Hearts boss not fazed as scouts eye his star men

Billy King, centre, celebrates his goal at Raith with Alim Ozturk, left, and Jamie Walker, right. Walker and King came through the Academy

Billy King, centre, celebrates his goal at Raith with Alim Ozturk, left, and Jamie Walker, right. Walker and King came through the Academy

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He is only 34 and yet to complete 12 months in management, but Robbie Neilson is no fool.

He knows other clubs are watching his players. As Hearts sail relentlessly towards the Scottish Championship title, scouts are gathering in number in the Tynecastle directors’ box.

Jamie Walker, Billy King, Sam Nicholson and Callum Paterson are examples of young Scottish talent reared at Riccarton and now attracting attention from elsewhere.

Clubs from several countries including England, the Netherlands and Greece have been represented at Hearts matches in recent months.

Neilson remains unperturbed. As head coach, he is well prepared for the eventuality of key players departing. It is simply a by-product of success. Hearts could win the league before March is out, their players are young, talented and earn modest salaries compared to the leagues named above.

Hearts also welcome the prospect of top clubs poaching their own, home-grown talent. In fact, it is the ideal scenario for Neilson and director of football Craig Levein.

The model they want to follow is that of a development club which hones young Scottish players into potential stars for English or European teams. When a player leaves, he is then replaced by another prodigious academy graduate.

That isn’t to say players will definitely be leaving Tynecastle this summer. Neilson, though, is a realist and knows football never stands still.

“It depends what other clubs think. We don’t go out and push players out or try to sell them. It’s up to other clubs to come to us,” he told the Evening News.

“If they want to put an offer in for a player, and we think it’s acceptable, then it’s up to myself, Craig and [owner] Ann Budge to decide whether we think it’s right for the club.

“There’s been nothing at all so far. There have been reports in the papers but there haven’t been any firm bids for any of our players.

“I don’t expect it to happen at the moment, to be honest. A lot of teams down in England and abroad are concentrating on where they’re going to finish in the league.

“They aren’t really spending any time looking at putting offers in for people. I think it will be July/August time if anything happens. Football kind of shuts down over the summer, especially in England.

“They don’t come back in until the start of July. I don’t imagine we’ll lose anybody before then.”

Not only is Neilson not fazed about the possibility of players leaving, he already has a concrete plan on how to cope. Hearts fans might be nervous about losing key components of the team just as they are returning to Scotland’s top flight but their manager is his usual calm and composed self.

“We just need to deal with it, that’s the bottom line. It’s a catch-22 situation,” he continued.

“You want to keep the best players but we’re a club that develops players to sell them and move them on. We want boys to come in here, come through the academy, develop, do really well for Hearts, play 50 to 100 games, and then get sold to a big club in England.

“That’s the ideal scenario so we need to accept that if it happens. We can’t stand in anybody’s way. If a club comes in and are willing to pay what we value one of our players at, and if it’s going to be better for the player, then he’ll go.

“We deal with it. We get somebody else in or we develop another kid coming through the academy who we hope could go and play at a high level down in England.”

New recruits for next season are already being shortlisted upstairs at Riccarton.

“The club should always evolve and the team should always evolve. It should always get better. Anybody who goes, the guy who comes in should be better. That’s the way it always is because we’re always trying to improve. There will be players who leave and there will be players coming in. It’s important the ones coming in add value to the club.”

The current crop aren’t doing too badly. So intense is competition for places within the Hearts squad that team selection gives Neilson a weekly headache. He wouldn’t have it any other way, though.

“It’s difficult because you’re leaving players out who could probably be playing at other clubs,” he said.

“You’ve got to respect each other as players and respect the decisions. It’s about winning matches, it’s not about keeping everyone happy. The priority is winning games. We pick the team that we think will do that each week.

“We’re trying to get over the line and win the league so it’s important we continue to win games.

“Even if we do manage to get over the line, we still have to win matches. That’s it. We’re Hearts and we need to win our games at home and go to away grounds and win there as well.

“There isn’t going to be any let-up and there isn’t going to be any case of playing people just for the sake of playing them.

“I’ll pick the best team that I think will win the game, no matter where we are in the league or how many games are left.

“Getting the strikers back recently has been great. We went through a period where James [Keatings] carried the team.

“We had a lot of boys out over the Christmas period. James was our only striker and he did fantastically well.

“We got Osman Sow back, Gary Oliver came back from his loan at Stenhousemuir, we got Genero Zeefuik in on loan and we got Soufian El Hassnaoui back from injury.

“There is real competition for places. I’ve got three guys who are desperate to score goals.”