The Hearts boss has ambitions to steer his side into the World Cup break sitting in third but to achieve that, current incumbents Aberdeen will need to drop points and his own players will have to see a way past Livi, who are currently level on points with the Pittodrie side, one spot above the Gorgie outfit. And, up against David Martindale’s team, he knows that will not be easy.
“Every year people say they are going to do this or that,” Neilson said in response to some pre-season claims that this weekend’s foes could be circling the relegation drain come the end of the campaign. “But Davie always puts together a good team. They always lose a couple – that’s just what happens – and we took Alan Forrest and other guys moved about but each time, he just recruits again. They bring in quality players, who fit the system well, and I expect this game to be very, very difficult.”
But despite being recognised by his peers, Martindale has rarely been publicly-touted for any key vacancies in Scotland or down south. That is not to say that there haven’t been suitors, according to Neilson. I think there have been teams interested but it’s whether Davie wants to go or not. I think there were a couple of teams interested last season but he decided not to make the jump. Sometimes you just enjoy where you are, enjoy the football and it’s a good level.
"He is managing in the top flight, so do you want to go to an English lower league team or stay where you are? For all that English teams might show interest in different managers, this is a good league, a good level and you have a chance of top six and European football. I can understand Davie's perspective. If you go down south to a lower league team you're grinding it out: Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday. He's in with the mortar over there so unless there's one that really appealed to him I don't see him going.”
Good news for Livingston, that ongoing ability to fight above their weight under Martindale could make life more difficult for rivals, though. After a demanding 23 games already this season, in European and domestic competition, and with Craig Halkett the latest injured player expected to make his return, on the bench, Hearts are hoping to pass this final test before the World Cup. They are keen to build on last weekend’s showing against Motherwell with another solid home performance to keep up the push for third.
“That was the objective at the start of the season,” stated Neilson. “When we saw the fixtures, and knowing we were going into the [Europa Conference League] group stages, we wanted to make sure we were still around about third by this stage and we have managed to do that. But I would like to be in third because we will be sitting where we are sitting for a five week period and I would like to be further up the table.”