Robbie Neilson completes a unique double achievement which sets him apart as Hearts manager
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His blueprint to restore Hearts as Scotland’s third-best team never altered. Performances dipped, culminating in a tortuous Scottish Cup exit at Highland League Brora Rangers, and supporters protested. Not once did Neilson falter.
The Tynecastle hierarchy matched their manager’s willpower and that faith is now borne out 12 months on. Saturday’s win over Hibs secured third place in the Premiership and guaranteed European football next season. The transformation from Championship to Europe comes less than two years since Neilson took charge.
The remarkable thing is he is merely repeating his own history. The events of 2014/15 and 2015/16 were not a one-off, for this is becoming something of a speciality for the calm-natured Glaswegian.
Twice he has picked Hearts up from potentially-ruinous debris in the second tier, shaken off the dust, galvanised and rebuilt, won promotion at the first attempt, and then finished third to qualify for Europe as a newly-promoted club.
It is a unique double achievement which earns Neilson a place in Gorgie annals. Naturally, he wants to lift the Scottish Cup next month to add silverware just weeks before his 42nd birthday. If not, the repeat rebuild already denotes him as an iconic figure in Tynecastle history.
Never before has any Hearts manager restructured and reinvigorated the club to such an extent inside two years on two separate occasions. It is doubtful whether anyone will mirror that achievement in future. Hearts must hope there are no more controversially-imposed relegations, for Neilson may not always be available as a safety blanket.
Coaching staff Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest are vital aides along with sporting director Joe Savage. Previously, Stevie Crawford and Jack Ross were the right-hand men.
Ann Budge’s relationship with Neilson was instrumental in the manager returning to Edinburgh, and there are also plenty supporters backing him and the club via roughly 9,000 Foundation of Hearts subscriptions.
For sceptics and naysayers, it is difficult to ignore hard facts. Neilson’s rebuilding is the biggest success story at Tynecastle since Paulo Sergio lifted the aforementioned Scottish Cup ten years ago.
It is worth recalling that Neilson initially left Hearts sitting second in the Premiership to join MK Dons in November 2016. Since then, Ian Cathro, Craig Levein and Daniel Stendel all contributed to a descent which left the club bottom of the table when the Covid shutdown arrived in March 2020.
Neilson, by then at Dundee United, accepted Budge’s call to return and revive once again. It has proven an inspired move despite well-publicised low points along the way.
“I think it’s down to belief. When I came here the club had been demoted down to the Championship. I believed Hearts would get promoted and I believed we would go top-six and get European football,” said Neilson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“When I first took charge in 2014, we had a five-year plan to do that and we managed it in two years. This time it was probably more a three-year or four-year plan and we’ve done it in two years.
“That’s what we want to do. We want to be up there consistently. We want to finish this season on a real high and hopefully get the finances to allow us to build again with European football.
“This is a brilliant football club. We should be here every year. There have been some sticky patches, whether it be financial or other aspects, which have caused the club to go down.
“I think this club should be in Europe every year. There was a period around ten or 15 years ago when Hearts were in Europe about eight or ten times. That’s the way it should be.
“We have a brilliant fanbase, we have Foundation of Hearts, we have benefactors. European football will allow us to kick this club on even further and hopefully continue to grow it.”
This season has followed a strong upward trajectory for Hearts yet critics have lurked and lingered, some even looking for excuses to regurgitate the “Neilson out” talk. The vast majority recognise the sterling work taking place.
Amid the energy of Scottish Cup semi-final build-up during back-to-back Edinburgh derbies, the manager is perfectly entitled to some quiet reflection on a job well done – if not yet finished. He is philosophical about polarised viewpoints.
“That’s part of football at a big club. If you don’t win games, there is going to be flak,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders. “If we lost 1-0 to Hibs on Saturday then everything would be negative. That’s just life in football, it’s the way it is and it’s the same for everyone.
“Shaun Maloney has come in at Easter Road, he has done well, he is trying to implement a style of play, he has brought some players in and he probably still has another couple of transfer windows to get to where he wants to be.
“But you lose a game and it’s the end of the world. It’s just the nature of football. You can’t be too reactive, but that’s the thing with football. It is reactive.”
Such is Neilson’s drive that he isn’t even entirely satisfied with finishing third. “Obviously, you want to get third place done as early as possible. We would like to be closer to second to possibly squeeze them if we could, but that’s not going to happen now,” he acknowledged.
Hearts are 16 points better off than fourth-placed Dundee United but still 19 behind Rangers in second. The priority now is beating Hibs again at Hampden to reach the Scottish Cup final.
“The big thing now is this weekend. We want to try to win that game and give ourselves a Scottish Cup final to look forward to,” concluded Neilson.