There have often been debates on Hearts social media following a bad result this season concerning the merits of Robbie Neilson and Daniel Stendel, Neilson’s predecessor in the Hearts dugout.
Looking at their respective records at Hearts, it should be no contest – Neilson is the clear winner, but why is it that Stendel is still held in such affection by some of the Hearts support? The answer lies in the circumstances of their respective tenures in the Tynecastle hotseat.
Robbie Neilson has always been a divisive figure amongst the Hearts support. For every fan who lauded his wholeheartedness and consistency, there were others who were irked by his limitations and who were driven disproportionately furious by the occasional shank out of play into the main stand from his usual right back berth.
Nonetheless, the abiding memories of ‘Robbie the player’, as he is often referred to in the mononymous way which infers affection, will be two things: the last minute goal in Basel, which secured a magnificent away victory in the UEFA cup, and the game-saving slide tackle on Gretna’s David Graham, which helped to secure the Scottish Cup in 2006. He was, for many years, a steady 7/10 player every week in the match ratings: consistent, reliable, never likely to inspire the team to victory nor make a calamitous error.
When Ann Budge assumed control of Hearts in 2014, he was a somewhat unexpected choice as Head Coach. He had no prior experience in a Head Coach role and was replacing the ‘brutally axed’ Gary Locke, who had done much to keep the spirits up at the club during the endurance test that was the 2013/14 season. Still, at his first press conference, standing alongside both Craig Levein and Ann Budge, he cut a smartly-dressed, confident and assured figure and there was a feeling that the club was in good hands. This was to prove emphatically correct as the team romped home in a Scottish Championship that, unusually, also had Hibs and Rangers amongst its number.
There were hints of problems to come though: Hearts’ record versus Hibs that season was mixed (P4, W1, D2, L1) with both draws coming from losing positions. Hibs under Alan Stubbs, despite the sparsely populated stands at Easter Road, often appeared to be more up for the games. The imperious league victory, with the title wrapped up before the school Easter holidays, served to reduce these concerns to mere murmurs of discontent at the time.
Robbie continued the good league form into his second season: indeed, the team started so strongly, winning our first five league games in a row, that those of us who get carried away with such things were even talking about potential title challenges. Subsequent losses to Hamilton and Inverness CT knocked that on the head.
Then came Aberdeen at Tynecastle and we all got a huge reality check, with the Dons racing into a 3-0 half time lead and looking a good few levels above their opponents. Hearts went on to recover their form though and put in a respectable challenge in the league to the eventually 2nd placed Dons, finishing 3rd, 6 points behind the Pittodrie men. Few of us would have predicted that our third place position in the league in May 2016, would be as high as we would finish for at least six years.
Perhaps the beginning of some fans turning against Robbie was the Scottish Cup 5th round game versus Hibs. Hearts, 2-0 up and coasting against their lower league opponents thanks to first half goals from Sam Nicholson and Arnaud Djoum, incredulously went on to concede goals from Jason Cummings and Paul Hanlon to draw the game 2-2, leading to a replay which Neilson infamously described in his post-match comments as ‘Money Spinning’.
Hibs would go on to win the 2016 Scottish Cup, their first win since 1902, thus robbing the Hearts fans of their 100+ years in a row terrace chant, often used to taunt their rivals. Neilson was the man at the wheel when this happened and will forever be tainted by it. This ultimately led to some fans going to the extreme of hiring a plane to fly over Tynecastle with the banner “No bottle, No Style, Neilson Out”, which still seems as absurd now as it did then.
Then there was Birkirkara in summer 2016. The club’s first foray into Europe since the 2012 game against Liverpool had seen us comfortably dispatch Estonian opponents in the first tie, before being drawn against the Maltese side – it looked to be a winnable tie. After drawing 0-0 in Malta, a game in which we had chances to win, Hearts went on to lose 2-1 at Tynecastle. Given the lowly standing of Maltese football, the result could only really be perceived as an embarrassment.
Nevertheless, the club made a solid start to the 2016/7 league season and, even with Rangers back in the league, were sitting in second place in November 2016, following a 2-0 home win over the Ibrox men. This proved to be Robbie’s last game in charge in his first spell as Hearts coach, as he chose to take up an offer to become Head Coach of MK Dons in England’s League One the following day. It seemed an odd choice at the time (MK Dons are and always will be a smaller club than Hearts) but the discontent many fans had expressed, including the infamous plane banner, may well have played a part in his decision.
It can be argued that the club’s subsequent decline in league performance can be traced back to the departure of Neilson in November 2016; certainly our subsequent finishing positions of 5th, 6th, 6th, 12th* (*league called early by Zoom meeting due to Covid 19 after 30 games played), have been nowhere near good enough.
Fast forward to December 2019 and the appointment of former Barnsley Head Coach, Daniel Stendel, to the Hearts hot seat. Described as ‘unkempt’ by Graham Spiers, on the basis of his appearance during his first press conference, there was perhaps an immediate contrast in sartorial elegance with that of some of his predecessors. But, more importantly for the fans, the German’s preferred playing style, gegenpressing (the high intensity, high press, attacking style of play popularised by Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool), promised a contrast with the dull, pragmatic and defensive football that had become the norm in preceding seasons at Hearts.
Stendel inherited a shambles. An injury-ravaged, out-of-form, unbalanced squad which lacked, amongst many other things, a competent goalkeeper. His forward options for his first game amounted to 37-year old Steven MacLean and the unproven Aidan Keena, both of whom have since left the club. After just a few days training with the squad, he was thrown into a hectic schedule involving five fixtures in 15 days from December 14th to 29th, including games against Celtic, Aberdeen and Hibs.
The squad he inherited had none of the qualities required to play a high defensive line with an aggressive press. Christophe Berra should rightly be remembered as a fine player for Hearts but, at this stage of his career, asking him to play a high line was pretty cruel. The midfield lacked aggression and pace. Glenn Whelan, brought in as something of a marquee signing, was a lacklustre and disappointing presence. Of the forwards, perhaps the most ideally suited to an aggressive pressing game was Conor Washington and he was injured. So it was unsurprising that he started with four defeats in four games, before a spirited draw in his fifth game against Aberdeen.
Stendel’s ability to coach the players in his preferred style was also hindered by the fact that his coaching staff, Jorg Sievers and Dale Tonge, weren’t recruited by the club until several weeks after his appointment. There was also the farcical situation of his immediate predecessor still hanging around the club in a de facto Director of Football role. The environment in the club was far from ideal, the timing was far from ideal and it would have been difficult for any Head Coach to be successful.
Despite this, there were some encouraging signs after the winter break. Making full use of the club’s young players, Euan Henderson, Lewis Moore and Andy Irving all featured prominently. Hearts played 12, won five, drew four and lost three from January until the league was halted in March. Stendel’s coaching visibly improved some of the players: Henderson and Moore became energetic, pacy options in attack; Sean Clare a revelation as a goal scoring, attacking right back; Irving a classy playmaker; Bozanic an energetic and dynamic goalscoring midfielder. There were stunning victories over Rangers (twice) and Hibs, where there was evidence that the high-energy attacking football could work.
To say it was all good would be pushing it though. The spring board that the league win over Rangers in January could have provided, was quickly flattened by defensive frailties exposed as the team let a lead slip against St Johnstone before snatching a 3-3 draw, and the Kilmarnock game at home saw the team go 3-0 down before very nearly coming back to draw 3-3, eventually falling a goal short.
The defensive weakness wasn’t helped by his key January defensive midfield signing, Toby Sibbick, contracting glandular fever. Sibbick would only feature in two games for the club: the win over Rangers and the following game in Perth. He has since gone on to claim a first team starting jersey back in the English Championship for Barnsley and had a great game versus Chelsea recently in the FA Cup.
Perhaps the biggest case for the prosecution of Stendel’s time at Hearts was his persistence in goals with the Manchester United loanee Joel Pereira, the goalkeeper who many have speculated had hands made of poppadum, such was his inability to save even the most basic of shots.
I’ll confess, I personally bought into the hype around our new found high defensive line and the need to have a sweeper keeper, and defended Pereira because I reasoned that he was good with the ball at his feet. Yet, Pereira was so bad at saving shots, that we might have been as well playing a midfielder in goals if that was the case. It is possible that there were punitive clauses in Pereira’s loan deal that meant it would cost the club more not to play him, but no single player contributed more to the club being bottom of the table.
In Stendel’s last game, the team lost 1-0 away to St Mirren, having played poorly, leaving them adrift at the bottom of the league and in scope for demotion when the league was called. It was very poor by all accounts of those who were there.
Yet, it is perhaps the excitement of those high-tempo exciting wins over Hibs and Rangers that gave a tantalising glimpse of what could be. The hairs still stand up on the back of my neck whenever I watch the Bozanic goal at Easter Road, the memory made all the more visceral by the wild celebrations in the packed away end when the ball hit the back of the net.
It all creates a feeling of ‘what if‘? What if Stendel had been given more time to build his own squad? What if he had more time to train the players in his preferred style? What if he had come into a more stable and successful club?
The truth is that Robbie Neilson is probably the right man for our current circumstances and, as mentioned earlier, there has been a consistent decline in the team’s performances since he left first time around. But, whenever the team churns out another dull and pragmatic performance, it is perhaps too easy to hark back to the brief tenure of Stendel and place disproportionate emphasis on those swashbuckling attacking performances, forgetting the dreadful ones and wondering what could have been?
Given the circumstances the club found itself in last summer, appointing Robbie was a pragmatic choice due to his track record in achieving promotion and, despite some ropey performances this season, I hope in the longer term that he will take the club back to where we all want to be – contending for European places in the Premiership. However, there’s still plenty of room for improvement and, given how short his tenure proved to be, there will always be some debate as to whether we did indeed have a diamond in Daniel Stendel.