When Robbie Neilson became Hearts’ head coach in 2014, they were second favourites to win the most hazardous-looking Championship in recent memory.
That the 36-year-old was able to leave them second only to Celtic in the Premiership at the onset of December underlines the magnitude of the job he did in two-and-a-half consistently progressive years in charge.
Arnaud Djoum, the talismanic midfielder, is in no doubt about the calibre of man Hearts have lost after Neilson headed south to become manager of English League One side MK Dons.
“I’ve travelled a lot and have seen a lot of managers but the way Robbie works as a young manager is very good,” Djoum, who joined Hearts 15 months ago, told the Evening News. “He is very close to the players, which is really important to me. The coach I had before was not that close to the players, but Robbie is the type of coach I like because he talks to us a lot. He achieved almost everything expected of him here. He won the Championship before I was here, then finished third last season and now we’re second so I think he did a great job. He has had success over a long period of time and not a lot of coaches can say that.
“He’s a great manager. For me, he is one of the best I’ve had. I was really pleased to work with him. Robbie gave me a big opportunity to come here and gave me a lot of confidence, so all I can say to him is ‘thank you and good luck’. You never know in football, maybe our paths will cross again in the future.”
Although disappointed, Djoum is confident a change of head coach won’t knock Hearts off course. Newcastle United assistant Ian Cathro is the frontrunner to pick up the baton from Neilson.
“We are professional and we know that this kind of thing happens in football,” said Djoum. “We just have to deal with it and we will. The players all understand what’s happened and we will be professional. When the new coach comes, we will adapt to work the way he wants us to work. You just have to continue being professional.”
Director of football Craig Levein and under-20s coach Jon Daly are expected to take charge of Hearts away to Ross County tomorrow as they bid to make it three wins on the trot following a couple of rousing home victories over Motherwell and Rangers over the past week which have elevated them above Aberdeen and the Ibrox side. Djoum acknowledges his side, who had previously gone four games without a win, must be looking to return from Dingwall with a positive result if they are serious about remaining in second place. We need to continue with the level of performance we’ve had in our last two games to make sure we stay in a high position,” said Djoum. “Aberdeen and Rangers also want to be second so we need to start making sure we win almost every game. You have Celtic on top and then three more closely-matched teams behind them who are all fighting for second place. I don’t think there is a big difference between ourselves, Aberdeen and Rangers. Whichever team is most stable will be second. We have to try and be consistent and win most of the games we play.”
Hearts’ impressive displays against Motherwell and Rangers owed plenty to the excellent combination between play Djoum, back in his favoured advanced central-midfield role, and Bjorn Johnsen, the skilful central striker who has ignited in recent matches after a slow start to his time at Tynecastle. Djoum is hopeful that he is allowed to form a long-term partnership with the gangly Norwegian-American. “For me personally, playing No.10 behind Bjorn makes my job easier because we understand each other so well,” he said. “The last two games have been the first time for a while I’ve played two games in a row in the No.10 position and I think I’ve done well. I am happy to play behind Bjorn. I don’t know what will happen under the new coach but I will be really pleased if I keep playing in the No.10 behind Bjorn because we work well together.”
The confidence the Hearts players have derived from their barnstorming victory over Rangers on Wednesday is likely to offset any sense of deflation surrounding Neilson’s departure when they face County tomorrow. Djoum is confident they will be able to maintain their focus in the Highlands in the same way that they did in midweek when the build-up to the match was dominated by talk of their head coach’s impending exit. “We are professional so we were able to stay focused on the match,” he said. “These things happen in football, so in an important game like the Rangers one, you can’t be thinking about other things. It was a great performance. We played really well and pressed very high from the start. Everybody played very well. It was very important to win and show everybody that we have a good team.
“I really enjoyed it. It was one of the best performances since I’ve been here. Rangers are a good team and a big club. To play the way we did against them shows everybody that we are a great team. The performance against Motherwell was good, but to play at the level we did against a big team like Rangers is really good because you could tell from playing against them that they are one of the better teams in the league.
“Nobody can say we didn’t deserve to win. We had more control of the game, pressed high and had a lot of chances. Now we are second, we have to continue playing like that to stay high in the table.”