BY DARREN JOHNSTONE @CCP_Sport
Seven straight wins for Celtic against Hearts at Tynecastle. Twenty-six goals scored, two conceded; not exactly the damning evidence to corroborate the notion that the yawning divide between the Old Firm, or more recently Celtic, is being closed.
But, ahead of tomorrow’s visit of the Hoops, that is exactly what Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson believes.
Celtic could find themselves knocked off their perch at the Ladbrokes Premiership summit by the time they travel east tomorrow afternoon, with Aberdeen, who are a point adrift having played one more match, in action at home to Inverness today.
A genuine title challenge by a team other than Celtic or Rangers is badly need; the Don’s title success in 1985 remains the last triumph by a non-Old Firm side.
“I think everyone is (getting closer to Celtic).” said Neilson, whose own team are looking to collect their first win over the Hoops in 13 matches.
“When you look at the results over the course of the last five or six years, people have started to get closer and closer to them.
“Their budget has started to come a wee bit closer, although it’s still huge.
“It’s a wee bit closer. Celtic aren’t going out and signing guys for six, seven or eight million any more.
“They’re becoming more of a development team where they bring guys in for two and three million.
“The difference between a 10 million pound player and a two million pound player is big.
“That makes it slightly closer. It’s still a huge divide but not to the extent it was five years ago.”
So, does Neilson expect that trend to continue to the extent that the tedium of Scottish football will be broken?
“It depends what Celtic decide to do. At the moment they look as if they are starting to become a development team, bringing young players in and trying to develop them while still trying to retain that consistency of winning leagues and getting into the Champions League.
“It’s dependent on the way they want to take the club forward. I think we’ll see a difference when Rangers eventually come back up.
“It might force them to spend a little bit more which would then make the divide bigger again.”
The very idea that Celtic are not as dominant is part of the reason that Neilson’s Parkhead counterpart Ronny Deila finds himself under pressure.
Having already been eliminated from both the Champions League and the Europa League, last weekend’s 2-1 home loss to Motherwell did not go down well among some fans.
An online petition calling for the Norwegian’s sacking as been started, while one-time Celtic striker Andy Walker described his old team as ‘dull’ and ‘uninspiring’ under Deila.
“People talk about them having a wobble but they’re still sitting top of the league,” added Neilson, who will be without the suspended Juanma tomorrow after the striker was ordered off for violent conduct in last weekend’s goal-less draw at St Johnstone.
“They’ve still got a game in hand.
“I wouldn’t mind having a wobble like that through the season, if we were in the same position I would take it.
“Teams are difficult to break down. I watched the Motherwell game and they sit in and make it hard, and catch Celtic on the counter-attack.
“It’s like anything, if you’re manager of a big club, no matter where it is, there’s always going to be people that are putting you under pressure.
“It’s part and parcel of the role. Ronny has handled himself well. You get judged on your results, they’re sitting top of the league and still in two cups.”