Robbie Neilson helped Jamie Walker evolve from shy academy kid into Hearts talisman. Now he believes the forward can propel himself towards the glamour of England’s Premier League after joining Wigan Athletic.
Walker completed a £300,000 move to Greater Manchester yesterday, signing a two-and-a-half-year contract which end his 14-year association with Hearts. Questions about swapping Scotland’s top tier for England’s third are prevalent but Neilson made the same journey from Tynecastle to League One 13 months ago when he became MK Dons manager. He insists League One, and Wigan especially, will provide an ideal platform for the 24-year-old.
Paul Cook’s side are top of the table and on course for promotion back to the Championship this summer. Provided Walker can cope with the physicality of that division next season, he could then step up again towards the richest league in world football. Neilson believes his former player can light up League One after leaving the “glass ceiling” of Scottish football.
“Jamie grew up at Hearts but, given the age he’s at now, if he stays for another three years then he has missed the boat for England. This is an ideal opportunity for him,” explained Neilson. “His contract is coming to an end, Hearts get some decent money for him and he gets time to settle in. I’m sure he will do well at Wigan.
“He maybe doesn’t have the athletic mobility of some boys down here but he has a really good understanding of the game, plus he has moments of flair in him.
“He has picked a good club to go to because Wigan have stabilised. They were a bit erratic in the Championship for a period and then they came down with Paul Cook. They have a strong squad, by far the best in the league. You would expect them to get up.
“That gives Jamie five months to bed in, get himself in the team, understand what it’s like down here, get used to the physicality, and then hopefully do well in the Championship. The jump from League One to the Championship is massive.
“Wigan are so far ahead of the majority of teams in League One that they dominate possession, so I don’t think physicality will be too much of an issue for him initially. The step up will be when they move up to the Championship, whether they can compete with some of these big teams.
“Wolves are buying people for £15million in that division. Derby and clubs like that have massive budgets. They are almost Premier League teams. It depends if Wigan can go up and then invest and strengthen their squad again.
“If Jamie does well at Wigan, his next move is probably a top-end Championship side. Do well there and your next step is the Premier League. Sometimes in Scotland you can hit a glass ceiling when you’re at the top of that market. He’ll be in the middle of the market at Wigan with the opportunity to progress.”
Neilson helped further Walker’s career during two-and-a-half years as head coach of Hearts. After last summer’s failed attempts by Rangers to take him to Ibrox, Wigan offer a lot of what the winger wants.
“We play Wigan towards the end of the season up there so we will get him watched,” said Neilson. “You always want to see players you’ve worked with progressing. I hope he comes down here and lights this league up because it will be great for him and it augurs well for Scottish football.
“Jamie wants to come to England but it’s difficult to get down here at the top level. Even the top end of the Championship is tough. It’s about picking the right team to join. I know the way Paul Cook plays. He uses 4-2-3-1, with two wide players who are narrow and a No.10 in the middle. Jamie can play any of those positions so I think it’s a good move for him.
“The main differences between this league and Scotland are physicality and pace. It’s end-to-end with lots of transitions. To stand out down here you need to be good in one-versus-one situations, both defensively and attacking. I’d say Jamie is very good attacking in one-v-ones, and defensively he’s getting a lot better.”
Perhaps naturally, third-division football in most countries prompts thoughts of poor standards and meek surroundings. Not in England, as Neilson explains.
“Most of the facilities are really good. We have a great stadium at MK Dons, there’s Charlton, Wigan, Blackburn and clubs like that. Even smaller teams like Fleetwood have new stadiums. You get old-fashioned stadiums at the likes of Oldham and Bury, but they have a real intensity about them. You go to most places in League One and the crowds are averaging 10,000. It will be a good experience for Jamie, as it was for us. There are different venues, different players, different systems and bigger squads, so it’s hard to predict what you’re playing against.
“You get better contacts down here and meet more people. You know all the teams and players in Scotland because I was there a long time. Down here it’s different styles and surroundings and a lot of new people. It will all be new for Jamie and I’m sure he’ll enjoy it.”
Neilson has no doubt he made the right decision leaving Edinburgh for Milton Keynes despite a difficult campaign. MK Dons sit 19th in League One, the same position as when he took charge. They remain in transition and searching for consistency, although Saturday’s 1-0 FA Cup win at Championship side Queens Park Rangers was a much-needed filip.
“This is a very unpredictable league. We’ve struggled for consistency this season,” he admitted. “We’ve had some top performances and also some bad runs. From a management and coaching perspective, it’s been great development for me, though. I brought my own staff down and joined a club that needed turned around, totally restructured. We still have a lot of work to do here with the squad so it’s still developing.
“We always want to be successful and we certainly hoped to be doing better than we are at this point in the season. If we can get a couple of players in this month and a couple out, then do the same in the summer, it will help. That’s the hardest thing when you come in as a manager – moving people out and getting the right ones in. It will take a little bit of time and the key is getting that time.”
Meanwhile, back in Gorgie, Hearts will enjoy a winter break in Spain this week after a nine-game unbeaten run and a record-breaking six clean sheets in a row. Neilson isn’t surprised his former manager and director of football, Craig Levein, has had a major impact since returning to the dugout.
“Craig is a very good manager; I was talking to him a couple of weeks ago. I’m sure he’s delighted being back involved in day-to-day football decisions. I had no doubt the Hearts ship was going to steady when he came in. Now it’s a case of recruiting this month and trying to push on.”