Robbie Neilson on recruitment, next season's targets and his long-term plan for Hearts

Most managers relish the opportunity to take a short break at the end of a gruelling season. Not Robbie Neilson.

Sunday, 22nd May 2022, 10:30 pm
Updated Monday, 23rd May 2022, 10:47 am

He would rather have training to oversee and a match to prepare for this week. Football management may be a relentless 24/7 business, but end-of-season rest is not something the Hearts boss is looking forward to.

“To be honest, I’ve enjoyed it, so no,” he said. “It’s been great. We get a month off and I just want to get right back at it.”

The 41-year-old did treat himself to a beer after Saturday’s Scottish Cup final defeat to Rangers brought the curtain down on the season. Despite a disappointing conclusion at the national stadium, he could allow himself to reflect on a very successful campaign. But football moves on quickly and his focus is now on what happens next.

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The players return for pre-season training on June 21. In the meantime, Neilson and sporting director Joe Savage have work to do to ensure they have a squad strong enough for the challenges ahead.

“Now all eyes are on recruitment,” said Neilson. “We’re losing John [Souttar]. We’ve offered Peter Haring a contract, so we’ll have to wait and see. We know we need to develop the squad.

“It’s important that we bring quality players in because I think the changes that Rangers could make [in the final] … we didn’t quite have that available. We need to try to get that. We need to try and get a real group of players here so that we come to Hampden and we can change things.

“We’re trying to get players in, but these things take a while. We’ve got targets and we’ll keep working on them.”

Robbie Neilson directs his team from the sidelines in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

Former Doncaster Rovers centre-back Joe Wright has an invite to join pre-season training. Hearts agreed to sign him last summer before he suffered knee and ankle damage in Rovers' final game of the campaign.

Neilson would also like to bring in Scotland striker Lawrence Shankland from Beerschot having worked with him previously at Dundee United, but the Belgian club’s £500,000 asking price is a potential stumbling block.

Talks with Alan Forrest’s representatives are ongoing in an attempt to bring the out-of-contract winger in on a free transfer from Livingston. Guaranteed European group stage football is a carrot for the other players on Hearts’ shortlist.

“It’s excellent,” Neilson added. “In terms of European football, it is an opportunity for guys to come and play. Also for the guys that are re-signing, in terms of keeping hold of them.”

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson alongside lifelong fan Stevie Morris and captain Craig Gordon before the start of the Scottish Cup final at Hampden. Picture: Craig Foy / SNS

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Loan players Ellis Simms, Ben Woodburn, Taylor Moore and Alex Cochrane will now return to Everton, Liverpool, Bristol City and Brighton respectively.

Hearts are expected to ask Everton to take Simms back on loan again next season and offer terms to Cochrane if Brighton don’t renew his contract.

Moore has 12 months left on his Bristol City deal, but Woodburn won’t be back after his Liverpool contract expires in the summer.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson, Lee McCulloch and Craig Gordon watch Rangers lift the Scottish Cup at Hampden. Picture: Sammy Turner / SNS

"Some will go back, some we will try and get again, but the loan players are out of our control," Neilson said. "It's up to the club whether they want to put them out again and at what level. We will try with a couple of them but it will probably be August before we get an answer. We have a number of targets we are trying to get."

A minimum of eight European matches on a Thursday night means Hearts will need a stronger squad simply to stand still. Neilson wants to get closer to the Old Firm next season but is realistic. Mounting a genuine challenge for the Premiership title is a few years away. The club’s plan is to build towards that by consistently qualifying for Europe season after season.

“It’s going to take four or five years to get there,” explained Neilson. “That’s where we need to be realistic. The next step is can we play in Europe on a Thursday night and then win on Sunday. That’s going to take a squad. If we do that, then we can get back into Europe and build again. Then if we do it again and again, then we can start getting closer.

“We’ve had a brilliant season. At the start of the season, there were people saying we were going to go back down again. There were people saying we’d be fighting relegation. There were people saying we wouldn’t make the top six.

“We’ve come up. We’ve fought a demotion to get promoted in difficult circumstances. We’ve fought to get third. We’ve fought to [get to the cup final]. Next season we’ll fight to get third again and fight to get in the Europa League and we’ll fight to win [the Scottish Cup].”

Neilson isn’t concerned about Hearts having a target on their backs next season. He is looking up rather than down and wants to increase the gap between third and fourth in 2022/23.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson dressed up at Hampden Park. He can be proud of the season overall. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

He explained: “People will be gunning for us, you know. But we’re not looking below us. We’re going to try to get closer to the teams above us. We finished 13 points clear [in third]. So the aim is – can we beat that and can we get closer to Rangers and Celtic as well?

“I think Hearts are always a target. Everyone always ups their game when they come to play us. We take a massive travelling support to away games as well, so it’s part and parcel of it. We just need to make sure we recruit and try and get as close as we can.”