New MK Dons manager Robbie Neilson was officially paraded to the media yesterday after leaving Hearts, and gave his seal of approval over his former club’s decision to make Ian Cathro his successor at Tynecastle.
Neilson also revealed how Sir Alex Ferguson’s glowing endorsement of the English League One side reinforced his desire to test himself south of the border.
Neilson’s focus has turned to building a Dons side that can achieve top-flight football, but he backed Newcastle United assistant manager Cathro, who has also been number two at Valencia and Rio Ave, to continue the work he started following a successful two and a half years in the dugout.
At just 30 years of age and having never played professional senior football, doubts have been raised over former Dundee United youth coach Cathro’s credentials, but Neilson has told the Hearts supporters that their team will be in safe hands.
Neilson, who masterminded Hearts’ record-breaking Championship triumph in 2015 and left with the side sitting third in the Premiership, said: “I know Ian personally and I think it’s a really good appointment.
“I think he’s progressive, he’s been educated in Portugal and in Spain. He’s come back and he’s learning under Rafa Benitez, a Champions League winner and it doesn’t come any better than that.
“Hearts took the chance with me. I didn’t have any experience as a manager either, I had a playing career but a playing career means nothing at all. It’s a totally different ball game.
“People say you have to have played the game to manage at the top level: You don’t.
“You have to be able to have a personality to manage players, whether you’ve played 100 games in the Champions League or you’ve played five-a-side football on a Tuesday.
“I think the players would respect Ian, we’ve got a really good group there.
“It’s also about your understanding of the game and Ian has top-level understanding, and that’s been proven with his track record.
“He’s been involved in La Liga and the Champions League. It’s another step in Hearts’ journey and I’m really excited about it for Hearts. I think it’s a great appointment and hopefully they can progress again.”
Neilson does not plan to make Cathro’s first managerial position any harder after admitting that MK Dons would not be able to afford Hearts’ top assets.
He added: “The calibre of player we’ve got at Hearts, they’ve had a lot of exposure.
“Callum Paterson is an international football player, there are Premier League teams interested and top-end Championship teams interested in him, as it is with a lot of the players in the Hearts team, so it takes them out our remit.
“My job here is to source players similar to that and give them the platform we did at Hearts, the likes of Arnaud Djoum, Osman Sow, Bjorn Johnsen.”
Neilson has been joined south of the border by Hearts assistant Stevie Crawford and will be in the MK Dons dugout for the first time in tonight’s Checkatrade Trophy clash at Yeovil.
The highly-rated young manager admits he sounded out Sir Alex Ferguson about the League One side and chairman Pete Winkelman before completing his move at the tail end of last week.
Neilson added: “Alex Smith at Falkirk is a kind of mentor to me, he took me under his wing at Falkirk and helped me as a coach and he is always there as a sounding board for advice.
“When the MK Dons job came up, I wanted to do my homework and make sure it was the right one.
“I knew the history of the club although I didn’t know the chairman personally.
“I knew Alex Smith had a strong friendship with Sir Alex and asked if he would ask the question – does he think it’s the right club and is the chairman a god guy that I can trust and will give me time?
“Alex said the first thing that Sir Alex said was, ‘100 per cent, take it, the chairman is different class and it’s a great set-up’.
“That confirmed my first thoughts that it was the right club for me.”
Neilson admits chairman Winkelman’s reputation for giving managers time was a huge factor in joining a club that are 19th in League One.
Neilson’s predecessor Karl Robinson spent more than six years at the helm.
Neilson added: “You have to look behind the league position, you have to look at it deeper and the potential here is phenomenal.
“They’ve got a 32,000-seater stadium and they’re building a state-of-the-art training ground in the next couple of years.
“It ticks all the boxes, the only box that it doesn’t tick is the position they’re in, but it’s my job to get them out of there and move them forward to where they should be.
“I think they’ve got the potential to get to the top-flight.
“When I took over at Hearts it was to try to win the Premier League. That’s what you have to try and do, you have to aim for the top.