans will appreciate that not many teams will be blown away by four or five goals this time around.
There will certainly be no 10-0 thrashings like the one dished out to Cowdenbeath earlier this year.
Budge, Neilson and Director of Football Craig Levein have set their sights on a top six finish with Neilson looking to have runs in the cup competitions.
Some Hearts fans have been thinking aloud of European qualification by way of finishing second or third.
Understandable optimism given the feel-good factor has returned following their last wretched season in the top flight.
However, perhaps the top six ambition held by those in authority at the club is probably more realistic.
After all, two of the trio are old enough to remember the infamous ‘yo-yo’ years of the late 70s and early 80s.
In 1977, Hearts suffered their first-ever relegation.
They came straight back up the following year.
Then in 1979 they went back down again.
And up they came 12 months later.
Want to guess what happened in 1981?
After that third relegation, it took them until 1983 to return to the Premier League and this time they were able to not only consolidate their status, but qualify for Europe as well.
Then owner Wallace Mercer revealed that before the 1983/84 campaign had started, he had made an arrangement with manager Alex MacDonald. He had told him:
“I said to Alex, ‘you never got a testimonial during all that time you had spent at Rangers. If you keep me up, I’ll get you your testimonial’. That was a private deal between myself and the manager. If he looked after my interests, I would take care of his back pocket.”
Both men upheld their respective ends of the bargain.
Mercer would be looking forward to a second successive top-flight season (and the added bonus of UEFA Cup football) while MacDonald had his testimonial at Tynecastle against Rangers with his employer arranging for England international Kevin Keegan to be a guest player for the Jambos.
We don’t know if Budge has made any deal with Neilson (if they have, it won’t be a testimonial given he had one when employed as a player at Hearts back in 2008).
But a similar campaign to 1983/84 (European football will an optional bonus though – nice though it would be) will almost certainly strengthen Neilson’s credentials as a bona fide manager.
We would need to see what his plan B is though. And it would have to work.
At various times last season, such was Hearts’ massive lead at the top of the Championship, Neilson experimented in terms of tactics.
The results ranged from little change from the original plan to going belly-up (the last visits to Ibrox and Easter Road respectively).
Pre-season has seen him experiment with differing tactics too with mixed results and not many convinced such alterations really worked.
This is the one concern that Hearts will have during the course of this season.
The likes of Celtic and Aberdeen will more than likely not be blown away by the plan A that had lesser teams in the second tiers feeling like they’d gone 10 rounds with a wrecking ball with a good first touch.
Ronny Deila and Derek McInnes will have studied Hearts’ methods from footage of last season and will have the resources to combat Neilson’s masterplan.
Although honours were even in the four Edinburgh derbies last season, it would be fair to say that Hearts found Hibs to be like an annoying itch in the centre of your back that you can’t quite reach to scratch.
If those from Parkhead and Pittodrie can present as awkward a challenge as Hibs did last season, then Hearts’ mettle will be tested – and more thoroughly as well.
While Hearts’ resolve to stand their ground will not be called into question, the ability to adapt and think up something new on the spot will be crucial.
Because that’s what Celtic and Aberdeen can do and that is why most can’t see past them for the top two spots in the league table.
Should Neilson find a successful way of getting his team to adapt under pressure, then talk of qualifying for Europe may not be so fanciful.
It would not be at all surprising should he conjure up an alternative formula that can be employed if a Deila or a McInnes plan A of their own proves to be a tougher proposition than the likes that were offered up by Rangers, Queen of the South, et al last season.
For the time being, the top six aim seems to be the most realistic aim. Neilson and Co. can pleasantly surprise the Hearts faithful with a higher finish if they can successfully adapt to sterner tests.
Consolidation, while not as exciting as top three and European football, would be a worthy enough achievement in their first season back.
It would be a very solid platform to build upon this time next year.
But for now, given that 18 months ago Hearts were staring the prospect of liquidation in the eye, in the grand scheme of things, to be even having the top three vs. top six argument is a welcome luxury.
Certainly preferable than having to fold, wrap up the history and create a new team to play in the lowest rung of the league ladder.
And having been able to haul themselves away from the abyss, any league table finish from first to tenth will do.