Robbie Neilson reveals Stevie Crawford's key role in Hearts rebuild as old pals face off at Dunfermline

Two pals with dozens of tales and laughs from yesteryear. Some perhaps not for public consumption, others very well-documented. They meet again on Friday in deepest Dunfermline.

By Barry Anderson
Wednesday, 18th November 2020, 4:45 pm
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson and his former assistant Stevie Crawford, now in charge at Dunfermline.
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson and his former assistant Stevie Crawford, now in charge at Dunfermline.

Robbie Neilson and Stevie Crawford are the management duo who transformed Hearts six years ago. They lifted a shell of a team from the ashes of administration and rebuilt it into a European participant within two years.

Both are still fondly remembered at Tynecastle Park for that era; an era when winning was a habit, when players like Alim Ozturk and Osman Sow dominated opponents almost weekly; an era which ended with a tumultuous 2-0 home win against Rangers to put Hearts second in the Scottish Premiership.

Neilson and Crawford will be in opposite dugouts for a rather more sombre affair at East End Park on Friday evening. Crawford’s Dunfermline host Hearts, who re-hired Neilson as manager in June, in the Championship.

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Territory

Both men know the territory well. They met last season and the season before when Neilson was in charge of Dundee United. Perhaps they reminisced over past Gorgie glories or some of the many anecdotes from working together at Falkirk, Hearts and MK Dons.

The roots of their friendship can be traced back to the Falkirk Stadium in 2012. Neilson played and coached there for 18 months, with former Hibs striker Crawford and ex-Tynecastle midfielder Neil MacFarlane assisting another old Hearts stalwart, manager Steven Pressley.

Neilson and Crawford weren’t acquainted with one another beforehand, but that period at Falkirk laid foundations for what would become Hearts’ renaissance following the club’s financial collapse.

“I got to know Stevie well during that time and we enjoyed working together. He is a really good coach who has a good way with players,” Neilson told the Evening News.

“When he came to Hearts, we did a lot of individual unit training with defenders, midfielders and forwards all separately. We would work with them on a one-to-one basis as well.

“He did a lot of work with the strikers back then, a lot of individual stuff, which was great. I did a lot of stuff with the defenders and that’s something I’ve carried on this time.

“Lee McCulloch has come in this time to work with the forwards. I think it’s an important role in the coaching staff and Stevie was great at it last time.

“He went down to MK Dons with me and when I came back up and got the Dundee United job, we spoke about getting him in. He was in at Dunfermline by that point and obviously since then he’s become the manager.”

Background

Although six years older, Crawford remained firmly in the background whilst Neilson’s assistant. He seemed content being the man behind the man, yet inwardly there was clearly a desire to manage at some point.

“When Stevie finished playing football, he initially started off as manager at East Fife. He did that for a while but it didn’t quite work out for him there,” recalled Neilson.

"He decided to go into an assistant manager’s role but I think he always had it in the back of his mind that he wanted to give management another shot.”

He is making a decent fist of it in Fife having enjoyed two productive spells with Dunfermline during his playing career. Crawford has overseen seven victories from eight games in all competitions so far this season, the other being a goalless draw at Ayr United.

"I would expect them to be in the play-offs, definitely,” said Neilson. “With this being a shorter season, I expect Dunfermline to be up near the top of the league.

"I’ve been impressed with them this season. I went to watch them against Clyde [in the Betfred Cup last Saturday] and they didn’t start the game well. They were 2-0 down but managed to turn it round when they brought some of their first-team players on. In the end, they won 3-2.

"Dunfermline carry a good attacking threat and have done so for the last couple of years. People like Dom Thomas, Ryan Dow, Kevin O’Hara and Declan McManus are all dangerous and able to score.

"O’Hara was top goalscorer at Alloa. These guys are good players with good experience. They’ve also brought two centre-halves in who have done well [Paul Watson and Euan Murray] so we’re under no illusions about what we face on Friday.”

Perfect statistics

Hearts cross the Forth boasting an even better record of eight wins from eight. They are out to maintain the perfect statistics and will reinstate a number of established names.

Neilson made eight changes to his team for last Tuesday night’s Betfred Cup tie at East Fife and was rewarded with a narrow 3-2 victory. Players currently on international duty return to Edinburgh on Thursday and are likely to be back in the team 24 hours later.

"We obviously haven’t played since the East Fife game. We’ve trained well and we still have a couple of boys away,” said Neilson.

"We are waiting on Michael Smith, Liam Boyce and Craig Gordon to come back. They will arrive later tomorrow and will be back in contention for the game on Friday.”

Will there be a phonecall between the managers during the build-up? Even a cheeky text to wind the other up? Probably not. They are both too professional to indulge in such shenanigans.

"There hasn’t been any contact. When I see Stevie on Friday I’ll have a chat with him but we’ll just get on with our own teams during the build-up.”

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