PREPARING for his third season in management, Robbie Neilson has good cause to reflect on the previous two. Both were laced with success which returned Hearts to the upper echelons of Scottish football. Whatever lies in store in the third promises to be equally intriguing.
Neilson talks of signing quality players, financial planning, rapid progress and exceeding expectations during the last 24 months. He looks back with a fondness at the restructuring of a club where he has spent most of his professional life, but which almost ceased to exist two years ago.
The rebuild continues in different forms, including continual improvement of the team and, come the autumn, the beginnings of a new main stand at Tynecastle. It is exciting times, although Neilson is one for keeping feet firmly on the floor. He is quick to remind everyone of how far Hearts have come and how quickly they have progressed.
Key to all of the above is harnessing the support and achieving their backing. Season ticket sales have soared beyond 12,500 less than four weeks since sales began. They are certain to reach the 13,500 limit, possibly before Neilson and his players report for pre-season training on Wednesday.
Financial contributions from more than 8000 Foundation of Hearts members are another major catalyst in Hearts’ rejuvenation. Skating to the Championship title in the first season after administration, then finishing third and qualifying for Europe as the top-flight’s newly-promoted club are both remarkable achievements.
Neilson has learned plenty along the way, which he hopes to use in season three of his fledgling managerial career. “What has stood out is getting good players in to Hearts, players who have good characters and want to play for the club and each other. That’s been a big part of it for me,” he says.
“The backing of the fans has been massive. With the way everyone has been pushing forward in the same direction, Hearts has just been a good place to be in the last two years. Yes, there have been some ups and downs along the way, but that’s part of football. I think everyone has stuck together and continued to move in the right direction.
“The extent in which the club has moved forward so rapidly has been a bit of a surprise. When we first came in two years ago, there was a five-year plan. I think we’re well ahead of that at the moment and that’s been the surprising element. From where we are compared to where we planned to be is very different. The planning and hard work that’s gone in shows where we can get to. Now it’s a case of trying to continue that progression.”
The five-year plan was the brainchild of owner Ann Budge, who took charge when administration ended in June 2014. Financially, she prepared for spending two years in the Championship, meaning Hearts might only have been promoted last month.
“That was the plan initially. The club had gone through a period of stretching themselves too far during the Romanov era,” explains Neilson. “Ann came in and planned very stringently, with the best interests of the club at heart. That was, we can’t take a chance again, we can’t over-commit to try and push for something that might not be secure.
“In a season in the Championship with Rangers, Hibs and Hearts, somebody is going to miss out, possibly two. So you can’t take that chance and over-commit yourself. We managed to take that step up to the Premiership. Without spending beyond our means, we’ve managed to progress again and get into a good position.
“The club will never overspend again. The money coming in from the fans through Foundation of Hearts is vital to us. It’s the lifeblood of the club. Everyone within Tynecastle has a responsibility to look after that money. It’s the responsibility of everybody to make sure that money is well used. It’s people’s hard-earned cash, at the end of the day.
“We don’t have a multi-millionaire owner from abroad like these English Premier League clubs. This is a club of the community and a club for Hearts fans. They’re investing money in it so there’s a real responsibility to make sure it’s done properly. That was Ann’s whole ethos when she first came in. The club will be sustainable, won’t operate outwith its means and it will progress over time.
“We’ve taken bigger steps than we expected to but they are steps we were capable of making and financially strong enough to support.”