DUNDEE manager James McPake insists it would be ‘disrespectful’ to suggest Hearts are destined to romp to the Championship title following Robbie Neilson’s stunning return to Tynecastle.
The Jambos raided Premiership new boys Dundee United last Sunday to re-appoint Neilson as their head coach, three-and-a-half years after he quit the club to embark on an ill-fated stint at MK Dons.
It was seen as something of a coup for Tynecastle owner Ann Budge, given Neilson won the strongest second tier in living memory at a canter with Hearts in 2014/15, setting a record points total of 91 and leaving Hibs and Rangers in his wake.
Allied with United comfortably claiming the title under his watch last season, many Hearts fans – emboldened by the audacious swoop – are confidently predicting a swift return to the top-flight for the men in maroon.
However, McPake, who will nurse promotion aspirations of his own at Dundee, has warned that nine sides will have other ideas.
He said: “Even taking my own team out of the picture here, I think it would be totally disrespectful for anyone to say it’s inevitable that Hearts will run away with this league.
“As well as ourselves, Ayr United were excellent last season, Arbroath and Alloa – part-time teams – were fantastic and every other side in the division, on their day, can beat you.
“The Championship isn’t as easy as some people like to think and it will be even tougher this time around, with only 27 games and some very unique circumstances.
“You would need to be brave to make any bold predictions.”
McPake, discussing Neilson’s switch for the first time since it rocked Scottish football on Sunday, believes the incoming head coach will be forced to contend with suffocating pressure to repeat the feats of his first stint in Gorgie.
The ex-Hibs skipper is all-too-aware of the intensity of the Edinburgh goldfish bowl and, as underlined by ‘Robbie Must Go’ banner unfurled outside Tynecastle HOURS after his re-appointment, a vocal minority of fans have not welcomed his return.
Neilson’s stock took a hit when the Hibees dumped Hearts out of the Scottish Cup on their way to ending their 114-year hoodoo, while some punters were disillusioned by a perceived lack of style under his watch.
McPake continued: “I know from my time in the city that Hearts and Hibs are very big clubs and, with that, comes very big expectations.
“I experienced the highs and lows of that.
“It’s all okay when you are doing well but it can get tough extremely fast when things aren’t going well.
“Robbie will know that from his first spell, where he was very successful early on but, after losing against Hibs in the Scottish Cup [fifth round], he saw the other side of that pressure.
“Hearts are a huge team in this division but what comes with that is tough demands on the shoulders of the manager and players. That can be tough to deal with, especially if they don’t get a flying start.
“Tynecastle can be a brilliant place to play when you are winning – but, just like Easter Road, it becomes tough to perform there when things are going badly and the fans start to turn.”
Nevertheless, McPake is adamant next season will not become a personal battle with Neilson, emphasising that there is an entire division of capable coaches he will need to overcome if Dundee are to realise their own promotion dream.
He added: “Whether we are facing Mark Kerr at Ayr, Dick Campbell at Arbroath, Peter Grant at Alloa, Robbie Neilson at Hearts, every game will have its own challenges and its own pressures.
“I owe Dundee my full focus and, in a very difficult league, we’ll approach every match with the same intensity, knowing three points is what the supporters rightly demand at the weekend.”