IT WAS not something that hampered the stylish defender Craig Levein’s prospects after he graduated to become a manager. But the Hearts director of football believes Robbie Neilson’s lack of natural ability has helped turn him into a first-rate coach.
Levein curses a horrendous injury record for restricting him to just 16 caps for Scotland. He was also unfortunate his career coincided with the period when rival centre-halves Alex McLeish and Willie Miller were in their pomp.
But Neilson’s total of one cap is perhaps one more than many expected him to earn. According to Levein, the fact he was capped at all says everything about his character and desire to succeed.
While Neilson was a perfectly serviceable full-back for Hearts and several other clubs in Scotland and England, it was by sheer force of will that he managed to break into the international frame, turning out once for Scotland in 2006 in a 2-0 defeat by Ukraine under Walter Smith. He also featured in one B match fixture and played twice for the under-21s.
Neilson has also exceeded expectations – “by 100 fold”, according to Levein – as a coach in his first season after guiding Hearts to the Championship title with seven games to spare. His promotion to head coach has proved an inspired choice. However, Levein is not sure whether the decision has been vindicated yet – and neither does he believe Neilson has fully proved himself as a manager.
While Neilson has done nearly everything right so far, the Tynecastle director of football believes the true test will come next season in the Premiership, when it is almost inevitable that he will have to cope with a prolonged run of disappointing results.
Few clubs can avoid such spells, particularly when the standard of opposition is suddenly of higher quality. Still, Levein has no worries on that front either. Neilson had handled such testing examinations of character before, including being sent on loan to Cowdenbeath as a youngster, where Levein was manager at the time.
“I took him on loan to Cowdenbeath when I was there and when I came to Hearts I put him on loan to Queen of the South,” Levein recalled. “He came back to play a lot of games for me.”
“I have bumped into him over the years,” he added, as he explained the background to his and owner Ann Budge’s decision to appoint Neilson as head coach a year ago next week. “Everyone has their own idea about what makes a good head coach but for me it is pretty straightforward. Mostly it is the guys who have had to work hard throughout their footballing career because their ability is limited… but then for a guy with limited ability he played twice [sic] for Scotland!”
“He is a problem solver,” added Levein. “I know he is a good communicator because I know him as a person. He is honest and he had to work his backside off to achieve what he did as a player. There were question marks like how is he going to do managing a dressing room?
“But I did my best to make that as easy as possible with the characters that came in and tried to give him the best platform possible to get off to a good start. He has exceeded everyone’s expectations by 100 fold.
“Every time you put a manager or a head coach in place, it is a gamble,” Levein added. “Every time. No-one can see into the future. But Robbie knows the game and his decision making from the touchline has been fabulous.”
Levein anticipates having a fight to keep Neilson before long. But he cautioned the head coach against moving on too early in his career. He still has much to learn at Tynecastle, where he has been provided with a perfect platform to continue his development.
“I could name half-a-dozen players who, at some point, we’ll have a fight to keep,” said Levein. “But, going back to the beginning, the idea was that this is an opportunity for Robbie to progress his career.
“I said once before, and I regretted it, that I could see him moving on to bigger and better things – actually really mean bigger things. Because I think this is a fantastic job for any young manager.
“I would want him to be ambitious. But this season, with so many things going right – and this probably sounds silly – he probably hasn’t learned an awful lot. I think he needs another couple of seasons to learn the other things.”
After keeping a low profile before breaking his silence this week, Levein has this week offered a fascinating glimpse into life behind the scenes at Tynecastle. He also revealed he breathed a sigh of relief when learning Hearts were to start their league programme at Ibrox against Rangers. It meant the pressure was all on the hosts, who duly fell 2-1 to the eventual champions. “We looked at the fixture list and thought it was brilliant,” he said. “They [Rangers] were at home and favourites to win the league. If we had come away from Ibrox and not won it wouldn’t have had a negative impact on our season.
“We knew all about Rangers and their players. But we had a lot of guys in our team they didn’t know an awful lot about. We had the confidence from that coming into the second game at Tynecastle against Hibs. Sam Nicholson scored a fantastic goal. It put down a marker for everybody that we were going to be a force to be reckoned with.”