Robbie Neilson gives leadership verdict on Hearts squad following Craig Levein swipe

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FORMER Hearts manager Craig Levein claimed having too many “sheep” on the pitch was just one factor in the team’s demise on the park last season.

However, the latest incumbent, Robbie Neilson, who has returned for his second stint in the dugout is adamant he has inherited a squad of leaders.

When the Gorgie side eventually gets back to training, Neilson is particularly enthusiastic about working with Scotland forward Steven Naismith, who will remain as club captain, one-time Hearts team-mate Craig Gordon and the likes of John Souttar, Craig Halkett and Liam Boyce.

Boss: Neilson was confirmed as Hearts head coach last month

The uncertainty surrounding what division Hearts will be playing in next season continues ahead of the impending Scottish FA arbitration hearing, but Neilson appreciates he has a core at his disposal which would be the envy of most teams in the country.

“We have a strong leadership group,” said Neilson, who led Dundee United to the Championship title last season.

“At this moment in time, Steven Naismith will continue as the captain. We have Christophe Berra, Craig Gordon, Craig Halkett and John Souttar.

“We also have Liam Boyce and Peter Haring, so there are a lot of big characters in there.

“You need that at a club of this size. I have spoken to them all individually and they are all positive about coming back. I think we have a core of a really good team.

“They are positive about their role within the club. For me is, one: performing day in day out on the training field, setting an example and, two: also helping the young kids to deal with the pressure of playing at a big club.”

Naismith and Northern Ireland striker Boyce have already reaffirmed their commitment to Hearts despite the prospect of dropping down a division and having their international aspirations undermined.

After watching Lawrence Shankland make his Scotland debut last season while banging in some 28 goals at Tannadice, Neilson is confident their personal objectives can be fulfilled at Tynecastle.

“I have spoken to Steven a few times”, added Neilson.

“I know him as a player, not personally, but having spoken to him he is very motivated.

“He is a top, top player.

I don’t think playing in the Championship will stop him being involved with Scotland and there are a few others.

“I would expect Craig Gordon to be around the national team. We have Michael Smith and Liam Boyce with Northern Ireland.

“John Souttar is also there and I would like Halkett to be a roundabout it too. Aaron Hickey is there.

“Whether we are playing Championship or Premiership these guys will be round about the international scene.”

Neilson and goalkeeper Gordon, who returns from Celtic, were team-mates when Hearts lifted the Scottish Cup in 2006 and the former is well aware of what he is getting with the 37-year-old.

“He brings massive experience,” said Neilson. “It’s great to have someone who knows the club so well.

“He’s been here as a fan, a player and then getting his move.

PHENOMENAL

I’ve spoken to some of the young ones about that. Craig came here as a young player, played his 100-150 games before getting his big move [to Sunderland for £9million in 2007].

“In the big pressure games, the big occasions, he has the experience of remaining calm and performing.

“As a goalkeeper, he has been a phenomenal catch for us. But also as a person and a leader he is going to be great.”

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