Robbie’s the real deal, says Neil

by Jun 30, 2015

Robbie’s the real deal, says Neil

It’s a new week and so far there has been little in the way of material to digest, the only pieces of actual ‘news’ being the announcement of this summer’s “glamour” friendly at Tynecastle, which will see Roberto Martinez’s Everton side make the trip north of the border on 25th July, and Robbie Neilson’s hopes of involving the fit-again trio of Prince Buaben, Neil Alexander and Billy King in Wednesday’s friendly against Bohemians.

Otherwise, most of the Hearts-related conversation has been about Neilson himself, with current goalkeeper Neil Alexander heaping praise on his head coach, describing him as “one of the best young managers and coaches I have ever seen in football”:

“His work ethic, the hours he puts in behind the scenes, his dedication, his methods on the training pitch…are absolutely first-class. I have no doubts whatsoever that he is going to go on and become a really top manager one day. His attention to detail is so good, he leaves nothing to chance…he is always looking at ways to improve the team and make us better.”

Praise indeed from a player who has worked under experienced, seasoned managers such as Walter Smith and Tony Pulis. As successful as Smith and Pulis have been in their respective managerial careers, however, both are very much representatives of the ‘old school’. Neilson, despite his relative rookie status, represents the next generation; an exciting crop of innovative, young, forward-thinking managers who have taken “the way things have always been done” in the game and re-invented it. The triple training sessions, for example, which are now commonplace at Riccarton, were unheard of in the Scottish sphere and are now hailed by the current Hearts players as a positive factor in their development.

That innovative, forward-thinking philosophy will be of undoubted value when planning for higher-quality Premiership opposition next season, although former Hearts left-back Tosh McKinlay believes the tutelage provided by Craig Levein will be of even greater importance to Neilson:

“You always need an old head and a bit of experience, especially when the going gets tough. There’s no doubt in my mind it will be tough for Hearts next year. Robbie will need to lean on Craig because there are the bread-and-butter games away from home…when you go away to places like Inverness, Dingwall, Aberdeen, Dundee, that’s the challenge. Craig has done all that.”

In terms of the challenge next season poses, McKinlay is right to advise caution. Hearts fans are notorious for getting carried away with success and often we lose sight of the wider context in which that success was achieved. As phenomenal as last season was, there will be a step up in quality that the players and coaching staff will need to manage wisely. However, there is no reason to believe Robbie Neilson will struggle with that challenge, given the way he excelled in his first full season as head coach.

Furthermore, in a week where a Premiership manager such as Gary Locke was linked with Lee McCulloch and re-signed Kris Boyd, two players who struggled to make any sort of impact at a lower level, one re-thinks just how much of a challenge certain clubs will pose Hearts next season. I have seen people defend the Boyd/McCulloch stuff as being the absolute limit of Kilmarnock’s scouting capacity and that Locke is doing the best he can within tight financial restraints.

Now, while this isn’t intended as another prolonged attack on Locke’s own managerial abilities, that defence is nonsense. Prior to Ann Budge and Craig Levein stepping in last May, Locke was also being linked with that calibre of player — the Boyds, the Pascalis — while no doubt planning how to reward Jamie Hamill with a lucrative new deal. Had Craig Levein retained his services, I find little reason to believe that Locke’s signing policy would have changed, even with Levein’s guidance and the wider scouting network. No doubt Levein envisaged something similar.

The richer scouting resources afforded to Robbie Neilson work because he has the intelligence to identify what is needed in order to move the team to the next level. He is willing to take risks and gamble on unknown foreign entities if there is a decent chance of those risks paying off in the name of progress. So far, they have. Meanwhile, his predecessor has recruited Scott Robinson, a player he already knows but barely rated during their time together at Tynecastle (something Robinson himself ran to the papers about at the time). Despite our relatively shambolic record against Killie in recent seasons (especially at home) it is hard to see how Robbie will struggle in a battle of wits against his opposite number when the two sides meet.

Nevertheless, with promising young managers such as Derek McInnes, Paul Hartley and Jackie McNamara also plying their trade in the Premiership, there will be plenty to keep Robbie busy if he is to successfully reaffirm Hearts’ status as a Premiership club and further validate the hype generated by those who tip him for greatness.

Originally published at on June 30, 2015.