Just hours before news broke that MK Dons had made an official approach to Hearts to speak to Robbie Neilson about their dugout vacancy, the head coach had underlined his belief that his team can finish second in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Victory in tomorrow’s visit of their Ibrox counterparts, the first match between the teams since May 2015, would see the Gorgie outfit leap back into that position on goal difference.
Rangers’ return to the top-flight has intensified the jostling for the runners-up berth, with Celtic on course to canter to the league title.
With a vastly superior player budget, the Govan side are predicted to see off the challenge from both Aberdeen and Hearts, however, Neilson, who is looking forward to his reunion with former Brentford manager Mark Warburton, insists his team can defy expectations.
“When you look at the budget of Celtic compared to everyone else, then it’s a huge gulf,” said Neilson, whose side returned to winning ways in Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Motherwell following a four-game winless run.
“But I always believe you can go two or three places above where your budget takes you.
“We finished third last year. And we always want to improve on what we’ve done in the previous season. So I think that answers your question.
“It’s football. Everyone expects Celtic and Rangers to be at the top of the league, battling it out.
“But I think ourselves and Aberdeen have shown that we’re strong enough to compete in that area as well.
“We focus on ourselves and try to build a team here that, eventually, can challenge for that title.”
Neilson will pit his wits against a man he knows well when Rangers make the journey east on Wednesday evening.
Warburton was assistant manager to Nicky Forster at Brentford when Neilson spent time on loan at Griffin Park from Leicester City in 2011.
“I was at Brentford with Mark and I know him really well,” added Neilson, who was pleased to discover at Friday’s board meeting that he will have funds to spend in January.
“I like him, I speak to him every now and then – and he is a really good guy with some great ideas.
“A lot of the things he did at Brentford I liked, when he was assistant manager at the time. At that point, I knew he would become a manager.
“I’m not surprised by the way Rangers play, because that was the way Brentford played. They play 4-3-3, they try to be expansive and play their way through you.
“And it has worked for him. You know, Rangers got promoted, that was the first thing.
“Okay, they’ve had a little sticky patch in the top league. But they still dominate possession in games. And the stats say that, if you have a lot of possession, you will win football matches.”
After finishing some 24 points ahead of Rangers on their way to clinching the Championship title in 2015, and taking seven points from their four matches, there is no chance of Hearts having an inferiority complex tomorrow.
An injury-time Osman Sow winner, just seconds after Nicky Law had equalised, at Ibrox on the opening day of that campaign set the tone for a remarkable season as the club looked to rebuild on and off the pitch after emerging from administration.
“I think going and winning at Ibrox in the Championship changed things for us,” said Neilson, who confirmed that Scotland right-back Callum Paterson is available after being forced off with a head knock at the weekend.
“The first two weeks of that league campaign really set the tone for us – and getting the last-minute winner away to Rangers was huge.
“We went there, went one up and lost a goal with minutes to go. Generally, when that happens to teams there, they’ll end up losing the game.
“But we went straight up the park and scored. That set us up for the rest of the season.
“It was a huge moment in the revival of the club, I believe.”