In a Hearts team containing dominant figures like Steven Pressley, Rudi Skacel and Takis Fyssas, Robbie Neilson was understandably viewed as the quiet man.
He was the right-back who stayed right out of the limelight as Scottish Cups were lifted and a Champions League qualifying place was won. Others did the shouting, organising, scoring and, in Fyssas’ case, singing.
Aged just 33, Neilson now finds himself as the public face of Hearts after being appointed head coach in the Ann Budge/Craig Levein revolution. It is a test of mettle for a humble lad from Paisley, but one he is fully prepared for. Those who first noticed his coaching potential saw strength of character as one of his biggest attributes.
Neilson coached briefly whilst playing for Dundee United in 2012, but began blossoming at Falkirk last year, working under Pressley and director of football Alex Smith. He learned each day watching his former Hearts captain and bent the ear of the wily Smith in between in the quest for management expertise.
Smith detected a strong backbone and endless enthusiasm about Neilson despite the unassuming persona. “He has great strength of character about him,” said the 74-year-old, who also chairs Scotland’s Managers and Coaches’ Association. “He played a lot of games in a strong Hearts team with strong personalities, like Steven Pressley, Neil MacFarlane and others. They knew about strength, camaraderie and team spirit. Robbie is a first-class lad and a strong boy himself, so he’ll be fine.
“The connection that brought him to Falkirk was, ironically, a Hearts connection, with Robbie having played alongside Steven Pressley and Neil MacFarlane. His career in England had finished and he’d left Dundee United, so we brought him to Falkirk thinking he could maybe play a season or so for us as an experienced player. Unfortunately, he broke his jaw against Dunfermline in a derby match and he was out for a few months.
“He was always keen on getting into the coaching, so he worked away with Neil MacFarlane and Stevie Crawford and he showed a real aptitude for it. He was a great listener and took in everything relevant. He spent a lot of time working with many of the youngsters who are in our first team right now. He helped Neil MacFarlane and Stevie Crawford with them at all times of the day. He also travelled to watch under-19 games other youth matches, so he was very enthusiastic.
“Robbie was like a sponge. He asked questions all the time and I spoke about many different situations with him. He asked how problems were solved, he asked about different types of problems you can get as a coach and as a manager. He asked about how to handle players and finding out what makes them tick. All of these small details are what you need.”
Having a mentor can be key to the progress of any young coach, as Smith himself can testify. He gleaned a wealth of knowledge from Bob Shankly as a young manager at Stirling Albion in the 1970s. Neilson will hope to do likewise after his promotion from under-20 coach to head coach by Levein, who took over as director of football at Hearts on Monday.
“I would’ve suggested it would be too early for Robbie if, like Gary Locke, he went into the Hearts job as a young coach with no experience at such a big club. However, he has a shoulder to lean on in Craig. I had that when I started out as a manager at Stirling Albion. I had Bob Shankly and Robbie has Craig Levein, who has all the necessary experience to manage and run Hearts. It’s a good combination.
“It worked fantastically well for me. Bob was the general manager at Stirling Albion and I was a young manager. I listened to every word he said to me, but I had to make my own decisions. That’s the important thing. Once you’ve discussed what you’re thinking of doing, then you have to make the decisions. You stand and fall by the big ones and Robbie will have the kind of character to do that.
“This has come early for him, but I’m sure he’ll be successful at it. He’ll pick up all the information he needs from Craig very quickly and he’ll get all the knowledge he’ll need. You can’t get enough of that kind of knowledge and you can’t get it early enough either. He will receive all the help Craig can muster and I think they will be a good team.”
Neilson is due to undergo a final assessment for his UEFA ‘A’ Licence this summer before moving on to study for his Pro Licence. Smith will be one of those judging him as part of the Scottish Football Association’s coach development programme. Having watched him coach first-hand, Smith expects Hearts to showcase attractive football laced with strong organisation under their new coach.
“Hearts will play good football under Robbie, that’s for sure. They’ll be coached in a way that their technical skills are of a high level. Their reading of the game and their organisation will be very astute. All of that, allied to Craig’s awareness and ability, will be very potent. I think it will be ideal for Hearts at this stage.
“Robbie is coming down to be assessed this summer for his ‘A’ Licence. He’s gone through that for the last three years and the next one is the Pro Licence which he will need to do as well. That’s a great course. He has wanted to get into the coaching side of things for a long time.
“He was just about in there with us at Falkirk at the end of last season but, when Gary Holt became the manager, he brought Dale Brooks from Norwich.
“It wasn’t feasible or affordable for Falkirk to keep all those coaches so Robbie left. He was at East Fife and then he got the offer from John Murray to coach at the Hearts academy and he grabbed that with both hands. He was very keen and enthusiastic about that post and he could’ve done that for a long time.”
In fact, he planned to. The promotion to head coach took Neilson by surprise as much as anyone. Just as well he was prepared for the unexpected.