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Hearts keen to spoil Old Firm’s domestic domination

Robbie Neilson is back in football in Scotland as head coach of Dundee United
Robbie Neilson: winning feeling (pic: SNS Group)

Talk about treble-winning seasons suddenly switched from one end of Glasgow to the other after Rangers snatched victory over Celtic in another frantic showdown at Hampden.

Rangers’ 2-1 Scottish Cup semi-final success ended Celtic’s hopes of a fifth domestic treble in six seasons, the Parkhead club having already won the League Cup this term and with a six-point lead in the Scottish Premiership.

Ibrox fans are now dreaming of catching their rivals and putting the League, Scottish Cup and Europa Cup silverware in the trophy cabinet.

But there is one big hurdle to overcome. Hearts manager Robbie Neilson insists the Tynecastle side have never been in better shape and will go into the Scottish Cup Final confident of grabbing a share of this year’s prizes – and ultimately challenging the domination of the Old Firm in the league.

After winning their own city derby by defeating Hibs 2-1 in Saturday’s other semi-final, Hearts will be no pushover, says Neilson, who adds that the return of key players has been a key to a run of form that has consolidated third place in the league and a European place.

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The Hearts manager says the club is building a serious challenge to Celtic and Rangers at the top of the Premiership, .

Saturday’s victory has guaranteed a spot in next season’s Europa League play-off round. Progressing to the group stages would put £5 million in the bank and even defeat would secure a seven-figure sum from dropping down into the Europa Conference League.

Boosting a budget that is materially smaller than those of the Old Firm club’s is a crucial part of the strategy that will underpin the club’s rebirth following its plunge into administration and relegation to the Championship. Neilson says the offer of regular European football and potentially league titles will attract a better quality of player.

Meantime there is the little matter of getting one up on the Old Firm in what will be Hearts’ third Scottish Cup final in four years.

Neilson believes the squad has been strengthened by the return of John Souttar, Michael Smith, and hopefully Craig Halkett to give him close to a fully-fit squad who are also gathering mental strength for the showpiece final on 21 May.

“I think it can take teams a few attempts to get that feeling of winning at Hampden,” he said, reflecting on the club’s recent near misses.

Hearts lost to Celtic in the 2019 and delayed 2020 finals. That latter game finished 3-3 after Hearts had pulled back from being 2-0 down only to lose on penalties.

“I think the boys who played in 2020 will use it as a motivation,” said Neilson. “We were two kicks away from winning it and that experience should hopefully stand us in good stead for this year and hopefully we can come and win it.”

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