Big interview: Robbie Neilson ready to upset Hearts on his Tynecastle return
Dundee United’s training ground canteen is empty and silent. Robbie Neilson is feeding on the tranquility, for he knows it is a complete contrast to what awaits him tomorrow.
Tynecastle Park will heave with energy for the season’s first competitive game between Neilson’s United and his former club Hearts in the Betfred Cup. He spent 12 and a half years there as player and manager.
The intensity which served him well during that time is undiminished. He is 39 and eager to deliver success at Tannadice. Beating Hearts away would be thumping start to the new campaign. Ironically, had United accomplished last season’s mission by gaining promotion from the Championship, a Tynecastle return in July would not be happening.
Neilson recalls his last working day in Gorgie fondly. November 30, 2016, saw him resign as Hearts head coach. He joined MK Dons after a rousing 2-0 win over Rangers left the Edinburgh club second in the Premiership. He has been back just once – as a BBC Radio Scotland co-commentator for an Edinburgh derby last year.
Underappreciated by some Hearts fans, he is entitled to feel thoroughly satisfied with what he achieved managing there – a record-breaking Championship title win and then a place in Europe as a newly-promoted club.
“I had a great time at Hearts, I loved it and it’s a great club,” says Neilson, his words echoing around United’s facility at St Andrews University. “There are people there I haven’t seen for a long time, so that will be nice. However, it’s a football match and I’m going there as Dundee United manager. I want to go down there and win.
“I know what a good place it can be to play football. When I left, the old stand was still there. The atmosphere in the new stand is great, as I found working at that derby.
“The Rangers game is one of the nights you will always remember: Tynecastle, under the floodlights, in front of a full house, and we beat them 2-0. It was a good send-off. I’ve moved on and Hearts have moved on since then. That’s life.”
His life would not be what it is now without Hearts, of course. Neilson won the Scottish Cup as a player but being promoted to head coach aged 33 after administration and relegation had almost destroyed the club provided him with a monumental rebuilding job.
He remains thankful to owner Ann Budge and director of football Craig Levein, who now doubles as manager and will stand in the opposite technical area tomorrow.
“They took a chance on me. I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I was working in the academy. I was on loan at Cowdenbeath under Craig, then I had him as a manager at Hearts. We had a relationship.
“Ann was willing to give somebody a chance, too. She could have wanted somebody with 25 years experience. Their mentoring of me was brilliant. I learned a lot from both of them, things like manners and the way they talk to people. One of the biggest things was the way they listen to people. A lot of people in football don’t listen to a word you’re saying.”
His exit for MK Dons prompted a mixed reaction. “Both of them knew me. Once I make my mind up, that’s it. You have to be like that as a manager,” says Neilson.
“Your job when you go to any club is to try and improve it. You want to leave it in a better place and we managed to do that – myself, Stevie Crawford, John Hill, Craig, Ann and all the backroom staff. We left Hearts in a better place and they’ve continued to build since then with a lot of young players coming through. The whole place is expanding. Hearts is a role model for a lot of clubs.”
He lasted 13 months in England and now aims to mould United into similar shape to Hearts. There is a new owner and ambitious signings, like former Tynecastle players Liam Smith and Osman Sow. Neilson also hopes to sign ex-Hearts midfielder Adam King.
“Liam and Osman will be looking forward to going back to Tynie. If Adam gets tied up, he will also be going back. He is exactly what we’re looking for so that would be a good signing. I put Liam in the Hearts team when I was there and thought he did well. Managers change and you have to go and find your way back. Credit to him, he’s gone down to Ayr and he’s coming back up again.
“This is a big year for us. We came in last October, brought a few players in during January but not enough to get up. We think we have enough this year with some more additions but we know it’s going to be tough. Dundee came down and will be expected to go back up. Other teams are investing but I’m pleased with what we have here.”
The biggest coup without question is Lawrence Shankland, another plucked from Ayr United after 34 goals in 41 games last season. Neilson looks like the cat who got the cream when asked if he was surprised to land the 23-year-old.
“I was, yeah. We tried to get him in January and were told: ‘No chance.’ It was the same with Liam Smith. Shankland had other options but I kept speaking to him. Things didn’t work out elsewhere and now he’s here. He could have gone to England for considerably more money but he’s thinking: ‘Am I going to play?’ He is going to play week in and week out here. We were desperate to get him and he will score goals.”
Shankland should make his debut tomorrow but Sow has a a calf problem. “The priority for us is the league but the Betfred is a great chance to build momentum for the league. We will go to Tynecastle with our strongest available team. We aren’t looking at Tuesday, we’re looking at Friday,” says Neilson.
United are a far more secure outfit these days under new American owner Mike Ogren. Sporting director Tony Asghar works above Neilson and the head coach enjoys that structure. “The owner has been great and we have a sporting director, so there is that stability. Winning football matches keeps the stability, though, so you have to win.
“You can have the best structure in the world but if you aren’t winning you’ll be out. The owner has funded everything for us and backed us with signings in January and the summer. I couldn’t ask for any more.
“Tony is sporting director in a similar role Craig had at Hearts when I was there. I think that’s really important. He shoulders the load of important things not related to a Saturday, which allows me to prepare the team for games.”
“We have signed players but it has taken time to get them settled. Osman Sow came in and hadn’t played. Mark Connolly had played some games, Calum Butcher had hardly played any, while Ian Harkes hadn’t played since November. Peter Pawlett had no games, Mark Reynolds had no games, Aidan Nesbitt had no games, Morgaro Gomis hadn’t played since November. We were trying to get people up to speed so it was always going to be a task to go up last season.”
United are preparing for their first full season under Neilson but there is a certain degree of unpredictability surrounding every club as competition starts. Hearts are in the same position – waiting for players to reach optimum fitness but needing to win matches to survive in the Betfred Cup.
There is therefore an element of the unknown about tomorrow night’s fixture. It is the most high-profile in a group section also containing Cowdenbeath, East Fife and Stenhousemuir.
“Everybody is feeling their way in and we are similar to Hearts, integrating new players,” admits Neilson. “I’ve obviously looked at Hearts with this game in mind because it’s the first one. Will Conor Washington play? Will Jamie Walker be ready? What will happen with Aidy White? Will Craig Halkett come in instead of Berra? A lot of it is just you trying to guess. You go into these first couple of games kind of blind.”
One thing he can bank on is a busy night in front of a big crowd. Neilson knows Tynecastle better than anyone and will relish the chance to go back and perhaps upset the natives.