The instant success of Robbie Neilson’s coaching career masks his status as a top-flight managerial novice.
He is just back from a trip to Prague to study the European Under-21 Championship as part of his UEFA Pro Licence.
Now it’s down to business as Hearts’ pre-season begins ahead of their return to the Premiership. For Neilson, this is unchartered ground, reached after a rampage to last season’s Championship title.
He accepted his first job in management last May when Hearts’ new director of football, Craig Levein, appointed him head coach at the age of 33. Levein himself had returned to Tynecastle to oversee football operations under new owner Ann Budge. He promoted Neilson from under-20 coach with the intention of moulding him into a modern young manager. None of them could have predicted a title win by 21 points in his first season. Now comes the biggest challenge yet for the pair as Neilson prepares for his managerial debut at the top level.
Top six is the stated aim so there is a reasonable degree of pressure. Neilson will know he must lean on Levein, whose experience of Scottish football management is extensive. The 50-year-old knows the territory as well as anyone. He’s done the A9 journeys to Inverness and Ross County and prevailed. He’s handled the intimidating atmosphere at Celtic Park without having his judgment clouded. He’s been to Pittodrie and won matches. His experience week in and week out will be vital, this season more than ever.
“You always need an old head and a bit of experience, especially when the going gets tough. There’s no doubt in my mind it will be tough for Hearts next year,” said Tosh McKinlay, the former Tynecastle left-back who played alongside Levein at club and international level. “There will be spells where they’ll maybe go three or four games without a result and they’ll find it a wee bit difficult. I might be wrong, but I think they will get these wee spells in the Premiership. Craig Levein will be invaluable to Robbie Neilson, no doubt about it.
“Robbie will need to lean on Craig because there are the bread-and-butter games away from home. Tynecastle will be a fortress again. It’s a cracking environment but it’s when you go away to places like Inverness, Dingwall, Aberdeen, Dundee, that’s the challenge. Craig has done all that. He’ll know about travelling up to these places on a Friday night, sitting down and talking about the team.
“Robbie Neilson will learn a lot from Craig Levein in terms of tactics and management on and off the park. He’ll be able to use him as a guide and Craig will give him every possible help. Robbie has been really fortunate. Wherever he goes in his coaching career, he’ll remember this time with Levein.”
McKinlay believes Levein is the ideal candidate to guide Hearts through the campaign ahead. “He’s been over the course and he’s a clever fellow. He’s done all his badges, he’s had spells at Hearts. He’s been down south at Leicester, back up to Dundee United and he’s managed his country. At this stage, director of football probably suits him alongside a young, energetic and enthusiastic Robbie Neilson.
“Excuse the pun, but I think he’s got Hearts at heart. The pull of going back there, either as director of football or manager, was always there. It’s great for Robbie to learn from Levein. I’ve met Ann Budge a couple of times and she’s a businesswoman who is taking the club in the right direction. You need the football people getting on with the job and Craig has certainly been the buffer between the board and Robbie. That’s helped get things back on an even keel at Tynecastle.”
The intelligence Levein has demonstrated in overhauling Hearts from youth academy to first team doesn’t surprise McKinlay. He noted standout qualities in the former centre-back more than 30 years ago when they played together in Scotland youth teams. They later met up at Tynecastle, where McKinlay played between 1988 and 1994.
“Levein could’ve played for anybody,” said McKinlay. “I came through the Scotland ranks with him at under-18s and under-21s. He could have gone anywhere, there’s no doubt about that. He had everything in his locker to be a top-class player. He had the pace, he was good on the ball, good in the air. He would come out of defence with the ball and he would use it really well.
“It was a shame with the knee injuries he had because I think he’d have gone right to the very top. Yet he was happy at Hearts. Hearts was his club. He was picked up playing for Cowdenbeath and he enjoyed his time at Tynecastle. I think he’s probably a Hearts man through and through. Looking back, you would say injuries curtailed his chances of moving but he did enjoy his time at Hearts and had a good international career. For me, Levein was right up there with the likes of David Narey, who I thought could’ve gone anywhere as well. It was just unfortunate that the knee injuries held him back.”
One issue still uncertain ahead of the new season is who will be Hearts’ first-choice left-back. It is a situation McKinlay notes with interest. Kevin McHattie is the man in possession after Levein and Neilson decided to release Adam Eckersley. Another left-back is wanted but Neilson has stated he is in no immediate hurry to sign one.
McKinlay hopes to see McHattie thrive and explained why any Hearts left-back must have attacking intent. “I always got the free role to attack,” he recalled. “Hearts, at that time, were a footballing team. We had a strong back four which allowed me to get forward. The left-back has always kind of had the licence to get forward at Hearts. The right-back was never really associated with getting forward if you look at the right-backs they’ve had down the years. It was always the left-sided one who was encouraged to get forward, while the right-back and two centre-backs sat in.
“When I was there, Eamonn Bannon would predominantly cut in from the left and try to use his right foot. There aren’t too many left-footed players in any squad so the left-back has licence to get forward and get crosses into the box.
“I think McHattie has done well but I was surprised they let Eckersley go. McHattie has kind of been the apprentice so hopefully he can step up to the mark. I like the kid and I think he’s capable. Robbie will try to get two players for each position in the Premiership but I’d expect McHattie to start the season.
“The season Hearts went down was invaluable experience for the kids playing. They took a few doings but you learn from that and it stood them in good stead for winning the Championship. It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster for the kids there and you gain experience from that. Hopefully McHattie can nail that left-back place down.”