Robbie Neilson: The manager who came back from the point of no return
As 2021 draws to a close, Craig Fowler looks at how Hearts boss Robbie Neilson was not only able to salvage his job in the face of hostile pressure, but ultimately make an undoubted success of the squad.
Cards on the table. I didn't want Robbie Neilson back, and I was someone who was never particularly on board with the hate which partially led (as much as he will diplomatically say otherwise) to his departure for MK Dons the first time around.
Managers can often do their best work in their first job, and after struggling in England’s League One and then needing a second bite at the cherry to get Dundee United back into the top flight, it seemed unlikely he was going to better his first stint in management, which would then have fans turning on him again. Surely there was a better choice of figure to lead a heavily-favoured Hearts side back to the top flight?
Many fans wanted Daniel Stendel to be given longer in the job. Sure, he'd failed in his remit to keep Hearts in the top flight, but in Stendel's own reasoning we find explanations for why the club was also at fault: there was too much of a naivety (if you're being kind) or arrogance (if you're not) regarding the perilous situation. This was a Hearts team full of quality players. It was surely too big and too good to go down. That’s what the club thought as they dragged their heels over a hire and that’s what Stendel thought when he immediately went about completely overhauling the style of the team. A lesson once again, if we ever needed it, that you should never assume anything in football.
So Neilson came back in and, for a while, things were great. The excellent performance against Dundee on the opening night of the season, a 6-2 victory, ended up being a bit of an outlier as Hearts didn’t quite hit the heights of their previous Championship campaign, but it was enough. They were romping to the title before Christmas. His standing was also helped by the semi-final win against Hibs – Neilson shaking off the 'can't win derbies' tag – and running trophy-addicts Celtic to within two penalty saves of winning the Scottish Cup.
But after that things got very stale, very quickly. League performances dropped considerably and then came the Scottish Cup match against Brora Rangers. It's been done to death at this point, but it was a hugely embarrassing night in the club's history and captain Christophe Berra coming out after the game and saying, essentially "it had been coming" didn't exactly help himself, his team-mates or his manager.
What was worse was when fans were expecting and demanding a response, Hearts lost at home to Queen of the South. There were supporter protests outside the ground and, other than flaunting lockdown rules to do so, it was hard to blame them. After all, this was an ownership who had failed to spot the massive leaking holes in the ship under Craig Levein. It just seemed they were doing the same again with Neilson.
What probably saved his job was the quality of opposition. Sure, Queen of the South could beat Hearts, so could Raith Rovers, and pretty much anyone in the division on their day, but these sides weren't strong enough to cope consistently with the most talented team in the league. Well managed or not, the title was always going to Gorgie and there were enough positive results to keep Neilson in place.
And thanks goodness he is! Just seven months later Hearts have a five-point lead in third place with two winnable home games before playing Hibs in the season's second Edinburgh derby. Things can go very wrong in a heartbeat and, again, this being football, no chickens should be counted, but it also seems extremely unlikely given what we've witnessed so far this campaign.
It's not just the fact Hearts are third immediately after promotion. Part of this, if you're being unkind, can be attributed to the main rivals for the spot coming into the year – Aberdeen, Hibs and St Johnstone – all being surprisingly underwhelming. But it's the manner in which they've been performing which is most pleasing. Their ability to control the majority of matches, especially away from home, is something barely seen at Tynecastle since that Jim Jefferies side which burned so bright before Kevin Kyle's hips fell apart and the rest of the team went with him.
The away form has been almost bizarrely good for any seasoned Tynecastle onlookers. Hearts are notoriously dreadful on their travels, yet they've won four times before the turn of the year and have been unlucky not to win a couple more.
Centre-midfielders Cammy Devlin and Beni Baningime have been two of the best signings the club has made in years. This is a credit to Joe Savage, but also to Neilson himself. He's the one who crafted the 3-4-3 system which has operated seamlessly for the most part and he knew exactly which type of players he wanted in the centre. He didn't want the balance of 'one attacker, one defender'. He wanted two guys who would consistently break up play, get their foot on the ball and make the simple, but forward, pass. It means Hearts often dominate the midfield area and, even when the forwards aren't flying, as few of them have this year, there's still enough opportunities in the final third to create and score.
When Hearts lost to Queens, it was the point in which no manager comes back. The fans had had enough, the players didn't look like they were responding and surely a change was necessary. We thought it was just a matter of time.
Chairwoman Ann Budge certainly had her failings in her time as owner and key decision-maker, but she certainly got this one right.