Big interview: Ex-Hearts coach Robbie Neilson on bouncing back from the sack
St Andrews University sports fields are bathed in sunshine as laughter from Dundee United's training session fills the air. It is an idyllic setting.
Robbie Neilson looks on in silence knowing he doesn’t need to say anything. His galvanising effect is staring him in the face.
United have four wins and a draw since naming Neilson head coach. It already looks a sound appointment nine months since the first sacking of his managerial career at MK Dons. The former Hearts coach has learned to take a hit and early evidence suggests he is recovering well after much reflecting.
“I was at Rangers as a kid, got emptied,” he says, recalling his playing career sitting inside the University Sports Centre. “I went to Hearts and eventually got into the team, then I was sent to Queen of the South because I wasn’t good enough for Hearts. I went back to Hearts and did fine in the end.
“Then I went down to Leicester, got emptied. Went to Brentford, got emptied. Went to Dundee United and did alright. Went to Falkirk, got emptied. Went to East Fife and did alright. Started managing at Hearts and did alright, then I went to MK Dons and got emptied.
“I don’t think I’ve even got a 50 per cent success rate in my whole career, but that’s the key. You have to accept that you will fail. Coming back from it is the most important thing. When you take that hit, a lot of people don’t come back. If you believe in yourself, you’ll get going again.”
He is helping United using what he learned during two very different previous managerial spells. He enjoyed a record-breaking Championship title win and promotion with Hearts before leading them into European competition as a newly-promoted club. The move to MK lasted 13 months.
“I probably learned more at MK than from the successful period at Hearts,” explains Neilson. “You go on these coaching courses with other managers and they say: ‘You’re not a real manager. You don’t understand it and you won’t gain real experience until you’ve been sacked.’ And all the guys who haven’t been sacked go: ‘Nah. That’s not right. I’ll be fine. I know what I’m doing.’ I’ll be honest with you, it’s completely true.
“The initial period at MK was really good. They were in the relegation zone, we got them into the top half of League One, recruited in the summer, had a good pre-season, then played Wigan, Blackpool and Blackburn early in the season and lost. From there, the wheels started coming off.
“I had a couple of chances to go right back into management in England after MK. I’m glad I didn’t because I needed time to reflect, or recover. The first month was really difficult but then it became more enjoyable. You spend time with the family and then get ready for your next job. It probably wasn’t until the summer that I became really keen to get working again. Dundee United was a very appealing job. There were a couple of other jobs but I didn’t think they were right for me.
“You want your next job to tick all the boxes. You want a good training ground, good squad, good board, good fanbase, good budget. The longer you’re out of the game, the less ticks you will accept. This job ticks everything except it’s not in the Premiership. So it’s my job to get them back there. The fanbase is great. We took 1,800 supporters to Dunfermline and 1,000 up at Dingwall, which is phenomenal in the Championship.”
This is United’s third season in Scotland’s second tier. They are third, five points behind leaders Ayr in a league Neilson excelled in just four years ago. He won’t set many long-term aims at Tannadice – another lesson he learned in England – although he is aware he is guiding a Premiership club in all but name.
“The pressure I have is to win on every Saturday. That’s it. There is no point focusing on six months, a year or two years down the line. I learned that the hard way at MK. I went down there with a three-year plan and didn’t last three years. I was working in the background with the academy, trying to get structures in place, bringing in different departments, trying to get a training ground built and looking at plans for that, all that stuff. To be honest, you deal with the moment nowadays.
“We play Alloa on Tuesday so our sole focus is on that. Our two games after that are against Ayr United and Morton, who both play each other tomorrow. That’s probably the game I should go and watch because it’s the chance to see two teams up the top end of the league, but I’ll go and watch Alloa against Edinburgh City. I know that if we don’t win on Tuesday, the following week doesn’t matter.”
Neilson bears a contented look. Players come and go around him. They are enjoying training and winning matches. “Football is easy when you’re winning. It’s when you don’t win that you need to stay stable,” says the 38-year-old. The need for stability was behind his move back to Scotland with his wife and three daughters.
“My oldest daughter is 13 and she’s in her fifth school. I just felt I had to make a decision. They were in a good school and enjoying it down in MK. They’ve moved about a lot so we decided to go back to Glasgow and stay there.”
He lives in rented accommodation in Elie. His wife and kids visit at weekends, allowing for total football focus midweek. After replacing Csaba Laszlo, his impact has been immediate at United.
“I felt the players had to be here enjoying themselves. Firstly, you have to want to be inside the training ground. The atmosphere wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. I tried to give them a bit of structure and stability. We decided on a system to play and train with and I told them to come and speak to me if they had any issues.
“I’ve been very lucky with the timing because we had [Fraser] Fyvie, [Sam] Stanton, [Callum] Booth and [Billy] King all coming back from injury. They lifted standards. I looked from the outside and thought I could change a few things with them coming back.
“I’m really happy with the squad. There’s a lot to be said for continuity, keeping a group together and backing them. I made a lot of changes at MK Dons. I moved 14 players out and 14 or 15 in. I moved out a group who had been together a long time and maybe I should have kept a few.
“Look at Livingston. On Sunday, they drew 0-0 against Celtic with eight players who were with them in League One. They kept those lads in the Championship, and now into the Premiership. They know each other, the club, the philosophy, everything.”
As a former United player, he knows his remit well. Football’s fickleness hit him hard but Robbie Neilson is back fighting for promotion again.