Fans rally behind Robbie Neilson's Hearts turnaround from sacking calls to European charge
Calls for the removal of then-owner Ann Budge along with manager Robbie Neilson grew after a humiliating Scottish Cup defeat at Highland League Brora Rangers. The club were in Scotland’s second tier and heading for promotion, but the unrest was palpable.
Since then, results have changed, the team’s style of play has changed, players have changed and the league they occupy has changed. Yet the manager is the same. It is difficult to recall another head coach surviving sacking calls to regain faith from fans, however Neilson has transformed many people’s opinions.
There are still detractors to be found but few can argue with the Edinburgh club’s start as a newly-promoted Premiership club. Eight league games unbeaten, they head to Ibrox for the ultimate test against champions Rangers next weekend feeling quietly confident.
The key word is indeed “quietly”. Neilson stressed the need for perspective so early in the campaign and yet there must be a certain comfort knowing people are in a position to even think of getting carried away. The mood in Gorgie is different thanks to Neilson and his coaching staff, aided by sporting director Joe Savage.
“I can’t think of such a spectacular turnaround happening before and that’s a credit to Robbie and his staff. It’s a good question,” said the former Hearts winger Allan Preston, now a BBC Scotland pundit.
“He has certainly turned it round at the moment, although it is early doors in the season. It’s only eight games in so everybody needs to keep a lid on it. There is a lot of football to be played but it has been a magnificent start.
“Robbie brings that stability because he knows the club and the expectations. He was a player and manager at Hearts previously and he needs to take enormous credit for this run. A lot of people were calling for his head after the Brora Rangers and Alloa defeats in the cups last year. His remit was to win the league and he did that.
“I also think Joe Savage deserves credit. I was at the Motherwell game last weekend and six new players who started were an upgrade on what was there before, without being disrespectful. Taylor Moore, Beni Baningime, Barrie McKay, Ben Woodburn, Cameron Devlin and Alex Cochrane have been absolutely magnificent.
“They won comfortably without John Souttar, who is arguably Hearts’ best player. I’d still like them to bring in another striker in January because if something happens to Liam Boyce they are very light.”
Savage largely works in the background with Neilson the public face of Hearts at matches and press conferences. His job is to help identify potential signings and negotiate deals for those Neilson approves.
Eight players were brought to Tynecastle during the summer months and almost every one has made an impact. “You have to give Joe Savage credit. He didn’t jump in when others were diving in to sign whoever they could. He took his time and, although it was frustrating for Hearts fans, it’s been proved to be the right approach,” said Preston.
“Joe and the analysts behind him deserve praise and this type of recruitment process needs to continue at Hearts. Whatever it is they use, algorithms or whatever it might be, if it keeps producing players like Baningime, Devlin and guys like that, long may it continue.
“The new players have hit the ground running, which isn’t always the case. Baningime has been outstanding, Devlin looks a proper player, Moore has been superb and it would be great for Hearts to get him permanently. That might be difficult with his contract situation at Bristol City.
“McKay is tied down. Cochrane has been tremendous. Could they get him permanently? I’m not so sure. They have recruited well. After 97 players signed in recent years, this is a welcome difference.
“For years I’ve been screaming for athletic wide players and dynamism in the middle of the park at Hearts. The style of play now is night-and-day from January/February this year.”
So how far can this juggernaut run? Is using such a term tempting fate alone? Hearts managed to split Celtic and Rangers to finish second in 2006, a campaign Neilson will remember well. He was their first-choice right-back at the time and enjoyed the rarity of Champions League qualifiers that summer.
Bringing European football back to Tynecastle is his well-publicised long-term aim. The platform built over the last eight weeks gives Hearts a real chance to accomplish it.
“After coming up from the Championship, a European spot is a definite possibility,” said Preston. “It would be brilliant to challenge for the title but no-one has won the title outwith Celtic and Rangers for 36 years. Let’s be realistic.
“Leicester City proved it can be done in England but that’s once in a blue moon. Other teams were in transition, everything fell for them and they were really consistent. I don’t know if Hearts can do that but I think Europe has to be a target.”
Camaraderie and unity will be key to anything this Hearts squad achieves. It is already evident when you watch how players interact with coaches.
“You can’t underestimate team spirit at a football club, it goes such a long way,” said Preston. “Sitting in the stands watching Hearts, they look a real team that is completely together. When Stephen Kingsley scored against Motherwell they all ran over to Robbie and his staff, which is great to see.”