Can Neilson put grumbles to bed and bring joy back at Hearts?

first_imgNot a lack of happiness. Victories have been plentiful, the team is solid and skilful and largely content swathes of fans are packing out the stands.Off the field recovery is ongoing through financial consolidation. Ann Budge is widely admired and a new main stand will be built over the next 18 months.But where the last year has deviated from previous one of their oft-marketed ‘revival’ is in a lack of joyous occasions – the intangible moments in football that make it the intoxicating pursuit it is.The Championship campaign had it in spades. Defeating Rangers and Hibernian, going on dizzying unbeaten runs; putting 10 (ten) goals past Cowdenbeath. The fight to save the very existence of Hearts is now long over.The survival fundraisers are a memory, the songs of defiance no longer echo. A two-year-long fight is now pages in a history book.The battle for Hearts in 2016 is more existential. On the surface things are going very smoothly indeed, but dig a little deeper and there is some discomfort.The past year has seen the advent of a lack of joy in the Gorgie area. Scoring multiple goals – home or away – was a matter of course as Hearts romped to the biggest ever points tally in the second tier.The return to the top league was considerably more pragmatic.Hearts adopted a style of containment – particularly away from home – that yielded great defensive statistics (less than a goal a game conceded on the road) and a comfortable third place finish.Consolidation complete. Mission accomplished?Nobody at Tynecastle is balking at the league position or the crowds they are pulling – but satisfaction levels now seem to be dipping.Robbie Neilson has faced criticism despite leading Hearts to third place. SNSWhat the fans crave to return is a regular feeling of joy at their matches.Rigid structure, methodical preparation and prescribed sports science are all great – even vital – things for a modern football side. But to take their project further Hearts require a level of spontaneity on the field that sat dormant last season.Robbie Neilson appears to be left carrying the can for this nascent dissatisfaction among some parts of the Hearts support.His dedication to hard work – manifested in double and sometimes triple training sessions at the Hearts academy – was credited with fuelling that sensational Championship season. It also earned him a nomination for manager of the year.He is the quiet man fronting the football operation with Craig Levein in the background overseeing everything from first team recruitment to building a coaching plan for pre-teen prospects.Sometimes the support seems to want more passion from him. Tynecastle took the touchline theatrics of Csaba Laszlo to their heart, and Paulo Sergio’s passionate media displays earned him their love. Neilson’s style shies away from both.Perhaps most infamously, telling reporters after Hearts’ collapse from 2-0 to 2-2 against Hibernian in last season’s Scottish Cup that the result made for “another money-spinner” in the replay hit all the wrong notes with a smarting support (losing the match at Easter Road and Hibs going on to claim the cup has only intensified that bitter disappointment).These are all learning points for a head coach still only in his mid-30s. Neilson’s dedication to the task is enviable. He is a thinker and a tactician and he has the players to respond to that level of preparation.Most significantly he has a lot of talent at his disposal. If, as in 2014/15, he finds the right way to make them tick, then past missteps will start to slide out of mind.His defence looks sound. Alim Ozturk is a fine footballer and beside him Igor Rossi defines the love of pure defending. Faycal Rherras is settling in to the back four and at right back Callum Paterson looks like a Scotland regular in-the-making. If he is sold on this summer on to preserve his transfer value, Liam Smith looks ready to step up.Perry Kitchen has impressed following his arrival from MLS. SNSPerry Kitchen has been quietly dominant in the anchor midfield role and Arnaud Djoum is a technically gifted box-to-box midfielder who Robbie Neilson may still be learning how to get the most out of.Jamie Walker is up there with the most exciting attacking midfielders in Scotland and if Sam Nicholson can regain a semblance of his 2014/15 form then it solves a huge creative problem for Neilson.Converting chances has been identified as an issue and Hearts have gone gung-ho in the centre forward market with Tony Watt, Bjorn Johnsen, Conor Sammon and Robbie Muirhead joining Juanma Delgado in the ranks.On paper it is a very valuable group. In reality, the punters are starting to have grumbles.To prevail across a campaign on the field – and in the minds of supporters – season 2016/17 requires a Hearts team willing to take more risks. To not take a deserved lead then go into protection mode and fall victim of a sucker punch, as happened against Kilmarnock, Dundee and Hibernian to name but three.To play up-tempo and with freedom. A Sam Nicholson more concerned with his Ball Oriented Defense than how he is next going to bamboozle a full back is a waste of a fiercely talented player.It may take a new creative player to spark it. It may take a lot of hard work on the training field. Or it may just take the simple shift in mindset of a squad which has been in cruise control since February entering a new league season.No matter which way it happens, those capacity Tynecastle crowds will be sitting nervously on Saturday afternoons until they sense that return of footballing joy to the pitch.A Hearts side that cannot take the fight to Aberdeen and Rangers (at the very least) this season will make for a diminished Premiership.Luckily for Neilson, Levein, Budge, and 14,000 season ticket holders, the talent is in place to do it. Just add that elusive magic to put the growing grumbles to bed.last_img read more