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The Neilson Outlook

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It was only the other day that my better half came back after visiting her family and told me about an almighty tantrum her three-year old nephew had thrown because he was unhappy that his gran (my girlfriend’s mum) couldn’t stay at his house for dinner. At the time I laughed this off for what it was — the irrational temperament of a toddler — but it only recently struck me that I witness the same mentality from grown men on an a weekly basis when I go to Hearts games, and that the past week — following defeats to Hibs and bottom-of-the-table Dundee United — has seen that behaviour at its worst for some time, culminating in bizarre calls for Robbie Neilson to be removed from his position.

Before I continue, I’d like to point out that I’m not looking to defend Neilson’s derby record. It’s definitely an issue that he needs to address if he is to be in the Hearts dugout for the foreseeable future. At the same time, however, I’m not prepared to look at Neilson’s derby record in isolation and dissect his managerial ability on that alone. Doing so is as narrow-minded as it is naive.

If derby records alone defined a manager, Gary Locke would not only have his own statue outside Tynecastle, he’d be taking his place at the top table of world football’s managerial elite, instead of searching for his third job in two years. While that isn’t intended as a personal attack on Locke, his poor overall track record outside of the derby matches certainly emphasises the importance of the bigger picture when it comes to judging his successor at Hearts.

If we had been turning in pitiful performances in the league on a weekly basis up until now, the past week would have been a definite cause for concern. As it happens, the defeat to Dundee United on Saturday was our first in the league since September and we’re currently coasting in third place with two games in hand, thanks to the efforts of a squad that our management team has assembled within a prudent budget. Not bad for a club that stared liquidation in the face less than two years ago.

For some, however, our period in administration has become a trifling matter, something they accuse others of using as an excuse for dips in form on the pitch, which (rather alarmingly) suggests that the near-extinction of our club has lost its meaning for a section of Hearts supporters so soon after the event. Those individuals may very well have been the same folk who made empty threats to pull their FOH contributions over this episode, which would go further to imply that the gravity of our recent financial plight never actually registered with them in the first place.

This need for perspective also extends to the derbies. Derbies by their very nature tend to swing back and forth as far as periods of dominance go and most supporters in British football are used to seeing close contests with their rivals. I have referred before to Simon Burnton’s article in The Guardian’s Knowledge section from September 2014, which provides “a semi-exhaustive list of the classic rivalries in English and Scottish domestic football” and ranks their overall head-to-head records by how close they are.

If you scroll to the bottom of that list, you’ll see that Hearts supporters have been blessed with one of the most one-sided derbies in British football (even if Hibs have won two more derbies than us since the article was published). Nevertheless, even in the games Burnton used to compile his list, Hibs had spells in the ascendency, the most recent being a turgid 12-game period in the early 2000s where Hearts picked up a solitary win and lost four (three rather heavily).

We were all gutted about last Tuesday’s result, especially when we were a mere ten minutes away from knocking them out in the first game. However, Hibs are a completely different animal under Alan Stubbs and, as much as it pains me to say it, look like they will continue to hold their own in this rivalry as long as he’s in charge.

It is hard to tell, therefore, if the vitriol unleashed in Neilson’s direction from some quarters is born out of Hearts’ fans disappointment in our own team’s lacklustre performances or the result of a growing realisation that our rivals are no longer the whipping boys of recent years. Either way, the reaction has been needlessly melodramatic and has only served to highlight the lack of emotional intelligence from some in our ranks.

While we were always likely to go through peaks and troughs this season, it is important that we get out of our current rut sooner rather than later and stave off any fears that our season is set to peter out in a style not dissimilar to the way we hobbled to third place under Jim Jefferies in the latter stages of the 2010/11 season. Next week’s double helping of home games against Kilmarnock and Inverness, therefore, provides a timely opportunity for the players and Robbie Neilson to get the supporters back onside with wins against two teams that have also proved troublesome to us in this campaign.

With no cups left to play for, the focus should now be on securing third place as swiftly as possible, which would afford the management team the luxury of extra time to plan for next season. Assuming next season includes the return of European nights to Tynecastle, even the most stubborn of Neilson’s critics — as they fall over themselves to buy their Europa League tickets — will struggle to deny that his second season in management was anything other than successful.

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on February 23, 2016.

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