Lewis Neilson's Hearts future is clarified as his Partick Thistle loan nears an end

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The versatile defender has been a mainstay at Firhill this season

Lewis Neilson has been assured by Hearts that he does have a long-term future at the club. Currently on a season-long loan at Championship side Partick Thistle, the 20-year-old defender will get the opportunity to challenge for a first-team place back at Riccarton this summer.

It is not a case of make-or-break as he enters the final year of a three-year Hearts contract. Management are willing to show patience and continue developing Neilson after signing him as a free agent from Dundee United in 2022. He will do a full pre-season programme after a year gaining experience with Thistle, for whom he has played 33 times to date.

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Steven Naismith, the Hearts head coach, told the Edinburgh News of his admiration for Neilson and said he believes the player can establish himself at Tynecastle Park. "No, I don't think it's make-or-break for him. He is somebody I believe can become a Hearts first-team regular," said Naismith.

"The conversation we had last summer was that Lewis is at an age where he needs to play games. That's the biggest thing for him in the right environment. I've spoken about Partick being a good loan move for him because they are a team with some pressure on them in that league. The expectation is that they should at least make the play-offs and look to get promotion.

"If Lewis is in that environment, the biggest thing he needs is games. He stayed with us for pre-season last summer because we wanted to see if he would get minutes. The decision was that we can't guarantee that so we needed him to get games.

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"Lewis has some brilliant attributes. Arguably, he has all the main attributes to be a modern-day centre-half. He is quick, strong, he has great physique and he is good on the ball. The game knowledge and game experience is the biggest part that is not at the level of a first-team Hearts player."

There is every chance Neilson's contract at Tynecastle will be extended beyond its current expiry date of summer 2025. Hearts are expecting him to benefit hugely from the loan spell at Firhill. "Lewis will come back and do pre-season. I see him as somebody who will be at the club longer than next year, anyway," explained Naismith. He will stay with us through pre-season, hoping to push to get into the group that starts the season. I think there is a much better chance of that happening this year than last year.

"The season he has had with Partick, being a mainstay in the team, the minutes he has had and the teams he has come up against, and even the mistakes he has made, these are all brilliant for his development. I value him a lot. I think he is a big prospect for us. It's just about getting that experience. I'm hoping this season has done that for him and he can come back and challenge. I don't want to put too much pressure on him. Whether it happens next season or beyond that, I think he will be a Hearts first-team player at some point."

Neilson was on international duty with Scotland Under-21s last week and is a regular member of Scot Gemmill's squad. He turns 21 in May and can operate in central defence or at right-back. He made his Dundee United debut at the age of 17 and has played for Hearts in Europe against Fiorentina, Istanbul Basaksehir and RFS. He is at an age where one year of progress can transform a player, which is something Hearts will look for.

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"You see with every player who breaks in - the difference in them over the course of one year is massive," said Naismith. "I would say Lewis is quite an intelligent and mature player who is ahead of his years already. It's just the positional play, sensing the danger, that I'm talking about. We need to get that level up.

"The understanding of having to work hard, the understanding of what it takes to be a professional and how you need to live your life - I think Lewis is mature on that front. It's literally just the football knowledge. Myself and the coaching staff still have high hopes for him."