Lewis Neilson: A shrewd piece of Hearts business after John Souttar's exit to Rangers

John Souttar’s seat in the Riccarton changing room was still warm when Lewis Neilson arrived from Dundee United. Replacing one Tannadice defensive prodigy with another represents shrewd business by Hearts.

No sooner had Souttar returned his old training kit and driven off to begin his Rangers career than another United youth graduate strolled in. Neilson is still a teenager and shouldn’t be considered a direct replacement for a seasoned 25-year-old internationalist, but Hearts will understandably see similar potential in their new recruit.

Souttar was a 19-year-old right-sided centre-back signed by Hearts manager Robbie Neilson from Dundee United in 2016. He developed into a mainstay, a Scotland cap and all-round colossus over six-and-a-half subsequent years.

Neilson is another 19-year-old right-sided centre-back signed by the same Hearts manager from the same Tayside breeding ground. He and Souttar are different players but the Edinburgh club’s ambitions for them will be comparable: Same age, same position, similar profile, same developing club – same outcome?

No-one in Gorgie wants to see Neilson saunter off to a rival club for free in a few years but, right now, hope is that his career progress rate can mirror Souttar’s. Anyone who watched him regularly on Tayside would agree he possesses enough attributes to thrive in a maroon shirt.

It was the former United manager Micky Mellon who granted Neilson a senior debut on the opening day of the 2020/21 Premiership campaign. Just a few weeks earlier, Robbie Neilson had left Tannadice to return to Hearts and Mellon was invited to pick up the reins.

He immediately identified the young Neilson, then 17, as a defender mature enough and capable enough to play in the top flight. His departure for Hearts on a free transfer will be as keenly felt at United is it is welcomed in Edinburgh.

“It’s a huge disappointment for Dundee United, I’ve got to say that, because he was really highly rated there,” Mellon told the Evening News. “I’m sorry for them that they’ve lost such a talented boy because that's what he is, and I know that they felt that way about him.

Lewis Neilson left Dundee United to join Hearts. Pic: Heart of Midlothian FC

“When I was up there, I put him into the team pretty much right away because we saw the qualities Lewis had. The only thing he needed to get was experience. The only way he was going to get that was if we put him in and let him build his way forward from there.

“He went from strength to strength. He is a really level-headed lad with a right good family behind him. I have absolutely no doubt that he will have a fantastic career at Hearts.”

Versatility is one of Neilson’s strengths. He can operate at right-back, centre-back or even wing-back and is comfortable playing in a three-man and four-man back line. Hearts intend to use both systems during the season ahead.

Like Souttar, he is most adept in central defence where pace, physicality, composure and distribution helped bring him to the attention of the Tynecastle scouting network in the first place.

Lewis Neilson in action for Dundee United against Hibs striker Kevin Nisbet last season.

“Centre-back is his best position,” said Mellon, now manager of the English League Two club Tranmere Rovers. “He can play in the middle of a back three or on the right side of a back three.

“He is very comfortable on the ball. He is about 6ft 3in, very quick, technically very sound. Overall, he is just a really talented boy. Losing him is a big blow to Dundee United.”

Neilson was offered a new contract by his former club earlier this year but favoured a move to Hearts, where increased competition now awaits him. Even after Souttar’s exit, Michael Smith, Craig Halkett and Toby Sibbick are all established faces who can operate on the right side of central defence.

The challenge for the youngster is, again, similar to that which faced Souttar during his initiation period. If he proves himself in pre-season training and matches, he will have a decent chance of featuring when competitive action begins.

Hearts haven’t granted him a three-year contract merely as a development project who might come to fruition in a year or two. Neilson may be young but he boasts more first-team experience in Scotland’s top flight than most 19-year-olds.

He will continue to improve over time and Mellon is convinced he can force his way into the starting line-up at Tynecastle Park this season. The former United coach explained why Hearts are signing more than just a teenager with a bit of potential.

“No, I think he is a wee bit ahead of that. We put Lewis in against Rangers and Celtic and all the other teams and he comfortably holds his own against them. I think he will be fine. He has a great character. He’s had a brilliant upbringing and is a really sensible, solid boy. He is top-drawer in every way and he will just blossom now.

“I’m sure Robbie knew Lewis from his time at Dundee United. He would probably have seen him coming through the youth teams and he has played for Scotland at different youth levels as well.

“Robbie would have been aware of that. He has seen the opportunity to go and get him and he's grabbed it. It’s a good signing for Hearts. He is a good player who has got everything. When he was with me at Dundee United he was very comfortable at that level and improving all the time. The potential in him is massive.”

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