WITH cheers and applause pouring from the Tynecastle stands, Robbie Neilson’s Hearts tenure ended last night with a 2-0 win against Rangers.
No aeroplanes or protests, this was the classy way he wanted to depart with the Edinburgh club climbing to second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Neilson agreed terms with MK Dons on Tuesday evening after talks with chairman Pete Winkelman. He heads to England’s League One with a rousing reception from supporters ringing in his ears – not to mention a thumping performance fresh in his mind.
Just a few months ago – despite Hearts being on the verge of a European place – fans flew a banner above the Gorgie sky during a game against Partick Thistle, which read: “No Style. No Bottle. Neilson Out.” If that was ridiculous and distasteful, this was an entirely fitting send-off with Newcastle United assistant Ian Cathro waiting to take over.
Robbie Muirhead scored both Hearts goals – breaking his duck in maroon – on what was an unforgettable night. It is slightly ironic that strikers have started finding the net just as Neilson departs. Amongst many things, it has been a stick his detractors have used to beat him with this season. However, this was the time to acclaim the job he has done over the past two and a half years.
There wasn’t just admiration for Neilson in the stands. Derby County manager Steve McLaren was in Edinburgh to watch the Hearts full-back Callum Paterson, passed fit after a nasty eye injury sustained on Saturday against Motherwell. He is out of contract in May and hopes to secure a move to England in time for next season.
First there was the opportunity to help his current employers beat Rangers and move second in the Premiership. Former Hearts players Danny Wilson and Jason Holt returned to Tynecastle for the first time and played their part in a predictably frenetic opening period.
After a minute’s silence in honour of those who lost their lives in the Chapecoense disaster and of the former Rangers player Davie Provan, the tackles began flying in from both teams. This game was always going to be competitive and no impending departure of a Hearts manager would change that. If Cathro was watching, he would have taken note.
The first meaningful shot of the evening came from Rangers right-back James Tavernier on 14 minutes. The ball dipped over Jack Hamilton’s crossbar as the Hearts goalkeeper looked on. Referee Craig Thomson ran the game sensibly but had a decision to make on the half-hour mark.
The visiting goalkeeper Wes Foderingham chased a cross ball out left towards the edge of his penalty box. As he reached the white line, he slipped and instinctively put his hand on the ball. Hearts fans and players shouted for handball outside the box but television replays appeared to show the ball was on the line.
On the touchline, Neilson looked focused and motivated. Occasionally he would bark instructions at players and urge them to press the ball in the opposition half. Many thought he would be distracted by an imminent new job but it certainly didn’t seem so as he prowled the technical area.
Paterson began influencing affairs as half-time approached. He was fouled by Matt Crooks and Kenny Miller in quick succession whilst trying to initiate attacks. In between, the defender spun away from Andy Halliday and Miller to dispatch a powerful left-footed shot from 20 yards. Foderingham spilled the ball but Wilson cleared.
Bjorn Johnsen then headed Paterson’s long throw goalwards and forced the goalkeeper to palm over his crossbar. Hearts sensed an opening goal was coming. It arrived on 44 minutes through Muirhead.
First, John Souttar’s through ball was expertly flicked on by Johnsen into Arnaud Djoum’s path. The attentions of Halliday prevented the Cameroonian shooting but, when the ball came back to Johnsen, he clipped a delightful spinning cross towards the six-yard box. Arriving at pace at the back post was Muirhead to send the ball thundering into the net.
Tynecastle erupted, as did Neilson on the track. Yet Hearts might have conceded in the one minute between their goal and the interval. Souttar’s miskick allowed Joe Dodoo to find Harry Forrester, who released a shot on the turn which Hamilton stopped at full stretch.
Rangers continued pursuing an equaliser with intent at the start of the second half. They had the ball in the net on 52 minutes only for a delayed offside flag to leave the visitors and their fans seething.
Miller’s shot from the left was parried by Hamilton but Dodoo collected the rebound and dispatched it into the net. Around 13 seconds later, with Rangers celebrating, the main stand assistant referee David McGeachie raised his flag for offside against Forrester, who was apparently impeding Hamilton’s view.
A quick celebration from Neilson gave way to furious protests from the Rangers manager Mark Warburton and his assistant David Weir. They were even more upset a few minutes later when the hosts doubled their advantage. Paterson’s forward pass released Walker, whose run and cross from the right landed for Muirhead at the back post who had an easy conversion.
It would have been 3-0 had Foderingham not sprung to his left to stop a Muirhead shot. Hearts appealed vehemently for a penalty in the 75th minute when Faycal Rherras tangled with Michael O’Halloran chasing a through pass, but referee Thomson allowed play to continue.
Hearts were content at 2-0, though. They had to survive intense pressure during the final ten minutes. Rherras cleared substitute Joe Garner’s header off the goal line and Garner also sent a shot on the turn wide of target. Four minutes of stoppage-time included a chant of “one Robbie Neilson” and “Neilson give us a wave” from the home support. Eventually, Thomson blew the final whistle to a loud roar.
Hearts defender Igor Rossi revealed a t-shirt with the message, “I belong to Jesus,” after losing a close friend in the Chapecoense crash.
That apart, there was no ceremony at full-time. Just one understated exit. Neilson quietly shook hands with the Rangers management team and slipped up the tunnel in his blue collar, tie, v-neck jumper and jacket, boldly headed for a club 19th in England’s League One. A touch of style. Plenty bottle. Neilson’s out.