Sitting inside a near deserted Murray Park whilst Rangers officials turn off lights and shut the huge iron gates outside, Robbie Neilson’s mind is full.
He has just watched his Hearts Under-20s control large parts of a 1-1 draw with Rangers, but he isn’t merely interested in the scoreline. Not really. He prefers to talk development, progress and learning. His head is crammed with ideas on how to drive the Riccarton academy forward.
Neilson believes Hearts’ youth system can be the best in Scotland and is hungry to make it so. The club’s likely descent into the SPFL Championship this summer will place even more emphasis on it. Ann Budge and her new board will hope to recruit some experienced talent once the club emerges from the trauma of administration, but promoting from within will be even more vital in the months ahead.
Neilson’s role has taken on added significance since he replaced Darren Murray last November. As Under-20 development manager, he must provide players to contribute to a stable, long-term future for next season and beyond. He is already hard at work. It is approaching 9.30pm at Rangers’ training ground. He isn’t ready to head home to his wife and family just yet. Instead, he leans across the table and explains what he wants to achieve back in Edinburgh.
“It’s our aim to have the best academy in Scotland. We want to do that,” says Neilson. “We’re going to have the National Performance Centre for Sport at Riccarton by 2016, which will be the best facility in Scotland. Hearts will have access to that and be based on that campus, so all the facilities will be there. We just have to make sure we have the right infrastructure and coaching. The whole ethos of the place has to be aimed at producing the best players. We can’t just be happy with producing players.
“It’s not going to happen in a year or two years. These things take five, six, seven, eight, nine years. You’ve got to start somewhere and I want the academy to become the heart and soul of the club, so that we develop good people and good players. The academy is doing well but we need to continue to have that enthusiasm and drive to produce players. There has to be a lot of motivated people, enthusiastic people and knowledgeable people. If we get all that together, then we’ll produce players.
“Most clubs in Scottish football are heading down that line where their academy is going to be really important. It has been that way in the past at Hearts, but probably more so now. We need to develop our own players and get them into the first team because the days when clubs could spend £500,000 or £1million on players are gone. At Hearts, we know we must develop them. To do that, we must have the best academy to produce the best players.”
It’s easy to forget Neilson is still only 33 and would be playing in the first team were Hearts allowed to register him. This works to his advantage as a youth coach, though. He still thinks and acts like a player himself, is very much in tune with modern coaching practices and knows how youngsters should be treated. Spells in Scotland and England during his career, including playing under Sven Goran Eriksson at Leicester City, have given him a wealth of experience.
He stood at the side of pitch one at Murray Park last night and gave his orders in a calm but authoritative manner. He encouraged and supported his players through the evening and even had a disagreement with the referee over a penalty claim. Neilson happily admits there is pressure on him, but not to win games.
“It’s a good pressure. If you’re not under any pressure in a job then there’s no point being in it,” he continues. “Everyone should be under a wee bit of pressure and I’m no different. It’s my job to produce players and create an environment that’s positive and progressive. The coaching needs to be enthusiastic and so do the players.
“I’ll sometimes leave the house just after seven in the morning and I’m not back till 11 at night. That’s part and parcel of learning and it’s part and parcel of committing to the academy. I train the boys morning and afternoon and then I’m at the academy at night or we have a game at night. It’s something I enjoy. I love seeing players progressing. I go in and take the under-12s and you get to see the young players developing. I think it gives them a lift seeing someone from the professional side getting involved.”
If last night was a yardstick, then Hearts’ current under-20 squad lack nothing in motivation. Last year’s under-20 side are mostly first-team players now and Neilson is working on nurturing a new generation.
“Angus Beith is a young boy in his first year as a professional but he’s been part of the first-team squad regularly this season. Liam Smith played left-back but is normally right-back. Nathan Flanagan played but he’s still a schoolboy. We delayed the kick-off because this game was originally supposed to be played at two o’clock. We had to play it at seven because we knew we’d need to wait on players getting in from school. Nathan came in and was great.
“There are other guys like Sean McKirdy and Leon Jones, the captain of Scotland Under-16s. These guys are good players but they have a long way to go. You coach boys things during the week but to see them do it in a game is great. I really enjoy that side of it. You just want them to keep doing it. I speak to midfielders all the time about getting into positions where they can defend, but as soon as we nick that ball they’re away and we’re on the counter-attack. It’s just about adding bits and bobs to it.”
Finally, having got his message across, Hearts’ all-encompassing under-20 coach gets up from his seat. They don’t ask us to put the lights out or lock the doors at Murray Park. But if they did, Neilson would doubtless be right up for that task as well.