SPENDING Saturday night in hospital nursing a broken cheekbone reintroduced Robbie Neilson to one aspect of Scottish football. If he forgot how physical the game north of the Border can be, then a trialist appearance in Falkirk’s derby with Dunfermline offered a timely reminder. Neilson isn’t deterred, however. Not only is he selling up in England and moving home, he intends finding himself an SPL club.
Once the cheekbone heals, of course.
The former Hearts defender is unimpressed by moderate offers from unfashionable English teams and decided to return to Scotland with his wife and family. He left Dundee United in May hoping to attract suitors south of the Border, where he had played for Leicester City and Brentford (on loan). But, with only smaller League One and League Two clubs showing interest, the Neilsons are leaving their family home in Quorn, Loughborough, to head back north for good.
The 32-year-old is determined to secure a contract in the SPL and believes he can play for another three to four seasons at the top level.
Saturday’s outing for Falkirk in a tasty derby against Dunfermline granted Neilson some welcome game time two months into the new season. A stray elbow in the last minute of the 2-2 draw saw him leave the field bloodied and with a cheekbone fracture which will sideline him for four to six weeks. It also ended his plans to attract attention from Scottish managers for the time being.
Neilson isn’t easily beaten, however. He didn’t win the Scottish Cup with Hearts in 2006 and represent Scotland by giving up when difficulties arise. He is prepared to go anywhere to continue playing and is already taking steps to build a coaching career for when he hangs up his far-travelled boots.
“My kids are moving back up next month to Scotland so once they’re up and settled I’ll look to get myself a team,” Neilson told the Evening News. “I just want to get back playing and that’s why I played on Saturday.
“I hadn’t played for a while. I played for Falkirk’s reserves last week and it was great to be back in action. So once everything is sorted with the family and the cheek has settled down, I’ll see what’s out there. I’d take something even just until the January transfer window if need be. I’d prefer to play in the SPL because I feel I can still play there. Ultimately I just want to play so if nothing comes up in the SPL then I’ll go where I need to go.”
Neilson explained how he had little choice other than to return to Scotland because he feels he is more likely to find work here. “I was keen to stay down south because the kids were settled and were at school down there,” he continued. “Over the summer I was only getting offers from League Two teams and lower League One teams. It wasn’t very appealing. I’d have been travelling away from home most of the time, the contracts weren’t great and there was nothing really in the area I was staying in. Eventually we took the decision to come back up the road and get the kids settled back in Scotland. I’ll look to play for the next three or four years up here.
“It was more my wife who had to be persuaded a bit. The kids are young so they just go where we go really. They’ll soon be sorted up here again but my wife was settled in England and liked it down there. She understands we need to come back up for work reasons. Hopefully I can get into the coaching side of the game as well now. There are just more opportunities for me in Scotland.
“I’m doing my B Licence at the moment and I’ve been doing some coaching at Falkirk as well. That’s got me started and I’ve really enjoyed it. I was taking the under-17s and a couple of times I took the reserves and worked with boys who aren’t involved in the first team. It’s been a good experience and Falkirk have been good with me. But I’d rather play for another few years. If I can play and do a bit of coaching at the same time, then great.”
The bond between Neilson and Steven Pressley, Falkirk’s manager, from their time at Tynecastle clearly remains strong. “He gave me the chance to train and, if there have been any coaching opportunities, he’s let me do it. Falkirk have great training facilities up at Stirling Uni, which is where their academy is, and I’ve been grateful for the chance to keep myself ticking over while I don’t have a club.”
He didn’t bargain for a smack in the face on his competitive debut, though. “I caught an elbow and at the time I thought it was a bad one and that I’d be looking at three or four months out. If I’m back in four or six weeks then that’s fine. The fracture is right up the top corner of the cheekbone, which isn’t too bad. I should be able to train again in about three weeks with no contact and then take it from there. These things are part and parcel of football. It could have been worse for me, I could’ve been out for a lot longer. It’s an international break right now and I’m moving my family back up to Scotland soon so the injury gives me a chance to do that. Afterwards I can concentrate on getting myself fit again.”
References to coaching crop up regularly during conversation with Neilson. It is clearly a path he is eager to follow and was part of the reason he opted to leave Hearts after 13 years in 2009. Rather than become a one-club player, the right-back wanted to sample new surroundings and feels the decision was correct.
“I enjoyed my time at Leicester, it really broadened my horizons,” he said. “I had a great time at Hearts and I could have stayed there for the rest of my career. I just felt I wanted to go and try different things, play at different places and meet different people. I’ve done that and long-term it’s been good for me. If I do go into coaching it gives me a different perspective as opposed to someone who has stayed with one club all the time.
“I’ve discovered what it’s like to move about, be in situations waiting on contracts, trying to settle into new places and living away from home. From that point of view, moving to England has been eye-opening for me. I know I’ll get a club back in Scotland. It just depends where it is and what level it’s at. It’s up to whatever managers are out there to determine what level that is. It’s out of my control, I’m just waiting for somebody to take me on.”