ROBBIE Neilson has called time on his playing career some years ahead of his original schedule in order to devote all his energies to his new role with Hearts.
The 33-year-old, who has taken over from Darren Murray as youth coach and player development manager at Tynecastle, was listed as a player with his previous club, East Fife. But, as he explained yesterday, he feels the time is right to make a full transition into coaching.
“I was registered as a player, but I’ve decided to hang my boots up and not play any more,” said Neilson, who played for Hearts for a decade before leaving for Leicester City in 2009. “I need to concentrate on doing a really good job here.
“It was difficult at East Fife trying to balance being a player and a coach – it’s very hard to give 100 per cent to each of them. So with this opportunity I’ve got to try and give it my all.
“I’d always thought I’d play to 37, 38, because I’d always looked after myself, but I was getting niggles here and there and I had an operation on my knee last year and it was giving me problems again. I didn’t feel I could get to where I wanted to get to in the past couple of months.
“When you get an opportunity like this you have to just decide that enough is enough. A lot of people say you should keep playing as long as you can, but I felt that I wasn’t going to get to the level that I was capable of before.
“I want to throw myself into the coaching side of things with Hearts now. I’ve been working as a coach for the last three or four years and I started off doing a night here and there and then progressed it with Dundee United.
“I was at Falkirk last season with Steven Pressley and Alex Smith, and even though I signed as a player, I only turned out three times because of my knee problem, but I was training and coaching everyday. Both of them helped me progress that side of my career and I’m very grateful to them for that.”
Neilson thinks he has been given the ideal start in his new job thanks to the work done by Murray, who had been with the club for almost as long as some of the current first-team players have been alive. “Darren Murray did a fantastic job at Hearts, and the ship is sailing in the right direction,” he continued. “The club is bringing through a lot of young players. I just want to come in and tweak things here and there and hopefully continue to produce good players.
“Darren was here for 14 years and decided to go to Coventry. It’s a job that doesn’t come up all that often and I was in the right place at the right time. I love the feeling of seeing a young boy and trying to progress them – I got it at both Falkirk and East Fife. You want to bring youngsters through into the Hearts first-team and ultimately into the Scotland team if you can. It’s great to be back at Hearts. This is my first official day taking training and I’m really looking forward to getting started.
“It’s a great opportunity for me. As soon as I heard Hearts were interested and they made contact with East Fife then it was a no-brainer. I had a fantastic time at East Fife and they’re a great club, and trying to progress, but I just felt this was just too good an opportunity to turn down.
“The best years of my career were at Hearts and my heart never really left this club. I had a few years down south and also at Dundee United and East Fife. This was the club I made my breakthrough at, and when they were interested in taking me back in this role, I jumped at the chance.”
Given the fact that Hearts are in administration with a ban on signing players, the development of the club’s own players is a necessity at present as well as an opportunity for Neilson. He knows that the lack of experience within the squad is a serious difficulty, and believes that avoiding relegation would be a more impressive achievement than the highlight of his own time with Hearts, the Scottish Cup penalty shoot-out win over Gretna in 2006.
“If Hearts stay in the Premiership this season then that would eclipse that,” Neilson explained. “It is going to be very difficult because we’re in a bit of a situation just now.
“That’s 11 games gone and the boys now have a bit of experience and they know what is required and what they have to do.
“There is still a chance and we have to be optimistic and positive that we can claw it back.
“Once you get within nine points of somebody, that can easily become six and then three and that puts pressure on teams. It’s just clawing it back slowly, but we’re not going to set any targets by saying we’re going to do this or do that.
“The message to the supporters is to keep the faith. It’s a small squad but it’s a tight squad as well . If we can get a win we’ll get confidence from that.”