Hearts manager Robbie Neilson has insisted that his current squad is better than the record-breaking group that cantered to the Championship title in 2015.
The Gorgie side begin their quest to return to the Premiership at the first attempt in Friday’s grudge match with Dundee, a team likely to be their closest rivals at the summit.
There remains plenty of ill-feeling towards the Dark Blues from Hearts fans after Dundee’s decisive and hugely controversial vote to curtail last season confirmed the Edinburgh side’s demotion from the top-flight, although the supporters will not be at Tynecastle this evening to vent their wrath.
Neilson’s focus, however, is on guiding the team straight back up, something he masterminded in his first spell when Hearts won the league – which included Rangers and Hibs – in record time with an unequalled 91 point haul.
And in a blunt warning to their second tier counterparts, Neilson sees no reason why his team can not emulate that success despite the ongoing absence of supporters.
“It would have been brilliant if the fans had been there because it would have been a full house and really intimidating atmosphere,” said Neilson, who also led Dundee United to the second tier title last season. “But it’s not going to be like that.
“It is a weapon. A lot of times teams will come and when they step out with 20,000 fans on top of them, a few of them crumble already.
“We don’t have that this season but what we do have is a really good squad – a stronger squad than the last time we won the Championship so I expect us to win games.
“We have to make sure we do our bit ourselves by being on the front foot and being aggressive.”
Hearts head into the televised clash on the back of three straight Betfred Cup victories, the latest coming on Tuesday over Raith Rovers, and Neilson wants his players to impinge their authority on the league from the start.
He added: “There’s nothing better than starting with a big game and I expect Dundee to be one of our main rivals this year.
“I expect these to be the games that set the tone for the league.
“And that’s why we wanted this for our first game, to lay down a marker.
“Dundee will come down and they’ll see it as an opportunity to lay one on us, we need to make sure we are ready for it and make sure we show we’re the better team.”
Defender Craig Halkett, meanwhile, insists the players will not allow their steely focus to be clouded by thoughts of revenge, especially when the survivors from last season’s squad have already come to terms with how the 2019/20 campaign panned out.
He said: “We don’t use that as a motivation as players, it’s nothing to do with us -it’s more between the clubs.
“We had the time during lockdown to think about all that and be disappointed.
“We had time to digest what happened so I think all the players got that out of their systems in the summer when we came back for pre-season.
“We forgot about what happened last year and have focussed on the challenge this season.”
On a personal level, Halkett is encouraged to hear that his manager thinks he should be knocking on the door for a Scotland call-up.
He added: “One of the boys mentioned the gaffer’s comments, you like to see your manager speaking highly of you.
“It’s something I would love to do in my career. It is about getting the head down and performing well week-in, week-out and seeing what happens.”