STABILITY has underpinned Hearts’ rebirth over the last 19 months. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the manager’s chair, where Robbie Neilson now sits as the club’s longest-serving coach for more than 11 years.
His 583 days in charge eclipse the 567-day reign of Csaba Laszlo, who held the job longest of all the 11 managers hired by previous owner Vladimir Romanov. The last man to manage Hearts for longer than Neilson is, ironically, Craig Levein. He spent four years in the role between 2000 and 2004 and is now the club’s director of football.
Continuity is key to both recent success and future plans at Tynecastle. Owner Ann Budge began rebuilding in May 2014 when she took control and appointed both Neilson and Levein to their current roles. The following month, her £2.5million secured Hearts’ exit from administration and a rapid rise back to the upper echelons of Scottish football took off.
Neilson remains a relative novice at the age of 35 but is making a fine fist of his first managerial job. He won the Championship and promotion in his first season and currently has the Edinburgh club sitting third in their first year back in the Premiership.
He has won 42 of 60 competitive games in charge so far – a win ratio of 70 per cent which is bettered only by George Burley in the history books.
The prosperity is the by-product of forward planning; of placing a manager in charge and working with him. Curiously, it is also the result of a steady and sensibly-run football club which is growing for the long term in a way which never seemed possible under Romanov. Neilson wants to lift silverware and steer Hearts into Europe so it is very much a case of 583 days and counting for the head coach. The fact he is the longest-serving Tynecastle manager in more than a decade underlines his qualities as well as the progressive approach of those in charge.
“Robbie was my captain at Hearts. He is a guy with real character and he is very honest,” said Laszlo, happy to see one of his former players thriving in management. “What he does, he does with the heart. It’s important to love what you do. He was never a star player but he was an honest player and that is why he played for the Scottish national team. He was a good leader.
“To be a manager is another thing. He won the league in his first season and now Hearts are third, so I think he has shown that he has enough to quality to lead the team at this level.
“To lead a team like Hearts, Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hibs, it’s not easy. You must have a lot of qualities and be accepted by the fans and the media. It is not only about the results. Robbie has shown he is in the best place.
“When he was coaching at East Fife [in 2013], I met him and I told him I wanted him to be my coach if I took a job in Scotland again. I saw he had the attention to detail. I think he has more ambition now.
“My advice to Robbie would be to be prepared. Even if you have a nice time and good result now, be prepared for bad times when you don’t have the results you want. If you are at the top, everybody loves you, everybody is talking to you. When you stop winning games, then you see who is your friend and who is with you. You must be ready for this.”
Neilson endured a hint of such hardship when Hearts went two months without a league victory earlier this season. Yet, he knew throughout that he retained the backing of the club hierarchy. Budge and her board are hell-bent on avoiding the kind of circus which went on around their predecessors.
Laszlo admits he would have loved to work under such stability in Edinburgh.
“This is the difference. If the club is healthy, you have a plan and you actually support the manager, you see that you can go forward. The trust must be there.
“If I look at myself, I could have been longer than 18 months with Romanov. I was not fighting with Romanov because of results. We finished third in the my first season and we were in fifth place and in the League Cup semi-final when he sacked me [in January 2010]. The results were there.
“The problem at the time was Jose Goncalves [who was out of contract in summer 2010]. That was the point why he sacked me. I told him if he gave me time, Jose Goncalves would sign a new contract. Jose could even have become a Portuguese national team player.
“Romanov had different thoughts. He told me: ‘Jose Goncalves can come to train but he can’t play.’ I was completely against this. He got a warning to me: ‘You don’t have to play with him.’ Then we lost against Aberdeen and afterwards the director [Sergejus Fedotovas] told me I had to go because I didn’t follow Romanov’s interests. My interests were always the team and Hearts. If you have a good player, you don’t stop using him just because he hasn’t signed a new contract. It was the same with other players. I told Romanov he wouldn’t survive because he was making so many wrong decisions.
“I am a manager who accepts advice from an owner but you need the support. This is the difference. Robbie’s interest is also Hearts. He and Craig Levein want to make the fans happy and look after the business. I think Craig Levein is good for Robbie as director of football. He knows how important the trust is because he was a manager and he makes Robbie’s work easier.
“I think Hearts will stay in third place because I don’t see anybody who can get ahead of them. I don’t see a huge development at Celtic, especially in Europe. Aberdeen are second but Hearts can be the third team in the table.”
Laszlo now enjoys a dual role at the Hungarian club MTK Budapest, where he is both first-team coach and technical director. His assistant at Hearts, Werner Burger, works beside him on the coaching staff. The Hungarian harbours genuine hope of locking horns with Neilson on the European stage.
“We are opening a new stadium in Budapest and our aim is to play regularly in the Europa League and I think it’s possible we could meet Hearts there,” he said.
“I would be very happy if I can do this with MTK and Robbie can do this with Hearts. It would show both managers are doing good work. I don’t want to meet Hearts in the qualification rounds, I want to meet them in the groups.
“I bought a flat in Edinburgh and my family is still there so one time I would love to come back to Scotland.”
It is no surprise that Neilson’s work is attracting admiring glances from England. His name has been mentioned in connection with managerial vacancies at several clubs, most notably Aston Villa following Tim Sherwood’s sacking in October. He was named sixth favourite for the job by bookmaker Skybet.
His short to medium-term future lies in Gorgie, though. He fully intends seeing this project through alongside Levein and Budge and help put a lasting legacy in place at Hearts. That much became clear when he was asked about the Aston Villa link.
“These things happen in football when somebody moves on,” he said at the time. “I think it’s testament to the club and the players as opposed to myself. The club is doing so well and, at the end of the day, the players do it on the pitch. There is still a long way to go here for me and for the club and I want to be part of it. It’s just one of those things and there is no point paying any attention to it. There’s a job here for me and that’s what I’m focused on. It’s just the bookies’ odds, it doesn’t mean anything. Anyone could put a tenner on and get odds on it.
“These things don’t matter. I want to stay here and that is all that matters at the end of the day. It has been great so far but there is still a long way to go with this club.”
It is no coincidence that, just two years since Romanov dumped Hearts into administration, they already have a manager who has outlasted anyone he installed.
Gone are the days of Eduard Malofeev and Angel Chervenkov. Hearts have infinitely more substance about them now, and Robbie Neilson is likely to be around town for a while yet.
HOW LONG DID THEY GET?
Here’s the duration of time the past 14 Hearts managers spent in the Tynecastle hot-seat . . .
CRAIG LEVEIN: December 2000 to October 2004, 1428 days.
JOHN ROBERTSON: November 2004 to May 2005, 187 days.
GEORGE BURLEY: June 2005 to October 2005, 114 days.
GRAHAM RIX: November 2005 to March 2006, 134 days.
VALDAS IVANAUSKAS: March 2006 to March 2007, 343 days.
EDUARD MALOFEEV (interim manager): October 2006 to November 2006, 23 days.
ANATOLY KOROBOCHKA: March 2007 to December 2007, 304 days.
STEPHEN FRAIL: January 2008 to July 2008, 190 days.
CSABA LASZLO: July 2008 to January 2010, 567 days.
JIM JEFFERIES: January 2010 to August 2011, 548 days.
PAULO SERGIO: August 2011 to June 2012, 310 days.
JOHN McGLYNN: June 2012 to February 2013, 247 days.
GARY LOCKE: March 2013 to May 2014, 437 days.
ROBBIE NEILSON: May 2014 to present, 583 days.