Paul Hartley blazed a trail from the Scottish Championship summit to the top half of the Premiership with Dundee.
His former team-mate Robbie Neilson fully intends following suit with Hearts. Both meet at Dens Park this afternoon in an intriguing second league match of the season after their teams each scored four goals on the opening weekend.
Hearts’ 4-3 defeat of St Johnstone at Tynecastle underlined their attacking panache as well as some defensive frailties. Dundee’s 4-0 rout at Rugby Park offered further evidence of Hartley’s sterling work. Neilson wasn’t surprised in the slightest seeing his old colleague win the Championship three months after replacing John Brown as Dundee manager. Nor was he shocked that they finished sixth last season – their first back in the top flight.
The Tynecastle head coach is quite open about wishing to emulate Hartley’s success. Hearts are the newly-promoted club this year and have already targeted a top-six place. In that sense, Dundee are the benchmark.
“We’ve said all along that our aim this season is to get top six. Paul did that last year after bringing Dundee up. That’s something we hope we can follow,” said Neilson. “He’s got a good squad and I watched them last week against Kilmarnock. I thought they were fantastic. They have good footballers and good attacking options. This is a difficult one for us.
“I get on really well with Paul. He was here for four or five years as a player and I see him at games all the time. He’s like me, always going to games. He was at Aberdeen on Thursday night. I’m pleased for him that he’s doing well.”
Should Dundee’s prosperity continue, Neilson believes Hartley will soon be offered the chance to manage at a higher level. Scottish players often hanker after a move to England but there are also many coaches who have crossed the border to make a name for themselves. Hartley could be the next one, according to his former team-mate.
“He had two promotions with Alloa, then got Dundee promoted and finished in the Premiership’s top six,” said Neilson. “For Paul, if he has another successful season, it won’t be players going to England, it’ll be him that goes down. I think that’s ultimately what he wants to do.
“He’s a real football guy. It was football, football, football all the time, so I always knew he was going to stay in football when his playing career finished. Whether it be a coach, a manager, a scout, an agent or something, he was always involved in the game. It’s no surprise to me he’s doing so well.
“He’s a strong character and that’s what’s standing him in good stead for management. Alloa, when he was there, were totally different from the rest of the teams in League One and League Two. Their fitness levels and the way they played were different and Paul’s carried that on to Dundee. He’s taken his fitness coach and his physio with him from Alloa. He’s got a good team there and I’m sure he’s destined for big things.”
Neilson believes several young Hearts players also have a bright future in top-level football if they continue developing. The Edinburgh club have openly stated they will follow a progressive model and aim to sell players for profit when the time is right. Winger Billy King is one with such potential, although he wants to remain at Tynecastle for now.
“The Premiership one of the best leagues in the world, and the Championship as well. Every young player wants to go down to England but it’s a matter of choosing when the time is right. I’m enjoying my football here and concentrating on getting a regular game for Hearts,” he explained. “That [Hearts policy] would benefit both parties – benefit you as a player developing and then if a team comes in for you the club gets money.”
King has the added benefit of being able to call on brother Adam’s experience in England. The former Hearts midfielder is currently on loan at Crewe Alexandra from Premier League Swansea City. “Adam says the training facilities are brilliant, and he’s training with first team players at Swansea. He is away on loan just now so you can look at it both ways,” observed the winger.
“You’re getting good training and training with Premier League players at Swansea but then he’s away on loan for first team experience. If you stay here you’ll get it here.”