Aidan Smith: Ambition and clowns drove Robbie Neilson south

Robbie Neilson did wonders for Hearts during his tenure as head coach. Pic: SNS
Robbie Neilson did wonders for Hearts during his tenure as head coach. Pic: SNS
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We’d just watched my son’s football team being whipped by the Hearts stars of tomorrow and, on a freezing Sunday afternoon, my daughters were demanding hot chocolate. In the cafe at the Oriam, Robbie Neilson was at a table in the corner and when he spotted your correspondent he looked worried.

To me, if this doesn’t sound too much like blowing my own vuvuzela, the look said: “There’s that guy who’s always trying to get me to do one of those big, in-depth interviews when I talk about everything from the music on my iPod to my biggest fear. I’m just not going there.” And he never did. Alas, poor Robbie, I knew him not at all.

Neilson was always going to be worth a chat beyond the groin-strain round-ups for the simple fact of being manager of one of Scotland’s grand old clubs at a key moment in their history. But requests – and I asked many times – were always declined. The word back from the club PR was that it wasn’t about him. Many managers love to talk about themselves but he wasn’t one of them. Nothing personal, the PR explained, but Robbie just didn’t do personal.

This made him all the more intriguing, of course, and more of a quest. I’d wanted to interview him since seeing a documentary produced by the Scottish PFA about mental health issues surrounding football. Neilson had been a thoughtful contributor on how players re-adjust to normal life after hanging up their boots. In his case he simply hadn’t, and he confessed to having been a bit of a nightmare at home, especially when it came to three o’clock on a Saturday. But, dear reader, I failed.

The point of these interviews is not to invade someone’s privacy but to hopefully provide some insight into the important moments and decisions which have shaped a sportsman’s life. While I might, had Neilson bitten, have attempted some humour regarding his dugout dress-sense, my main concerns would have been football, Heart of Midlothian and his ambitions in the game.

Well, we know more about the latter now. He’s more than happy to take his chances in the lower reaches of England’s third tier than wait for another night like last Wednesday to come along – a night when Tynecastle re-asserts itself as the best stadium in the land and the team re-assert themselves as the best of the rest.

Ambition drove Neilson to this decision but it surely wasn’t the only factor. I can’t help feeling that those clowns who hired that plane have won, and won unfairly. You’ll remember the banner of protest trailed across the Gorgie skies. You’ll remember, too, that this wasn’t a reaction against the Pieman, the Lithuanian Sub-mariner, the yo-yoing side of the 1970s, Kenny Garland letting in seven or Eric Carruthers missing another sitter. The ire was directed at the manager of the team who’d romped the Championship having ended up there through no fault of his, and were making a mockery of the idea that a period of re-acclimatisation is necessary during the first season back in the top flight (though Rangers might be arguing this point right now).

Surely, even ever so slightly, Neilson must have thought: “Stuff this.” Not meaning to put words into the mouth of a man I never successfully interviewed, but maybe his reasoning went something like this: “I can’t win. This club almost went under. They might not have come straight back up but they did. No one is claiming we’re the finished article. But even if we reach that state Craig Levein will probably get most of the credit.”

Right from the start there was sneering about the extent of Neilson’s role, and more pointedly the extent of the director of football’s role. Terracing know-alls and hotline hoggers studied the burliness of the personnel and the aggressiveness of the tactics and concluded: “Yes, this has all the hallmarks of a Levein team.” Neilson never really escaped those suspicions.

Fans like nothing better than a good greet. It’s their right and maybe if you’ve helped save your club, as Hearts supporters did, it’s an absolute entitlement. I remember coming away from Tynecastle last autumn after another good win with the team nicely placed when two old grumps who admittedly were of the vintage to have witnessed more flair-filled days stood at the bus stop outside the old Tivoli flea-pit and muttered to each other about the football being “rotten”. A few weeks later Neilson’s Hearts won again by the same 2-0 scoreline. Same bus-stop, same moans.

These guys were pensioners and yet they were displaying all the traits of the instant-gratification culture which exists throughout fandom now. No one has any patience – not fans, not pundits, not chairmen. If you’re a Hearts supporter and you can’t see that Neilson’s side dominated Rangers on Wednesday, not just with power but good football too – and that they’re a better outfit than 12 months ago for having Arnaud Djoum and John Souttar and Bjorn Johnsen, plus Callum Paterson and Jamie Walker both a year older and wiser – then you’ve not been paying attention and, frankly, don’t deserve the man who’s just exited, trendy coat flapping.

The biggest moan concerning Neilson, of course, was that Hearts let slip a two-goal Scottish Cup lead against Hibernian during his watch. After the triumphs of Inverness Caley-Thistle and St Johnstone, the Jambos really fancied another great day out at Hampden. With Rangers on the way back and Celtic bound to man up for the challenge, last season was the last best chance to win the trophy again. They’d seen off Aberdeen in the previous round and there was a six in the year, usually an optimistic sign concerning Hearts and the cup. But Hearts had no divine right to beat their old rivals. Most sides finding themselves 2-0 up when they hadn’t played all that well would chose to hold on to what they’d got.

Hearts haven’t held on to their manager. If the Scottish Cup is beyond the next man, then he’ll be expected to re-establish superiority in the Edinburgh derby at the first opportunity. Meanwhile, good luck to Robbie Neilson, who is flying his own plane now.