• Angus McGregor

Robbie Neilson, Hearts Manager: The First Time

Football in Scotland may quite possibly be the most entertaining league off the field. No matter what the circumstances may be, there is always something brewing, whether its club statements, pantomime press conferences or unusual cup draws, there's always plenty of entertainment away from the pitch. Recently, with the Coronavirus epidemic, the main talking points have come from the SPFL vote to end the season early, using current standings in the lower leagues and points per game in the top flight. This vote and its proceedings hardly went smoothly but eventually, the clubs who were declared champions and promoted were decided, as well as those who would be relegated.

With this, Dundee United, who were running away from the rest of the pack in the Scottish Championship, were rewarded with promotion to the top flight. It's hard to argue that United deserved to go up, with an impressive campaign that saw them sit 14 points ahead of second-placed Inverness.

Subsequently, this followed the relegation of the bottom-placed team from the Premiership, who would turn out to be Heart of Midlothian. The Jambos sat 4 points off 11 place with 8 games to go, making their dismissal to the lower league come as unfair due to the portion of games that were left to play.

As the league stumbled to a decision and failed attempts at league reconstruction, Hearts alongside Partick Thistle have submitted legal proceedings, deeming the relegations unfair and the decisions against them unjust. With this, it has dragged Dundee United into the mix, as they are the team scheduled to replace the Edinburgh side in the top flight. Both teams now seem to be clashing off the field and in the courtroom, which makes yesterdays appointment extremely peculiar.

On the 21st of June, rumours started to emerge that Robbie Neilson, the current Dundee United manager, was in talks with Hearts, the team his current side were to replace in the top flight. At around 7:25 pm, Hearts officially announced that they had agreed to terms and that Neilson was indeed returning to Tynecastle for next season. Considering the off-field issues, this has come as a massive shock, undoubtedly adding more fuel to the fire currently between the two clubs. With legal trouble and manager swaps, the next game between these two sides is surely set to be a fiery affair.

As mentioned before, Neilson would be returning to Tynecastle, having spent 10 years there as a first-team player (1999-2009) as well as a three-year stint in coaching between 2013 and 2016. The last two of those years saw Neilson gain his first job as a manager, helming Hearts as they faced a tough season in the Scottish Championship. Neilson would leave in 2016, for English League 1 side MK Dons, a move that didn't quite work out in the end.

Nonetheless, Neilson has managed to find his way back to Tynecastle very quickly, which seems to have delighted many fans. But was this admiration apparent within his first stint at the club? Neilson's tenure as a manager at Tynecastle was an interesting one and with the latest news, is no better time to look back on his spell at the Gorgie club.

The Appointment

Following a dismal 2013/14 season, Hearts were relegated from the Scottish Premiership, finishing bottom due to a 15 point deduction for entering administration. With a season of uncertainty and a lot of young players thrust straight into the first team, Hearts were unable to turn over the 15 point deficit. Interestingly enough, they would have avoided automatic relegation and finished in the playoffs had they not been penalised, although their neighbours Hibs - who did finish their - also ended up relegated.

Following years of financial trouble, a new group led by Ann Budge coming in as the majority shareholder. Along with her new position, former Scotland and Hearts manager Craig Levein was appointed as Director of Football, with Robbie Neilson coming as first-team manager to oversee the clubs season in the Scottish Championship. Usually, a side like Hearts ending up in the Championship would easily declare them as favourites, simply due to the sheer size of the club and their support. As previously mentioned, though, joining them would be their bitter rivals Hibernian, meaning bragging rights going along with a return to the Premiership. With a point deduction saving Hibs from automatic relegation instead of Hearts, much more had been added to the usual feistiness of the Edinburgh derby.

To make matters more troubling, the previously demoted Rangers were making their way through the league system and were also set to be in the Championship. Rangers, of course, are a juggernaut in the world of football and would usually be challenging for the Premiership title but again, due to financial difficulties saw them removed from the top flight. The Championship now had 3 of the countries 5 biggest teams, making it easily the most competitive second flight of Scottish football in the modern era.

Straight away, there was huge pressure on Neilson as the club would not want to have another season in the Championship and be desperate to get back to where they believed they belong. With an inexperienced manager and a total rebuild of their team, Hearts had a lot to prove in a top-heavy Championship with big guns and tough places such as Falkirk and Queen of the South.

The 2013/14 Season

The aforementioned inclusion of the big boys in the Championship led to a whole summer of speculation on who would come out on top and get that early advantage at the beginning of the season. Hearts would not have long to wait at all for their first clashes against Rangers and Hibs, as their two opening fixtures saw them face both respectively. The first fixture, arguably the toughest, was Rangers away at Ibrox. Following a competitive yet goalless first half, Hearts took all three points in dramatic fashion, winning thanks to a last-minute winner from new signing Osman Sow, straight after Rangers equalised moments before. Hearts had made a great statement of intent in dramatic fashion, gaining valuable momentum before the Edinburgh Derby the following week.

Hearts this time were hosts as their city rivals came to Tynecastle, in a game that was full of fire but not so much quality. A couple of red cards saw each team go down to 10 men as Hearts came out 2-1 winners, with Hibs squandering a controversial penalty. With the two toughest games gone, Hearts had conceded no points and taken points off both their league rivals, putting them immediately in the driving seat and full of momentum. This momentum would prove to be extremely key for Robbie Neilson as his team asserted their dominance in the league. The Jambos would go on an impressive 20 league game unbeaten run, winning 17 of those before a defeat to Falkirk on the 24th of January. In terms of dominance, Hearts were unstoppable, doing the double over Rangers whilst blowing away the likes of Cowdenbeath, Dumbarton and Livingston with ease. In this 20 game run, Hearts scored 52 goals and only conceded 10 as Neilson won Manager of the Month in August, October and November.

Hearts weren't giving much up, having not conceded more than once in any game before finally being defeated, a great showcase of how Neilson was setting up. Hearts were not leaking many goals and perhaps weren't playing the most attractive of football at times. At the same time, though, they were incredibly dominant and you cannot argue with an unbeaten record, at any level.

After the 3-2 loss to Falkirk, Hearts would go onto to win their next 9 games straight in the league, amassing 32 goals, including 10 in a total demolishing of Cowdenbeath, whilst conceding only 5 more. With the first setback of Neilson's tenure, they responded ferociously at a key point of the season as this stretch of games ended up securing Hearts the Championship title, with 7 games to go after Rangers defeated Hibs. A 23 point gap was too much to be caught as Hearts ensured their place in the top flight with ease, the earliest a team has won the division as Neilson and Hearts enjoyed a season of total dominance.

With nothing left to play for, Hearts did take their foot off the pedal, but not dramatically. They would lose away to Rangers and Hibs in meaningless games, only losing a smidgen of bragging points as they'd end up being the only one of the three to move up to the Premiership. In his first season in charge, Hearts had an excellent league record of 36 games played, 91 points gained, 96 goals scored and 26 goals conceded. Neilson had shown many great traits such as coping with immense pressure and a great defensive side, using his experiences as a defender to great use. Neilson had delivered and then some on the season's expectations, the only main gripe being his cup record, in which he was defeated twice by Celtic and used the Ramsden's Cup to field youth players. With an immense record, the development of young payers and a rise in average attendance, you could not fault Neilson's first season as a manager as in reality, his and Hearts' approach is what Rangers should've looked to have done rather than focussing on expensive veterans.

The 2015/16 Season

As Neilson and Hearts prepared for their first season back in the top flight, they lost a couple of ever-present figures from their team, most notably Danny Wilson. Despite this, Hearts did improve their squad, bringing in the likes of John Souttar, Juanma Delgado and Igor Rossi. The season started with an exciting 4-3 victory over St Johnstone which kickstarted a 5 game winning streak right off the bat at the start of the season. However, Hearts would be knocked back down to earth, losing three on the trot, matching the number of games lost in the previous season albeit in a higher league. Following this, though, Hearts drew 0-0 away to Champions Celtic, more than holding their own and showcasing the stability and resiliency that Neilson's team would possess. From this point on, Hearts would only lose another 6 league games (6 out of 32), with three of those coming against Celtic and Aberdeen, the only two teams to finish above them.

In their first season back, Hearts had again done extremely well, finishing comfortably in third place, securing European football the next season. Of course, it wasn't as much of a guns-blazing season as the one prior but you have to look at the difference in quality. Yes, the Championship did have Rangers and Hibs, but when you look at the quality of the rest of the clubs, Hearts would be expected to win most games. Playing the majority of games against Dumbarton, Alloa, Raith, Cowdenbeath and Livingston is a massive difference to playing against teams like St Johnstone, Motherwell, Dundee and Partick Thistle at the time. Strangely, this seemed to be a concept a small minority were unable to grasp and it wasn't as if Hearts record had now become extremely poor. With 38 games played, they still won 18 and drew 11, a fantastic record for a first season back.

Despite some groans, this return to the top flight was a great success for Neilson and his squad. They were still on good form and many players had gained valuable experience in the top flight. The progression of young players was still apparent as well as again, showcasing the same stability from the Championship season. However, there was one instance that really seemed to bother some members of the Hearts support and would be the beginning of a turn against their former captain.

The Scottish Cup and the Plane Banner

In preparation for this post, I asked a few Hearts fans as to why some held some disdain for Robbie Neilson and quite bizarrely, a main reason seemed to be the outcome of the 2016 Scottish Cup. The winner of the competition was local rivals Hibs, and the fact Hearts failed to stop Hibs from doing so apparently really rubbed a lot of Hearts fans the wrong way. Hearts were drawn at home to Hibs in the Scottish Cup Fifth Round, ensuring an Edinburgh Derby for the season. Hearts raced into a 2-0 lead at half time, before a final ten minutes would change the course of history.

A freak Jason Cummings header set up a tense finale where Hibs would ultimately equalise through Paul Hanlon in the last minute. Hearts had squandered a glorious chance to rub salt further in the wounds of their neighbours by extending their woes in the Scottish Cup. They still had the chance to do so despite giving up a glorious lead, this time in an away replay. Disaster struck though as Hibs knocked Hearts out, with a solitary Jason Cummings goal being the difference. As we all know, Hibs would progress and go all the way, winning the Scottish Cup 3-2 against Rangers, ending a 114-year wait to lift the trophy.

Interestingly, the fact that Hearts were in a position to end Hibs' dreams for another season and the fact they failed to do so made a lot of Hearts fans turn against Neilson, despite all of his good work. The rivalry and bragging rights between the two teams seemed to outshine everything else he had done, with many not happy to lose the ability to gloat over their city rivals. To an outsider, this seems quite frankly ridiculous, anything can happen in cup games and looking back, it was just one of those years that Hibs caught an abundance of luck. Hearts were still in a league above them and would be for another season with European football, yet, one eventual cup win for their rivals turned fans sour. Sure, it is disappointing and you're not expected to like it, but the reaction towards this seems like a gross exaggeration. Perhaps due to my own team not having a true rival like these two, I'm unable to properly see the severity of this result in the grand scheme of things but ultimately, can't help but feel that it is a silly reason.

Following this result, Hearts were defeated by Dundee United, adding more fuel to these fans opinions of Neilson. However, Hearts quickly returned to form winning their next two games. Bizarrely enough, for Hearts' next game against Partick Thistle, a small group of Hearts fans organised for a plane to fly over Tynecastle, reading 'No Style, No Bottle, Neilson Out'. Hearts at this point were comfortable in third place, in their first season back in the Premiership. What on earth were these fans expecting? Flying planes with banners is an embarrassment regardless, but doing so when you're club was succeeding is extremely petulant and truly bewildering. Following this, there seemed to constantly be mumbles from Hearts fans scrutinising every little thing Neilson did. Every little setback was bemoaned as a great sense of entitlement seemed to appear at Tynecastle. If only these fans could see what was to come, they would not take such a position for granted.

The 2016/17 Season and Departure

After a successful returning campaign, Hearts returned early with a couple of Europa League qualifiers. After easily dismissing Estonian side Infonet, Hearts were disappointingly beat over two legs by Maltese side Birkirkara. Again, this would've added more to those who were anti-Neilson in what was a disappointing outcome to be fair. Following this was a home defeat to Celtic, a league cup loss to St Johnstone and a league draw away to Aberdeen. This is far from a good start to a season as the players didn't seem quite as sharp from the get-go in previous seasons. Hearts would win 5 of the next 7 but the issues of fans and Neilson continued to grow, with fans targeting his pragmatic playing style. Fans were growing tired of Neilson's tactics and wanted a better style of football, despite Hearts still doing pretty well in the league.

As Hearts lost to Kilmarnock and then drew three on the bounce, Neilson continued to be scrutinised by members of his home support, as they went through a small patch of unlucky results. Following this, Neilson would have his last two games as Hearts manager, both at home. It was a good farewell for Neilson, defeating Motherwell 3-0 and dismissing Rangers 2-0 before heading off to sign for MK Dons. Neilson left Hearts in second place, above both Rangers and Aberdeen with arguably a lower budget than both teams. Yet to some, this was still not good enough, as Neilson exited with a lot of fans having got their wish. As previously mentioned, if only they knew of the horrors that were to come.

Final Assessment

From an outside point of view, it seems absolutely ludicrous to look at Robbie Neilson's time at Hearts as anything other than a success. A win percentage of 58.49% in his first managerial job as he exceeded expectations in two full seasons, the job Neilson did to get them back into the Premiership and into Europe is commendable. He won the toughest Championship with ease, breeding a competitive team for the top flight and restoring Hearts to where they belong. I really don't know what much more Hearts fans could want within the time constraints and budget given to Neilson and a small minority of their support acted rather delusional at times. Neilson built a foundation that would soon be completely destroyed, eventually leading to the shambolic state of affairs that they are in right now.

Every team in Scotland bar the Old Firm go through down periods, it is just the nature of our game. The likes of Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen, even the Dundee sides go through periods where everything is great but then face a great adversary. For most of these teams, the constant rebuilding of a successful team eventually catches up on them, leading to seasons that are indeed a dip, see Aberdeen this season. Certain teams fans have a great entitlement after a brief spell of success and start dreaming of what they can do. Sure, be optimistic, but also realistic and understanding of situations and I don't believe Neilson got the right treatment at times from his club's supporters. In an ideal world, all of our teams would play Barcelona-esque football but let's be serious, in Scotland who is really going to achieve that?

With a controversial relegation, how interesting it is that they turn to Neilson once again to get them out of a mess. With a great résumé in the Championship, Neilson should do the job as Hearts will be expected to go back up. But it has to be asked, if Hearts fans didn't like him the first time, are they not going to feel the same soon after they return to the top flight? Or has the Cathro/Levein/Stendel experiment made them realise that the grass isn't always greener and will offer a lot more patience and understanding this time around? Only time will tell, but this is the same club who booed their team off the park after drawing at home to Livingston, whilst sitting at the top of the Premiership.

Hearts have pulled off quite the coup securing the services Robbie Neilson who I am surprised has given up the chance at the Premiership with this Dundee United side. Clearly, the love Neilson has for the club is deep and truly wants to help the club get back on its feet which should hopefully put him in many fans good books. As he has returned so enthusiastically, he deserves the same respect he's shown to the club back from the fans as hopefully, a vocal minority have learned their lesson. Perhaps this time he'll be hoping to avoid a cup tie against Hibernian, just in case.

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