While having his 13-year-old heart broken by Robbie Neilson and Hearts in May 2006, Gavin Reilly could never have imagined that the same man and club would eventually be providing him with a platform to fulfil a childhood dream.
As a Gretna fan, young Reilly and the rest of his family were at Hampden as the Tynecastle side defeated Rowan Alexander’s team, then of the Second Division, on penalties in the Scottish Cup final. Neilson, then a 25-year-old right-back, was instrumental in a face-saving victory for Valdas Ivanauskas’s expensively-assembled Hearts team, first making a memorable tackle to prevent David Graham from scoring in regulation time after he had rounded Craig Gordon, and then scoring his side’s second spot-kick of a 4-2 shootout win following a 1-1 draw.
Nine years on from that emotional day for Reilly, he and Neilson are now united after the highly-regarded 22-year-old striker was handed a three-year contract and the chance to taste Premiership football. “I remember Robbie’s tackle well,” smiled Reilly, ruefully, after completing his move from Queen of the South yesterday. “I also remember Gavin Skelton hitting his penalty against the bar in the shootout. I went to Hampden with my family and friends, who are all from Gretna. The local community all went and it was a brilliant day out despite the eventual outcome. I would never have thought back then I’d one day sign for Hearts. It’s mad that I was watching Robbie play all those years ago and now he’s coaching me. I’m grateful for the chance he’s given me here.”
Reilly’s transfer has been a long, drawn-out affair as Hearts and Queens had to negotiate a development fee for a player who came through the youth ranks at Palmerston. It became apparent last month that he was likely to be Tynecastle-bound, but the deal was only finalised yesterday. “It’s been a long summer but I’m just glad everything’s done and dusted now,” he said. “I was on holiday in Rhodes while it was dragging on and I was back and forth with my agent over email so my girlfriend didn’t take too kindly to that! I enjoyed my holiday but at the back of my mind I was thinking ‘is this ever going to get over the line?’ A couple of boys in my home town were asking me ‘what’s the story, when’s it happening?’ For it to go on for so long and for it to be out in the papers saying it’s nearly done when I knew myself it wasn’t over the line was a wee bit frustrating.
“The hold-up was the fact Queen of the South were due compensation because I’m still under 23, so it was just a case of trying to agree that and some personal stuff.”
Reilly earned his move to Tynecastle after an eye-catching season at Palmerston in which he scored 15 goals. It took his total career tally to 42 and he believes his move to Hearts can help make him one of the most lethal strikers in Scotland. “When you’ve got a club the size of Hearts interested in you, it’s a wee bit overwhelming,” he reflected. “To come to a club this size with an exceptional fanbase and a brilliant stadium and training facilities will help me progress as a player. It feels like the right choice for me. I’ve wanted to play at this level for the last couple of seasons and now it’s happened. I want to get a good pre-season under my belt and then establish myself as a main striker both at Hearts and in the Premiership.”
Reilly has seen Neilson’s Hearts side at close quarters over the past year and saw enough, in losing to them four times with Queens, to form the opinion that they are a team equipped to take the jump to the Premiership in their stride. “They cruised the Championship last year and with the squad here, although the aim is to make the top six, I feel we could go even a wee bit further than that,” he explained. “We’re a newly-promoted team so I don’t want to get too far ahead, but from what I’ve seen of this team and from playing against them, I don’t see why we couldn’t get a European spot.”
Reilly paid tribute to Queens after becoming the fifth player to leave Palmerston for more illustrious pastures this summer. Dan Carmichael (Hibs), Ian McShane (Ross County), Kevin Holt (Dundee) and Mark Durnan (Dundee United) are the others leaving a significant void in James Fowler’s squad. “As a club, they’ve been victims of their own success. We had a great bunch of boys and a great dressing room. We made the play-offs two years in a row and it’s credit to a club of that size to produce that many young boys.”