You find yourself straining to hear Robbie Neilson, so softly spoken is the Hearts head coach.
He doesn’t covet the limelight that goes with his job and often refuses one-to-one interviews with other media. When he does open up, the chat can be engrossing. Get him going on his plans for Hearts’ future and you could be there for hours.
Rebuilding the Edinburgh club is an ongoing project for Neilson, director of football Craig Levein and the Tynecastle board. Rapid progress has already been made in minimal time. It is just 14 months since Hearts emerged from administration, kept alive by Ann Budge’s £2.5million and Foundation of Hearts funding. They cantered to last season’s Scottish Championship title and now sit top of the Premiership having won all seven competitive games this season. However, there is much work to be done.
Neilson talks quietly but intensely about what he wants to achieve here. He is still just 35 and plans for a long career in management. His grounding is under the guidance of the experienced Levein, and Neilson fully intends continuing his development at Riccarton. He is a young coach but hardly wet behind the ears, as detailed by his managerial statistics.
In 48 competitive games in charge of Hearts, he has overseen 38 victories, four draws and six defeats. His win ratio sits at 79 per cent, albeit most of the victories came in the second tier. It is nonetheless a profound record. Is it a portent of things to come? Yes, if Neilson’s plans come to fruition. He is here for the long-term and is utterly immersed in his work.
He witnessed the carnage of administration first hand as Hearts Under-20 coach. Both first team and youth academy were ravaged, to the point where school kids were having to play in under-20 fixtures. It hurt him personally as a proud member of the 2006 Scottish Cup-winning side. He was promoted to first-team coach when Budge and Levein arrived and administration ended. It was then that proper foundations began being laid for the future.
The restructuring is in fact still in its infancy. Hearts are top of the league now, but will they still be challenging in three years’ time? What about ten years? The SFA’s new national performance centre opens at Riccarton next year and Hearts will have use of the facilities each day. However, if the pathway from youth academy to first team isn’t there, what’s the point?
All of these issues occupy Neilson’s mind. Never again does he want to see his club destroyed by mismanagement and lack of foresight. Now is the time for a viable and lasting legacy.
“That’s what we want to be,” he says. “When I took over a season ago, the idea was to try and get us back up into the Premiership; back where we should be, which is up near the top of the league. We’ve managed to do that but this needs to be sustained now. We don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We want to build something that stays in place for years.
“That’s why we’re trying to get our recruitment right, get our academy right and make sure we’re here for very long time. The plan is to have a team and a club that’s sustained at the top end of the league; a club that’s stable and is producing young players. We’ve got this fantastic facility at Riccarton and we want to recruit not just first-team players, but youngsters right down through the academy. That goes down to six and seven-year-old kids.
“We want to have a real flow of players coming through. My role is with the first-team but it’s also to help with the recruitment side. I speak to parents and kids and try to persuade them to come to us. I try to sell the club to them. We try to set an example with the first team to show we will put young players in.
“Callumn Morrison should have been away with Scotland Under-17s this week but we pulled him out to get him involved at Forfar on Tuesday night. That’s what the club is about. Yes, we’ll bring in good players from abroad to supplement what we’ve got, but we’ll also develop these young guys.
“It’s great to sit on the bench and have Osman Sow, Juanma, Oshaniwa, and yet put Morrison on. He’s just come out of the academy and he went on and did well. Everyone encouraged him as well. If he gives the ball away, the rest of the players support him because they know that’s what the club is about.”
Developing a youth academy is something Neilson believes in strongly. He also knows managers are judged solely on first-team results, an area he hasn’t fared too badly in thus far. Marrying the two together means tiring work and long hours with only the occasional day off to spend with his wife and children.
“You want to win things, that’s what we want to do,” he continues. “You want to be a club that wins trophies, no matter what they are. We went to the Oban tournament in the summer and we prepared properly for it because we wanted to win it. We went up there the night before, we took all the kit with us so that we were the best prepared team there.
“It’s the same with the League Cup, the Scottish Cup and the league. We’ll try and win everything we can. I want to see Hearts at the top of the league. I want to see Hearts as a club that consistently stays up near the top of the league, that is trying to challenge every year, that is producing young players and selling them on but is also bringing through new ones. I think we can do that, I really do.
“I think the support is there, the facilities are there; there is a structure there now that is stable. We can really build something good here.”
The longer Hearts continue on their sharp upward trajectory, the greater the interest in their players. Not to mention Neilson himself given his remarkable start in management. Supporters will be pleased to hear he has no intention of going anywhere.
“Any head coach who comes in to a club wants it to be in a better place and a better position when they finally leave,” he says, again speaking barely above a whisper. He isn’t too comfortable talking about himself and how successful he might become as a manager.
“You can never say never in football. You just don’t know. I can’t stand here and say I’m going to be here for this or that. It can work both ways. You go on a bad run and they [the board] feel you’re not the person for the role and you move on. You can’t speculate about further down the line, you work for today. The plan for today includes the long-term plan for this club.
“Craig’s been phenomenal with the structure he’s put together. He’s trying to build the academy with Ann, myself and Roger Arnott [academy manager]. We’re continually trying to push it and develop it and it’s great to be part of that. It’s a great learning curve for me to see something like that getting built.”
The learning goes on for Robbie Neilson. Quietly but confidently, he is helping shape a bright future for Hearts.