Don’t disrespect Cowdenbeath, or the club’s home, in front of Robbie Neilson. The Hearts head coach knows he owes the Central Park club a considerable debt. It could be argued that they helped make him what he is today, which is a three-time winner of manager of the month.
Neilson completed the awards hat-trick yesterday, following a month when Hearts strengthened their stranglehold at the top of the Championship. Not bad considering that this is his maiden season in the dug-out. Some may wonder how much influence Cowdenbeath, where Hearts aim to continue their unbeaten start to the league season tomorrow, can have had on Neilson’s progress. After all, he was only there on loan for eight games in the 1999-2000 season.
However, it was, he explained yesterday, his first taste of “men’s football”. It was also where he began to develop a working relationship with Craig Levein, who was manager at Cowdenbeath at the time. Levein, of course, again placed great faith in Neilson when promoting him to manager at Tynecastle following his arrival as director of football in May.
Neilson first crossed paths with Levein at Hearts, shortly before the latter was appointed manager at Cowdenbeath in November 1997. But Neilson was only a youth player then. The full-back’s later loan move to Cowdenbeath saw him take a significant step forward; it is where he made his professional debut against Queen’s Park, 15 years ago this month.
Neilson played another seven times for the club, who were then in the Third Division, before being recalled by Hearts. But he stressed yesterday that he loved his time there, brief though it was. It was certainly a step up from boys’ club football on the west coast, and the sometimes painful experience of playing on ash pitches.
“I came from boys’ club football so I was used to it,” smiled Neilson. “Anything better than an ash pitch was a step up! I enjoyed my time at Cowdenbeath. It was my first taste of men’s football – and there was a great group of guys there at the time.”
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As ever when the subject of Cowdenbeath is being discussed, Neilson was pressed on his memories of playing at a ground that is often billed as the last word in inhospitable lower league venues. The tread of wheels skirt the side of the playing area, the result of stock car racing each Saturday night that helps sustain the football club.
“I don’t remember ever being hurried out of the changing rooms to make way for the stock cars – but I do remember being chased because a car boot sale was on,” said Neilson. “I don’t know if they’re still doing that in the morning but they used to. In fairness to Cowdenbeath, I spoke to [manager] Jimmy Nicholl in pre-season and he said the crowds they get for the stock cars are phenomenal – and the money they take is great so it’s good for the club if they’re getting money from that. It can be difficult to fill stadiums these days so, if you can bring in extra money, we should be all for it.”
Neilson took a mixture of first-team and under-20 players to Central Park in August for a friendly match to ensure they were prepared for the type of experience he knows can be challenging. “It’s about answering the old question: ‘Aye, How will they handle a game at Cowdenbeath in December?’ ” said Neilson. “It’s a real test for us, a big one in so many ways, entirely different from the game at Tynecastle, where we managed to pass the ball and do well. This will be a different environment and it can, at times, become a battle to win there. We know that, we accept that we might have to grind out a win. We will always try to pass it but you have to accept that there are times to change your style a wee bit.”
Neilson was speaking after picking up his latest managerial award, earned after another month in which Hearts remained unbeaten in the league. Included in the run was a win over Rangers that established a nine-point lead at the summit. Neilson gazed out at the snow falling outside at Riccarton yesterday and praised his players, who have shown a will to work whatever the weather.
“It’s nice that all the hard work the players are doing is recognised,” he said. “The players work really hard every day. There hasn’t been a lull. Every day they come in desperate to do well, competing against each other, and that’s great for a manager. Even days like this, they’re keen to get out there.”
Neilson noted Levein’s recent comments that the club would be seeking to find a short-term replacement for striker Osman Sow, who will be sidelined for at least another five weeks with a torn thigh muscle.
The manager played down reports that Hearts are hoping to bring in a player on loan from the Scottish Premiership in the coming days. Rather, they will wait to see who is available to sign in January, when the window opens. “It probably won’t be a loan deal at the moment, because there’s only a couple of weeks left until the window,” he said. “At the moment we could only get in a Premiership, League 1 or League 2 player on loan – and there’s not a lot out there, with nobody really carrying big squads.
“But definitely in January we’ll be looking to get somebody in,” he added. “It’s about whittling it down to see what the best option is. I feel for Osman because it’s difficult for him. He was injured, was nearly back and then got injured again. I don’t want to rush him back because we’ll definitely have a lot of big games at the end of the season and I want him to be ready for them.”
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