Hearts: Can Robbie Neilson’s promoted side sustain title challenge?

Hearts assistant Lee McCulloch and manager Robbie Neilson
Assistant Lee McCulloch and Robbie Neilson appear to be steering a happy ship at Tynecastle

Who can blame Hearts fans for dreaming? Still the only team unbeaten in the Scottish Premiership this season after Saturday’s last-gasp equaliser at Rangers – and only a point behind Steven Gerrard’s reigning champions.

It is all a far cry from last season’s lacklustre grind towards the Championship title and promotion.

Suddenly, comparisons are being made with the side that stormed into an early lead under George Burley in 2005, or even the one famously pipped on the final day by Celtic in 1986.

It is probably too much to expect Robbie Neilson’s current squad to become the first to ever win the Premiership immediately after promotion, but could they at least mount a sustained challenge?

What does history tell us?

Hearts have been crowned champions four times, but their last came back in 1960 – and their highest finish since then was 15 years ago.

Under Burley, they won their opening eight games – and were unbeaten in 10 – only for the former Scotland defender to be sensationally sacked by Lithuanian owner Vladimir Romanov. The side with Neilson at right-back would finish 17 points behind Celtic and under their third team boss of the season.

Celtic had also proved to be their nemesis in 1986, when Hearts only needed to draw with Dundee to clinch the title, but a 2-0 defeat for Alex MacDonald’s side at Dens Park, along with their Glasgow rivals’ 5-0 hammering of St Mirren, left a painful sore that has festered to this day.

If they are to take the title race to the final day this time, Hearts will have to battle history as well as the vastly superior budgets of Glasgow’s big two.

Not only has no promoted side gone on to win the title – it has been achieved by the likes of Kaiserslautern in Germany and in England by Everton, Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town, just not in Scotland – but finishing third is as good as it has ever got for Premiership newcomers.

The last of those were Rangers in 2017, repeating the feat of Hearts themselves the previous season.

What has changed?

Beni Baningime (right) in action for Hearts
Beni Baningime (right) has impressed in midfield since arriving from Everton

Hearts were compared unfavourably last season with the class of 2014-15, when they cantered to the second-tier title and promotion despite the presence of city rivals Hibernian and Rangers during Neilson’s first spell in charge.

Neilson soon left for MK Dons – and did likewise when he moved back to Tynecastle from Tannadice after winning promotion with Dundee United – leaving some to question whether even he believed he could manage in the top flight.

Mid-table consolidation, similar to United last season, was viewed by many as the height of their ambition, but clever recruitment over the summer has added creativity and a cutting edge.

BBC pundit Leanne Crichton believes the capture of 23-year-old Beni Baningime on a nominal fee from Everton has been particularly significant.

“Hearts have added quality in key areas – one of them being Baningime in the middle of the park,” the former Scotland midfielder says. Robbie Neilson told the Hearts fans to enjoy him while he is here because he knows other clubs will be interested in him.”

Crichton thinks the arrival of Barrie McKay after the former Rangers winger’s release by Swansea City, and the return from long-term injury of Scotland centre-half John Souttar, have also been key.

Former Hearts player Allan Preston suggests there is one area Neilson must tackle if they are to continue their form into 2022.

“They are a striker light,” he says. “Armand Gnanduillet came on at Ibrox, but if something happens to Liam Boyce, I’ve got a worry. They need to look at strengthening that area.”

Rocky Old Firm give others hope

The handling error from usually reliable goalkeeper Allan McGregor that allowed Craig Halkett to head Hearts’ late equaliser on Saturday was symbolic of a start to the season in which both halves of the Old Firm have looked vulnerable.

Gerrard’s champions are more unsteady in defence and less lethal in attack, while Celtic under new manager Ange Postecoglou have looked even more unsure at the back than they did under Neil Lennon last term, despite an invigorated front line.

Rangers have three fewer points than when they led by a point at the same, nine-game stage last season – and Celtic six, despite having played a game more. Hearts and United sit between the two Glasgow rivals.

“It’s a brilliant result to go through there and get a point and remain undefeated in nine league games,” Preston adds. “It’s great for Robbie and his squad and he deserves enormous credit.

“No-one’s won the league outside of Celtic and Rangers for over 30 years, so it would be foolish to say they are going to go on and win the league, but a European spot is certainly within the realms of possibility.”

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