A Public Apology to Robbie Neilson

by Jun 10, 2022

As the dust settles on 2021/22 and the end-of-season review podcasts pile up in our playlists, I’d like to use my own platform to do something a little different. I plan to do a more player-specific piece at a later date, but for now I’d like to issue a written apology to the man at the helm.

In late March last year, following a week in which we were eliminated from the Scottish Cup by non-league Brora Rangers and lost at home to Queen of the South, I expressed my desire to see Robbie Neilson leave. I referred to him as a “busted flush” and decried any previously-held belief that he was the man to lead the club forward.

It was an emotional response, one that Neilson provoked with his suggestion that if we wanted to win every week, we ought to support Manchester City: a comment he made after overseeing one of the worst results in the club’s history. Had Neilson been jettisoned from his post at that exact moment, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the only one nodding in approval. 

Fast-forward 15 months and, having witnessed such a stark turnaround, it’s hard to look back on that period without considering what the Sliding Doors effect would’ve been if Neilson had been sacked. When the Foundation of Hearts stressed the point that the club would be fan-owned and not fan-run, this is precisely why.

As someone who used to scoff at folk who over-reacted to every poor performance or defeat in isolation, I now look back on those tweets with a mixture of embarrassment and regret. It’s part of a football supporter’s nature to deal in extremes, but the past two seasons at Hearts have served as a reminder that football is rarely (if ever) a case of black and white. 

Yes, there will be euphoric highs and gut-wrenching lows along the way. This season alone, there were plenty occasions when it would have been easy to over-react either positively or negatively to specific results. However, unless you support a team that’s used to winning all the time (or one plummeting down through the divisions) the bigger picture usually sees most fans’ experiences land somewhere in the middle. Heart of Midlothian is no different in that respect. Those in charge realised this and stuck by their man. Safe to say, it paid off.

As a result, the club will reap the potentially transformative financial rewards of European group stage football next season. Domestically, that will fund the principal goal of consolidating third and ensuring this season wasn’t a flash in the pan. Neilson got us to this point and has earned the right to oversee that next stage in the club’s journey.

Yet there are still people who remain unconvinced. Most of them will point to our track record against the top two this season, which was generally unblemished by success, as evidence that Neilson isn’t the man to take us forward.

That may prove to be the case further down the line, but this is a gradual process, and at this relatively early stage, talk of closing the gap on the top two is fanciful. It’s certainly not the yardstick for measuring Neilson’s current success. When Celtic and Rangers stand to make even more money from Europe than we will, the best we can hope for right now is to keep pace and ensure the gap doesn’t increase. Even that could prove challenging.

Looking at it from a shorter-term perspective, a more realistic measure of progress can be found in three other areas: our away record, derby record and cup record. 

In terms of our away record, our points per game (PPG) this season was 1.26, the best it’s been in the top flight since the 1.42 PPG recorded under Neilson six years ago. The figure may be lower than in 2015/16, but when you consider there were two trips to Ibrox this season that weren’t on the fixture card back then, the difference is negligible.

Then there’s the derby record. What was once a millstone around Neilson’s neck – due in large part to the solitary win in six during his first spell – has been lifted since he returned. Of the five derbies he’s overseen in that time, we’ve won three and drawn two, with two of those wins coming at the most vital point in the season. 

When it transpired that we would face Hibs twice in the space of a week – in our last pre-split fixture and the Scottish Cup semi-final – I have to admit I had my doubts Neilson could produce back-to-back wins. 

A large part of that is because I’m a natural pessimist before most derbies, but there was also the nagging memory of the “money spinner” derby that ultimately made Neilson persona non grata with a lot of supporters during his first spell. With so much riding on those two derbies, it felt as though Hibs were due an opportunity to spoil the party and give those supporters an excuse to beat him with the same stick. Of course, they didn’t and Neilson exorcised a lot of derby demons that week.

Which goes hand-in-hand with the cup record. While he can’t take full credit for the run up to the first, Robbie Neilson has led us to two Scottish Cup finals in each of his two seasons since returning, a marked improvement on his first spell where cup competitions were almost seen as an afterthought.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. 

Firstly, there is the Brora-shaped black mark in between both of those finals. There’s also the manner of the defeat to Rangers in this season’s final. Then there’s the matter of our pathetic League Cup record, which Neilson is not solely to blame for but has done little to improve in his two spells in charge, having been knocked out by Alloa last year and Celtic this year (a fate that could have been avoided with a better goal difference in the group stage). Ultimately, we want to get to a level where we reach finals most seasons and actually win them.

The same goes for the away record. It might be an improvement on recent seasons, but is it at a level we’re willing to settle for? Of course not. We dropped too many cheap points on trips to Perth, Dingwall, Motherwell and Aberdeen this season. Those need to bear more fruit in future.

And obviously we want to win every derby.

These are all aspirations I’m sure Robbie Neilson has too, as will Joe Savage, Andrew McKinlay and Ann Budge. Since coming out of administration, it felt as though the club had been setting the bar too low and was too quick to accept mediocrity. However, when Neilson was asked to grade this season in an interview on the latest Scarves Around The Funnel podcast, I was encouraged when he gave it a B. 

It was an acknowledgement that, yes, it’s been a good season, but if we want to have a great season, a legendary season even, we need to be better in the areas identified above. It’s not going to happen overnight, but as Ruaraidh Mackay noted in his last piece, stability will be key

By operating on more stable financial ground, with a settled squad on the pitch and a vastly-improved recruitment team off it, the club has given itself every chance of making those improvements.

Time will tell if Robbie Neilson is the man to see those through, but he deserves enormous credit for getting us to this position in the first place. There were more than a few of us who tweeted some very knee-jerk stuff about him during the 2020/21 season and he’s served us all a slice of humble pie since.

You could see at full-time in the Scottish Cup semi just what the win meant to him. You can hear it in the way he speaks about the club and the fans. His love for Heart of Midlothian is unquestionable. He is, as they say, a Proper Hearts Man.

Thanks for reading.

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