Had Steven Pressley got his way two years ago, Robbie Neilson wouldn’t be at Hearts. He would be coaching in the bottom half of England’s League One with Coventry City.
Tynecastle’s first league title party in 35 years might not have happened had Neilson accepted Pressley’s job offer in the West Midlands in summer 2013.
Neilson’s role in Hearts’ revival has been pivotal, a fact not lost on supporters still celebrating automatic promotion. He has coached intelligently, nurtured cleverly, signed astutely and managed everyone with honesty and respect. In short, everything Pressley admires in a coach.
Pressley granted his former Hearts team-mate a first taste of coaching at Falkirk in 2012. Then, having joined Coventry the following year, he invited Neilson down to his new club as the 2013/14 campaign was beginning. Neilson spent two weeks training and working with Pressley and assistant Neil MacFarlane but failed to agree a deal to join them on the coaching staff.
Ironically, the job earmarked for him was then given to Darren Murray, who vacated the role of Hearts Under-20 coach to head south. Neilson was appointed as his replacement at Riccarton in November 2013, then promoted to head coach by incoming director of football Craig Levein six months later. The rest is history. Real history.
Pressley isn’t surprised in the slightest by Hearts’ rapid progress under Neilson. After all, he first identified many of the qualities others are now noticing. “When Robbie was at Falkirk, he helped us. He came as a player, but we got him involved in coaching and he spent a lot of time with us. As a staff we spoke a lot about philosophy and the type of football we wanted to play,” explained Pressley, who left Coventry last month and hopes to stay in England or move abroad.
“Robbie is his own man, no question, but there were definite similarities. I believe in detail – double sessions with the players and analysis – and Robbie is very much that way inclined as well. There were a lot of things I saw in him that were very much in line with what myself, Neil MacFarlane and Stevie Crawford were creating at Falkirk at that time.
“There has to be a real appetite to learn and the enthusiasm he has is important. He also has certain ideas on the game and a great way with people. Those components were going to be key to him becoming a good coach and manager.
“I wanted to take him to Coventry. He came down and spent some time with us. If I could have got the right financial package, you might not be talking about him being the Hearts manager right now. I would’ve had him in at Coventry. Unfortunately we couldn’t do that and his path has led to Hearts, where he’s done a terrific job.
“I wanted to bring him in to a hybrid role between the under-18s and first team. He came to quite a few of our games down here and he was training with us at the time as well. He was in and around the club for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t just a case of Robbie coming down himself, it was with his family and, at that particular time, we couldn’t offer a lucrative enough contract to entice him down. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. He’s gone on to prove in a very short period that he’s got potential as a coach and a manager.”
The appointment of Neilson, then 33, to replace Gary Locke at Hearts last May caught many by surprise. It has proven a shrewd move by Levein. “I think Robbie himself would’ve been surprised,” continued Pressley. “The chance has probably come quicker than he anticipated, and maybe quicker than he hoped. When you’re offered your first managerial job and it’s taking charge of Hearts, it’s a position that’s very difficult to turn down.
“What was important was the fact there was a clean slate and there was a director of football in Craig Levein, who he knew very well. The relationship between Craig, the owner [Ann Budge] and Robbie has allowed the transition to be much smoother. The trust built up there has allowed Robbie to concentrate on the key aspects of being a football manager. He hasn’t had to deal with many other side issues and that’s vital.”
With administration over, Neilson was free to coach minus the financial worries and distractions Locke had to contend with. Another positive were the young Riccarton academy graduates who had been hardened by relegation but remained hungry to succeed at first-team level.
“Robbie would admit this himself, he inherited some very good young players,” observed Pressley. “Sometimes people overlook it, but Gary Locke’s reign and, before him, John McGlynn’s reign were important to Robbie’s success. You find that at many clubs. The previous managers actually do a lot of the hard work. This isn’t taking anything away from Robbie because he would tell you this himself.
“A lot of these players were exposed to the Scottish Premiership last year. They grew a lot and progressed a lot. Because of that, Robbie could come in with his own ideas and add to it. The experiences of the last couple of seasons have definitely helped. Not just Gary and John, but also Darren Murray’s influence in bringing the young players do. All these people have a credit in what’s happened at Hearts in the last year.
“Of course, great credit goes to Robbie, but when you leave a legacy then people benefit from your work. I think Robbie would be the first to admit he’s done a fantastic job but it’s been helped by the work of previous coaches.”
Now begins a rather different challenge for Neilson. Hearts are heading back to the Premiership having won the Championship in record time. The head coach must manage his squad carefully and recruit wisely over the summer. Most of all, he should be mindful of rising expectation levels.
“One thing you will never get away from at Hearts, regardless of the league, is the expectation level. There is always an expectation level at Tynecastle,” said Pressley, pictured left, who captained the Edinburgh club for five years. “However, I think there also has to be a degree of realism in what’s expected of Robbie in his first season in the top flight. I know they’re one year ahead of schedule. People tend to forget about these things, but it’s very important when you have a plan that you don’t lose sight of it.
“Next year, Hearts have to continue putting foundations down and they have to be careful never to return to the period they had prior to Robbie, Craig and the new owner coming in. They’ve got to build the club properly and gradually. Down here, when I look at the Southamptons and the Swanseas, these are the types of clubs I think Hearts have to try and emulate.
“It’s a gradual process. You keep taking steps forward, but not huge steps, just little steps at a time. When Robbie moves on, there should be a seamless transition. You find that at clubs where foundations are in place. Whatever Robbie leaves behind, along with Craig and the owner, it has to be a legacy Hearts can continue to build on.”
Not that Neilson would consider moving at the moment. He stated in this newspaper only last week that he wants to honour his three-year Hearts contract. That pragmatic attitude finds favour with Pressley. “It’s far too early for Robbie to even consider moving. He’s got a lot of work to do and a lot of proving to do there. I just think it’s important that, when you do leave, you leave it in a very good position for the next person. One of the great things about developing your own players, and Hearts have done this to great effect, is you can mould them into the Hearts way.
“I did it at Falkirk and moulded many of the players into what I would call the Falkirk way. That was the model we were creating, where it’s not frowned upon to have double training sessions or to do your strength and conditioning. It’s part of the culture and you can create that with your young players. The more senior players brought in have to accept that mindset and that’s the really important factor. If you’re creating a culture, which I think is vital, you can mould your young players.
“Manchester United is a prime example. Sir Alex Ferguson moulded the likes of Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, all of these players. In the end, these players almost became his disciples. They managed the dressing room and set the standards. They told people: ‘This is what’s expected of you.’ That’s what you can do with young players and that’s what will hopefully happen at Hearts.”