BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
As Tynecastle prepares to toast its eighth successive Premiership sell-out, head coach Robbie Neilson firmly believes one man in Dundee colours will be afforded a rousing reception.
The visit of the Tayside outfit sees Paul Hartley return to Gorgie for the first time as a manager, having excelled for the Jambos during a successful stint between 2003 and 2007.
A former Hibernian player, it was Hartley’s exploits against Hearts’ capital foes which assured his place in club folklore, with his hat-trick in the 4-0 Scottish Cup semi-final win over the Hibees in 2006 still seen as one of the great individual derby displays.
He ultimately lifted that trophy with Hearts, helped them secure Champions League qualification and earned a place in the Scotland set-up before joining Celtic for £1.1 million in 2007.
Neilson, Hartley’s teammate at Tynecastle, reckons the switch to Hearts – and the perception of Craig Levein – was pivotal to a career renaissance.
“Paul was a huge player here,” recalled Neilson. “I’m sure he will be desperate to do well here and get a good reception. It will add a wee bit of spice to the game and I’m sure he will get a big response from the crowd.
“He did a lot of good things and left fans with great memories. He scored goals, brought energy and won trophies and it will be good to see Paul here again.
“It was probably coming to Hearts that made him the player he was. When he came here, he was a winger and it was Craig (Levein) who put him into central midfield.
“He went on to become a Scotland international, win trophies and get a move (to Celtic). It was an important period of his career at Hearts. I think any player, regardless of age, will get to a stage when the penny drops. You just hope that, when that day comes, you are still at a level where you can perform.
“Paul had a good career before Hearts – Millwall, Hamilton, Hibs – but coming here was the right environment for him. The move from the wing to central midfield helped him and football is like that sometimes – you need something like that to kick on.”
A fine playing career has become a promising coaching career for Hartley, who earned his stripes with consecutive promotions from the bottom tier to the Championship with Alloa before joining Dundee in 2014.
It is a path which does not surprise Neilson, as he recalled Hartley’s obsession with the game.
“I always thought he would go into coaching,” he added. “Paul was always football, football, football. Nothing else. He would always be going to games, watching football on TV and talking about it all the time.
“You never know what will come next, but I always thought he would stay in football.
“Dundee are a team that likes to attack, with good players who like to play football and are expansive. I suppose that does reflect the way Paul was as a player.”
Neilson believes the visit of Dundee kicks off a vital period for the capital club as he delivered a stark warning about the challenges ahead – in terms of opponents and climate.
The Hearts boss is acutely aware that the harsh Scottish winter will provide a culture shock for many of his foreign legion as they attempt to cement their place in second spot in the Premiership.
However, should they emerge at the turn of the year still as Celtic’s nearest challengers, Neilson admits he may finally consider altering his previously immovable targets for the campaign.
“The top six is still the aim and where the club wants to be,” he said. “We are in a good position and people are saying ‘you can aim for this and aim for that’. But we are only a third of the way into the season.
“Hamilton were top of the league at one point and eventually missed out on the top six so things can change quickly.
“This will be the telling period for us and, if we can get through it still in second place, then maybe we will have a chance to change our expectations
“We go into the winter months, it’s raining all the time, it’s wet and windy. We have a tough run of games as well; Dundee, Motherwell, Inverness, St Johnstone away, Aberdeen away, Celtic at home.
“Even in training, going out in the afternoon can be difficult. It’s bucketing it down, you’re soaked and have just done a gym session and it’s blowing an absolute gale. But the players need to realise that is what you need to do in Scotland otherwise you won’t get any better.
“It’s about improving and that’s what is going to help make them better players and win things. The easiest thing in the world is to come in on a wet and windy day and play fives on an indoor astro. Everybody likes doing it. But it won’t make you better.”