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Robbie Neilson has grand plans for Hearts as new season closes in
Manager wants to bridge the gap.
Robbie Neilson has targeted consistent qualification for European group-stage football as the key to helping Hearts meet their ambitions of mounting a title challenge.
Neilson has signed a new three-year contract at Tynecastle after helping the club to the Championship title, a Scottish Cup final and guaranteed group-stage football in the two years since returning for a second spell in charge.
Sporting director Joe Savage has publicly proclaimed his ambition of ending Celtic and Rangers’ title duopoly, which started in 1986, and Neilson feels Europe holds the key.
The 42-year-old, whose team open their cinch Premiership campaign at home to Ross County on Saturday, said: “We have to try and build over the next few years and I think the key for us is: can we continually get into European group-stage football?
“If we can that for two, three, four years, it allows us to build. There is no doubt that the gulf is massive but we want to try and keep cutting away at it and cutting away to try and get to an opportunity where we can actually mount a challenge.
“I’m not going to put a time limit on it, I think it’s going to be a process over a number of seasons.
“But the key one for us, can we continually get into European football, because that is ultimately where the club make the finances to allow us to improve the squad and the club as a whole and start bridging that gap.”
Neilson was heading into the final season of his contract but has pledged his future to 2025 along with assistants Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest.
“We have speaking about it for a couple of months now so to finally get it sorted is great, it allows us to focus on the season ahead,” he said.
“First and foremost I am really enjoying my time back at Hearts, it’s a fantastic club to be at. I am delighted to be here, the team has been doing really well, the board have been great, the Foundation (of Hearts) has been great, so it’s a great platform to build forward.
“The club came to me a couple of months ago to ask about renewing and I was absolutely delighted to do it.
“One of the key things in football is continuity and stability but it’s very limited in football. One of the reasons I came back here when I got asked is the continuity at the football club and with the owner at that time and now the Foundation.”
The financial benefits of playing eight European games before Christmas are obvious but Neilson knows he has to strengthen his squad.
Hearts have brought in five new players this summer as well as bringing back Alex Cochrane following a loan spell.
“If you look at Rangers and Celtic last year, the first-team squads were about 28-29 for each team and we ran with about 20,” Neilson said. “So we have to try and get closer to that.
“We are not going to get to that number but we would hope to get to 23 or 24 with a couple of younger ones added in. So we still have a couple of slots to fill.
“It’s been a bit quiet the last week or two but I think the next week or two it will start to kick off again.”