AMONG the many plaudits that have come Robbie Neilson’s way since Hearts clinched the Championship on Sunday, perhaps the praise that mattered most was from Sir Alex Ferguson.
The former Manchester United and Aberdeen boss spoke to the Hearts head coach at the funeral of Dave Mackay on Tuesday, and yesterday Neilson admitted to being flattered by the attention from such a successful manager.
“He was really complimentary,” Neilson said. “He was chatting about this season and how well we’ve done. He was impressed.
“It was great to meet someone like that. It’s the first time I’ve met him and he’s a fantastic guy and a real inspiration to everyone.
“He just spoke about the season, about a couple of players and bits and bobs. He’s the ultimate manager for everyone isn’t he?
“You look up to him and hang on his every word so it was fantastic that he’s paying attention to Hearts.
You hang on his every word so it was fantastic that he’s paying attention to HeartsRobbie Neilson
“I know he keeps an eye on a lot of football – English, Scottish and probably in Europe as well. It’s great that he’s interested. It’s great for the club.
“I met Frank McLintock, and Denis Law was there as well, but I mostly spoke to Sir Alex. We were just having a blether about things at Hearts: it was nice, it was good.
“He was very complimentary towards Ann [Budge, Hearts’ owner] as well. He knew the state that the club was in when Ann took over and the way she’s turned it round has been remarkable.
“It’s been a total change around in about ten months and Ann deserves all the credit, to be honest, by coming in and giving us direction.”
But besides all the praise, Neilson was asked if Sir Alex had dispensed any specific advice. “He told me to have a shave,” the heavily stubbled coach joked.
Neilson’s success in leading Hearts to promotion in his first season in charge has seen speculation begin on his future, but, still only 34, he has always insisted that he has only begun his work with the champions. He emphasised that point yesterday when asked if he expected to be with the club when the players report back after their summer break.
“I will be here next season, and I’ll be back at Riccarton for pre-season training soon enough,” he said. But would the beard also be staying, or would he take Sir Alex’s advice? “We’ll see,” he added.
Earlier this week, Neilson said that, rather than securing the title with seven matches still to play, he had expected the fight to go on to the last day of the regular season, 2nd May, when Hearts are at home to Rangers. Yesterday, he added that he had expected Hibernian as well as Rangers to put up a fiercer fight, and thought the key to success would be ensuring his squad were just as motivated for the games against the smaller clubs in the division as they were for the matches with their two biggest rivals.
“I didn’t expect ourselves, Hibs and Rangers to lose many games outwith each other,” he said.
“I thought the games between each other would have been really, really important.
“You look at Rangers over the course of two seasons in the lower leagues and they won the majority of their games, so I expected them to do the same this season.
“I thought we would have to match that. That would have been the hardest thing.
“I thought getting up for Hibs and Rangers would be easy, but getting that consistency every week is difficult. Rangers and Celtic have had it for a long time and it’s difficult for other teams to match that.
“It comes from the players themselves and that motivation to do as well as they can. We’ve got a lot of players in the team that can win a game for us, and nearly everyone in the squad has scored a goal.”
Now that he knows what division his club will be in next season, Neilson can start planning in earnest for life in the top flight.
Contrary to a report this week he has not targeted Caley Thistle’s Marley Watkins, although ideally he would like to add to his squad and has no need to sell players over the summer.
“We’ve already planned pre-season. We’re already ahead at this stage,” he added. “If we’d been involved in the play-offs, that would have made things a lot more difficult for us. The final play-off game is on June 7” – the current date is 31 May, but that will be revised if Hibs or Falkirk get to that game and the Scottish Cup final on 30 May – “and we plan on coming back on June 19.
“So that would work out at less than two weeks’ rest. The season starts on August 1 this year, so it doesn’t leave long to fit everything in.”
While Neilson is planning ahead, he will insist that his players focus on the remaining seven games and keep up the relentless pursuit of victories that has characterised their season so far – starting tomorrow against a Queen of the South team who are chasing a play-off spot.
“It’s going to be a great day,” he said of the match against the Dumfries side. “Tynecastle will be full to the rafters and it will be a great atmosphere – but it will only be great if we win.
“We know what can happen in football, and if we don’t start well the place might go flat. We need the players to continue to do things properly and put on a show for the supporters.
“Sunday was good. It was good to finally get over the line, but it’s been non-stop since then. I’ve not had a day off. I was on my Pro [Licence coaching course] on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and then in here. I spoke to the players and it goes on.
“You must continue to win games. You can’t get to this stage of the season and think you’ve made it or down tools.”
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