His playing CV denotes international honours and the Scottish Cup, whilst as a manager he now has three title-winning promotions from the Scottish Championship. Season 2020/21 will stand out like no other in memory. There is understandable relief that it is finally over with Hearts back in the Premiership
Neilson guided Dundee United to the title and promotion last year then decamped to Tynecastle Park for a second stint as manager. By then, a global pandemic was in full swing, followed by Hearts’ demotion from Scotland’s top flight after football was shut down.
Neilson’s thick skin and composure was to be pricked and probed throughout the subsequent ten months. His team led the league from the start but some poor results irked supporters, culminating in full-on outrage and protests after March’s Scottish Cup humiliation by Brora Rangers.
With the Championship trophy safely stored at Tynecastle, the manager can reflect on an unforgettable year. He never once lost his cool despite the provocation. At 40, he is still regarded as a young manager but seven years’ experience taught him the merits of sangfroid.
Elements of the Hearts support still want him removed and Neilson is acutely aware of the discontent. He remains focused on the job in hand and refuses to deviate no matter how loud the noise might be. Ending the season with a five-game unbeaten run and no goals conceded tempered some of the unrest, but not all.
Single-minded and driven
Having spent ten years with Hearts as a player, plus another three and a half as manager across two spells, he retains deep-rooted affection for all things Gorgie. Rebuilding the club into a challenging force is his primary objective after securing that Premiership place.
Whatever others might say, or shout, Neilson remains a single-minded and driven individual with a necessary ruthless edge for the business of football management. It came into play just a few weeks ago as pressure on him intensified.
When that Brora loss was followed by a 3-2 home defeat against Queen of the South, Hearts’ defence was quickly reorganised. Shay Logan arrived on loan from Aberdeen and the back four became a back three, with Christophe Berra and Mihai Popescu jettisoned from the team. Those two would not start another game in maroon.
If you interpreted that as something of a line-in-the-sand moment, you probably wouldn’t be far wrong. “You have issues like that throughout a season. We had one very bad result which we hold our hands up for, but you are going to lose games within the league,” said Neilson.
“Look at the three goals we lost against Queen of the South that day. We managed to get ourselves back to 2-2, we're in control and trying to win it, then we score an own goal. Some games don't work out and you lose.
“Last Friday night, the Raith Rovers red card is never a sending off but it went for us. It could have gone the other way. You just need to try and remain consistent, put all the external noise out of the way and focus on what we're good at.
“I had it at Dundee United. We lost two games on the bounce and you get all the noise in the background. We came back in, stayed calm, won 12 games on the bounce and won the league.
“It's the same here. You get the background noise but you try to stay calm, then we've gone on to win the league comfortably. I'm pleased with a lot of the performances. People go on about performance but some of these games are difficult.
“Some of the grounds you go to, and some of the teams with how they play, make it really tough to go and win games. We have managed to get over the line with some decent form.”
This has, of course, been more than just a football season as managers and staff adapted to Covid 19 protocols. Neilson and his coaches effectively became health and safety officers with expertise in biosecure bubbles. It seems rather extreme just to negotiate trips to Cappielow and Palmerston, but the virus demands utmost respect.
All concerned have dealt with those challenges in order to get Hearts back among the country’s top clubs. Neilson wouldn't try to pretend that every signing since his appointment has worked out, but key recruits like Craig Gordon and Stephen Kingsley have been vital.
“I'm delighted for the players because it's been a tough season, not just within football but outside as well with everything going on during the pandemic,” said Neilson.
“We had guys who came to the club in the summer transfer window, and the January transfer window, who expected to bring family here with them. They expected to bring girlfriends and be back and forward to get that release from football.
“They haven't been able to do that so they've been going back to sit in their house. It's been tough for a lot of them and a lot of people don't see that at times. They think footballers just turn up and play football but it has been tough for a lot of them.
“They have still managed to get the club to where we belong. This is a difficult league to get out of. I know that because I've won it three times. To get over the line is great for them.”
He doesn’t hide from the fact that some performances have been well short of what Hearts fans desire. Watching online streams at home instead of venting frustrations from the Wheatfield Stand only adds to the frustration.
“I'm delighted for the fans as well because it must be tough sitting watching it on a laptop. I'm on the sidelines and sometimes it's tough to watch it, never mind looking at a screen,” admitted Neilson.
“The fans have managed to keep backing us, the Foundation of Hearts have kept backing us, and that has allowed us to come into this summer window in a relatively okay position in comparison to a lot of other teams who are struggling financially.
“I'm delighted for the board and [owner] Ann Budge. There has been a lot of flak over the season. You've got to remember that Ann came in here when this club was on its knees and she's been magnificent from day one.
“We have a brilliant new stand in a 20,000 all-seater stadium, our academy is coming on, we have a performance school producing players like Finlay Pollock, who came on in our last couple of games.
“The club is in a brilliant position. It's not in a brilliant position on the football field, which is the most important thing. Now it's time to rebuild it. We've managed to get Hearts back into the Premiership.
“The job now is to build. Get us back into the top six and then build again to take it further.”
There is a degree of satisfaction that all numerical targets set for the Hearts players by Neilson and his coaches were achieved this term. “In the first team meeting of the season, we spoke about our target within the league. First, it was to win the league. We spoke about how you do it and we looked historically at the division,” he said.
“If you hit 76 points in a normal campaign, you will win the league. That's 19 points per quarter. We played less games this year so it amounts to 57 points.
“We told the players at the start of the season that if you hit 57 points you will win the league. We did that on Friday night. A couple of weeks ago we were sitting on 50 and needed seven out of the next nine. We've managed to do it, which is great.
“We also spoke about goals scored. If you score more than 50, you will win the league. We've scored 63. The final one was that if you conceded less than 25 goals you would win the league. We've conceded 24.
“I'm delighted for the players because they've hit all the markers. Now we need to look to the Premiership and see what we need to do in there.”