Robbie Neilson’s stock is high after leading Hearts into Europe in their first season back in Scotland’s Premiership. That was merely six months ago. He now has the chance to test his managerial mettle in England after MK Dons approached Hearts to speak to their head coach. Is it too early?
Neilson is 36 and has managed for only one full season in the top flight. He enjoyed rampant success in his debut season in charge at Tynecastle, winning the Scottish Championship by 21 points in 2015. That was followed 12 months later by a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds after finishing third in the Premiership. He clearly has potential, but decamping right now for a club 19th in England’s League One is risky.
Neilson remains a relative novice in management. He was promoted from Hearts Under-20 coach to first-team level by incoming director of football Craig Levein in 2014. His league record is impressive. After last season’s achievement, the club are fourth and will move up to second if they beat Rangers tomorrow night. That game may well be Neilson’s last hurrah in the Tynecastle technical area, however.
“For Robbie, it’s too early to go to a club like MK Dons,” said the former Hearts manager Csaba Laszlo, who appointed Neilson captain of the Edinburgh club in 2009. “You come with Hearts from the Championship back to the Premier League, you get some good players and immediately you are near the top and qualify for the Europa League. At the moment, you are fourth, you are in the middle of the league season and the club is growing.
“The club is building a new stand, the supporters are behind them and the financial situation is stable. You don’t have to leave this club. You renewed your contract a few months ago.
“I think to go to MK Dons is not a good decision. If it’s a club in the English Premier League or a top club in the Championship who are trying to go up, it’s okay. If you compare MK Dons and Hearts, I don’t think there is a huge difference at the moment. I’m not talking about the size of the clubs, I’m talking about the situation.
“Hearts are in the top four in the Scottish league. MK Dons at the moment are fighting against relegation in League One. In England, League One is very difficult. I think it is more difficult than the Championship. You have a lot of big clubs, some of them are fighting to survive. Look at Notts County. They are down in League Two and they are suffering. It’s not easy. This is just my opinion. I don’t know everything going on in the background.”
It could be that Neilson feels he has achieved everything he realistically can in Gorgie, despite his comparatively short tenure. Some fans feel the steep upward trajectory Hearts have been on since emerging from administration in 2014 should continue, and that has led to Neilson being criticised for recent results. That may also be a factor if he decides to proceed with the move south.
“Robbie is a young coach and he has had a good start. I was expecting he would go to a good Championship club and I think he will have a good name in England. Hearts is one of the best jobs in Scottish football,” continued Laszlo, now head coach of Dunajska Streda in Slovakia.
“I know Robbie very well. I am a little bit older and I have a bit more experience. Everybody has to respect his decision if he wants to go.
“I know Robbie’s kids and I know his wife. I hope he makes a decision he doesn’t regret. The next move when he leaves Hearts must be a perfect one. When you are at the beginning of your career in management, every move can go against you. You shouldn’t try to be everybody’s darling.
“You have to follow your own feeling and, if you believe in something, you have to do this. At every club you go to, you will see after you sign a contract that problems will come even after the first two or three days. These are real problems and you have to resolve them every day. You can’t run away from the problems.
“If the results on the pitch are okay, you can defend yourself against everybody. You don’t have to defend yourself if you are giving your best every day.
“I always had the same problem: ‘Why don’t you play sexy football?’ I said I don’t like attractive football, I like good results. It is good results that make you sexy and attractive. This is fundamental for everybody.”
Laszlo suspects Neilson will want to broaden his coaching horizons by leaving Scotland, whether that is now or later.
“I had a very good relationship with all my players, but especially with all my captains,” said the Hungarian. “I had a good relationship with Christophe Berra, Robbie and Michael Stewart. Every manager has to know his captain. I trusted these three guys and even today I still talk with Michael.
“In Scotland, you try things that are new. In Scotland, you have 4-4-2 and kick the ball up front, then try to get the second ball or get a corner. European football is different. Today, it is not enough to go into the dressing room and shout: ‘Come on, we go out and we fight.’ It’s not enough.
“You can do that one time but afterwards players ask what are the tactics and what do they have to do. They want a strategy. Just to fight is not enough. To run and to be fit are the basics. After, you have to play football, you need tactics and a strategy. Robbie knows this. It is the same at Hearts as at MK Dons or anywhere else.”
Neilson is unlikely to take this decision lightly, particularly in view of what he would leave behind. “I loved Hearts because at Tynecastle you can play attacking, offensive football. The fans are behind you,” recalled Laszlo.
“The stadium is made for the home team and it’s like being 1-0 ahead immediately. Some teams have lost the games before they arrived at Tynecastle. This is a massive thing and Robbie will know this also.”