Robbie Neilson today revealed that he left Hearts to pursue his dream of one day managing in England’s Premier League. However, he reassured the Tynecastle support that he won’t return to pluck their best players because MK Dons can’t afford them.
Speaking exclusively to the Evening News, Neilson explained how he sought advice from Sir Alex Ferguson and was told he must make the move to Buckinghamshire. He will undertake his first press conference as MK Dons manager today.
The 36-year-old enjoyed two and a half successful years as Hearts head coach, winning the Championship title and guiding the club into Europe. He admitted the decision to leave was extremely difficult but he believes MK Dons can help him reach his ultimate target – a job in the English Premier League.
“I had a phenomenal time at Hearts. I loved every minute. As a coach, I want to progress to the highest level possible. The highest level is the English Premier League. You need to have a strategy to get there,” said Neilson, pictured.
“How do you get to the very top? You need experience and I got that at a brilliant club like Hearts. You’re not going to go to the English Premier League from Hearts. It just doesn’t happen.
“It’s mostly foreign guys and real top-end coaches in the Premier League. Even the guys who have been in the Premier for the last ten years are dropping down into the Championship. They’re getting all the top Championship jobs with security, facilities and the chance to get promoted to the Premier League.
“The jobs left don’t have much stability, or great budgets or great owners. I realise if I want to get to the top then I have to find a way of getting there. The key is to move to a really stable club where the owner will give you time, resources and facilities to build.
“I’ve come down to England to develop as a manager and have success. Hopefully the next step is to do really well at MK, then move again, and move again. I want that progression all the time. I’d also say that MK has the potential to go all the way, so maybe this is the place that could take me to where I want to go.”
Neilson is aware that his move south raised eyebrows. He did extensive research into MK Dons, chairman Pete Winkelman and the club’s potential before making his decision. When Sir Alex Ferguson told him he absolutely had to take the opportunity, the choice was made.
“I asked a lot of questions before I decided to take this job. Everyone I spoke to came back with a glowing reference of the club and the chairman,” explained Neilson.
“I got Alex Smith to speak to Alex Ferguson about it for me, just to find out his thoughts. His opinion was that I had to take it, 100 per cent. When people of that calibre tell you it’s the right thing to do, it made the final decision for me.
“I know people look at me going from the top end of Scotland to a team 19th in League One. I felt it was the right club to come to at the right time. MK are eight points off the play-offs. They’ve had a bad run and key players are about to come back from injury. We have the opportunity to bring players in during January.”
Those players won’t be from Tynecastle, even though he would love to take certain ones to England. “I can’t afford them, to be perfectly honest,” he laughed. “Hearts have some good players and if I could take them, I would. They’re too expensive. Arnaud Djoum is phenomenal, Bjorn Johnsen, John Souttar, Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson. These guys are going to cost £1million and £2m. We’re not in that market.”
Hearts hope to appoint the Newcastle United assistant coach Ian Cathro to replace Neilson, who stressed that whoever succeeds him will land a top job.
“There was still some way to go with Hearts. The next stage for them is trying to secure second place, Europe again, and a cup run. It’s a brilliant job for the guy who comes in,” he said.
“However, it’s not often jobs as stable as this come up in England. I just felt it was right. It was a very difficult decision to leave Hearts. It’s a phenomenal place with a phenomenal owner and having Craig Levein [director of football] there was great support for me.
“This is a massive risk for me. Sometimes you have to take a risk and back yourself.”