The two youngest managers in the Scottish Premiership collide at New Douglas Park tomorrow at a time when one is riding the cusp of a wave and the other is cutting a beleaguered figure.
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson, 35, is genuinely sympathetic regarding the plight of his Hamilton Accies counterpart Martin Canning, who, at the age of 34 and just a year into his managerial career, is coming under heavy fire from his club’s supporters. The Lanarkshire side have won only one of their last 15 matches in all competitions, with a 4-1 Scottish Cup humbling away to League Two side Annan Athletic and an 8-1 demolition at the hands of Celtic in midweek leaving Canning, the former Hibs defender, in a seemingly precarious position.
Neilson, however, nodded in approval when the Hamilton board signalled their intent – via a website statement in the wake of the Parkhead trouncing – to keep faith with one of his young peers and allow him to work his way back towards the impressive form Accies showed in the opening months of the campaign.
“I feel for Martin, but one of the pleasing things is the board have stuck by him,” said Hearts’ head coach. “Very rarely does that happen in football these days. He’s had a tough time but it takes a while to build a team. It takes a good two years to really set your stamp on it. Twenty years ago you’d get five years in a job. So it’s really pleasing to see that. They had a difficult start but they went on a great run. Now they’ve gone through a difficult period, but I’m sure Martin will get them through it.”
In learning the ropes of management since taking over at Hearts less than two years ago, Neilson has been able to use director of football Craig Levein as a sounding board. On a day-to-day basis at least, Canning, 18 months Neilson’s junior, hasn’t had anyone of such experience and stature to turn to during his managerial baptism of fire.
“It is hard for any manager, you want the backing of the board, that’s the most important thing,” said Neilson. “You need the people above to have faith and they stand by you. Hamilton are doing that, which is great. Other teams have had difficult periods as well. They’re a good club, a well-run club and they have a good style of play and it will come back again. I guarantee it will, they’ll bounce back but I just hope it’s not on Sunday. Martin’s having a difficult period but I am sure he’ll fight through it. He has a good squad there and I think they’ll definitely be safe in the Premiership. I think that was probably Hamilton’s objective for the season.”
Neilson knows, however, that in the ruthless world of football, his side can crank up the heat on Canning, whose side are in danger of slipping into the relegation play-off spot, if they win tomorrow. “That’s football, that’s the nature of it, it’s about winning matches,” he said. “We’re desperate to go there and win but it could go either way on Sunday. They could either come out fighting and scrap for everything or they have a loss of confidence and they don’t perform.
“Either way the way everything it set up at Hamilton, the way they run the club, I expect them to come out fighting and really have a go at us.”
Neilson’s own difficult patches have been tame compared to those endured by Canning. Arguably his toughest time at the helm came when the controversial defeat away to Hamilton in August sparked a five-game run without a win for Hearts. Neilson explained he was able to keep his composure during that sticky patch because he has a steadfast belief that everything Hearts are doing at present will bear fruit in the long run. Asked if he questioned his ability during that autumn period, he said: “Not at all, I believe in what we’re doing. We had a great season last year and you always believe in what you’re doing. We just had a wee difficult period and it will come again.
“Football is all about the details. We had a decision at Hamilton that went the wrong way and it spirals and goes from there. You get the two or three weeks after that. We went to Inverness and lost one really bad goal and had a man sent off.
“Three defeats in a row at a club like this is a big thing and we had to work through that. It was a good learning curve for us all, how we get through that and how we believe in the same things we’re doing. As long as you believe in what you’re doing, you’ll eventually get what you want.
“You have to be consistent in what you’re doing, believe in what you’re doing and keep the players happy. Keep them working hard, keep doing the things you want them to do an eventually you’ll get through it. The results came back again.”