FAMOUS for his goal-preventing challenge during Hearts’ 2006 Scottish Cup final win over Gretna, Robbie Neilson now finds himself tackling a very different task. One which is perhaps even more daunting.
Keeping the conveyor belt going at Riccarton is a role more vital than ever with Hearts in administration and relying on young, home-grown talent. The club’s new player development manager is eager to continue a prosperous youth programme.
Darren Murray leaves a major legacy having helped a full team of players make the transition from academy to first-team squad at Hearts over the last 18 months: Mark Ridgers, Jordan McGhee, Dylan McGowan, Brad McKay, Kevin McHattie, David Smith, Callum Tapping, Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson, Dale Carrick and Billy and Adam King. Others before them like Jamie MacDonald, Christophe Berra and Craig Gordon have all gone on to enjoy varying levels of success.
Neilson’s job is to pick up where Murray left off following his move to Coventry City. Neilson himself was a product of Hearts’ youth system long before plans were even drawn up for the plush training complex in which he now stands. In his day, players crammed into cars and drove from Tynecastle to any number of public parks and schools each day for training.
Time has moved on, and having represented Leicester City, Brentford, Dundee United, Falkirk and East Fife since leaving Hearts in 2009, Neilson is now retiring as a player. He is still just 33, but feels his new job back at his old club – which includes the role of under-20 coach – will demand 100 per cent attention.
“With the situation we’re in, it’s a very important role I’ve got,” he told the Evening News today. “You’ve got to be 100 per cent committed and that’s why I decided to hang up my boots and just focus on coaching, giving it my all and hopefully producing as many players as we can who can play at the top level.
“The facilities are night and day compared to when I was a youth player here. We were going to different parks every day. We were travelling from Tynecastle down to Pinkie Primary School in Musselburgh, so it was taking you an hour before you could even start training. It was difficult. You didn’t have things like strength conditioning or anything like what you have at Riccarton now. Being here is a great opportunity for the boys and hopefully we can give them the right coaching to help them on their way.”
So what kind of philosophy will Robbie Neilson the youth coach bring? “Players must be comfortable on the ball. We’ve got to be aggressive with our passing and we need to get the ball into attacking areas. That has to be done properly, not just going long. If we get an opportunity to play the ball forward to a striker or a wide man, then we should take it. People talk about philosophies but, at the end of the day, when we’ve got the ball we should keep it and pass it aggressively.
“When we don’t have the ball, we work hard to press the opposition and win it back. That’s the way Darren played, he liked to keep the ball. It’s a pressing game as well. We have a lot of energetic boys here and we’ll use that side of it as well.
“I’ve known Darren for years and I know how he plays the game, so I knew exactly what I was coming into. I don’t know all of the players, but I know some of them and I know the way they’ve been brought up. I know they’ll be comfortable on the ball and they’ll be positive players who will want to play football the right way.”
Of course, 15 years of high-level activity as a professional player does not qualify anyone as a youth coach. Neilson has spent the last four years studying various coaching licences to ensure he is properly prepared for a job such as this.
“I’ve finished my UEFA elite youth licence, which is the main one for coaching 12 to 18-year-olds,” he explained. “I’m in the process of finishing my A licence as well, which is more for first-team football. The main one for me was the UEFA youth licence and I’ve just finished the SFA one recently as well. It was a great experience.”
Not too many youth coaches around Scotland can call upon the experience of playing under the likes of Sven-Goran Eriksson. Neilson’s time at Leicester City gave him a priceless insight into the Swede’s methods, not to mention how far ahead some areas of the English game are compared with Scotland. Perhaps surprisingly, he feels strength is one area where Scottish players are too often found wanting.
“Every manager you play under, you always take something different from. The main difference for me between Scotland and England is the real physicality and pace. The pace and strength down there is getting further and further away from us in Scotland and that’s one of the things we need to look at. We need to be really strong and really quick.
“The pace of the game down in England is unbelievable. In the Championship and even in League One, there are strong and fast players. We have a lot of good technical players up here, boys with a lot of game knowledge. If we can add strength and speed to it then these boys can go down to England and play at the top level.
“If I’d looked at the boys coming through at Hearts six or seven years ago, they were smaller and not as strong and physical. The boys nowadays are strong and physical and we need to keep that going because it’s a big part of the game.”
With that, Neilson was off to take training. His first morning back at Hearts involved cooking bratwurst in a PR stunt to help promote the upcoming friendly against the German club Wolfsburg. It was a task he undertook with notable aplomb. Just like that tackle. He will coach a new generation of Riccarton academy pupils with the exact same professionalism.