Mark Warburton and Lee Wallace praise ‘top young manager’

Rangers' Lee Wallace says manager Robbie Neilson has put Hearts 'on a sound footing.'

Rangers' Lee Wallace says manager Robbie Neilson has put Hearts 'on a sound footing.'

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Respect for the apparently-outgoing Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson may be 
as strong in the away dressing room as among the home ranks at Tynecastle tonight. Rangers captain Lee Wallace played with Neilson at Hearts as a young player. Rangers manager Mark Warburton had Neilson on loan at Brentford.

Both men offered glowing testimonials for the former full-back not universally appreciated down Gorgie way – despite blitzing the Championship and then leading Hearts into Europe via third place in the top flight across his two full seasons in charge.

The 36-year-old tonight has the opportunity to depart Hearts with the club lying second, but only victory over an Ibrox side that have won five and drawn seven could produce that outcome.

“Looking from the outside, doing what he did in the season we were in the Championship with Hearts, they were deserving winners with the style of football they adopted at that period of time. He’s done an outstanding job and, whatever happens, I wish him all the best,” Wallace, pictured, said. “I played with Robbie for five or six years. He was a top professional who has gone on to become a top and innovative young manager.

“You could tell by how keen and hungry he was as a player. That’s easily translated into how he’s managed the club. What happens with him, we’ll find out in the next couple of days, but all the best to him.

“He was always asking questions. We worked with a number of managers at Hearts but he was always keen. He was first in the building in the morning and the last to leave. And from talking to Callum [Paterson], Jack [Hamilton], Holty {Jason Holt] and Danny {Wilson] in recent times either here or at Scotland, his work ethic is still at a top level. He was able to establish a Hearts DNA. It’s a great club and hopefully that will carry on. I had eight seasons there and I know it well. He’s helped put it on a sound footing and he will go on to be a top manager.”

Warburton was equally effusive over the Hearts manager, who he knew at Brentford – Neilson signed from Leicester City on a six-month deal in the first half of 2011.

“I know Robbie, he’s a very smart guy, very intelligent indeed,” the Rangers manager said. “He’s a good manager and he has a really outstanding career ahead of him.

“Whatever decision he makes will be for the good of him and his family, I know that. I had him as a player at Brentford and he was excellent. He was an outstanding professional in the way he conducted his business and the way he played. I was really impressed by him. I really like him as an individual. I liked his company, we’d sit down every day with a cup of tea and talk about the game. We spoke about different things even from football. He’d asked why we were doing certain drills. He’s a football intellect, that’s for sure.”

Neither man believes that the distraction of Neilson’s likely parting will impact on this evening’s encounter at a ground that Wallace knows produces “electric” occasions where the “environment and atmosphere is superb”.

Warburton will be discovering that for the first time in the Premiership with the teams confronting one another for the first time since they were experiencing very different trajectories in the second tier two years ago.

The late shows that Rangers have required in recent weeks to keep racking up full points has prevented any real piercing of the impression that Warburton’s team have struggled to cope with the pressures of the Premiership in the first quarter.

Yet, if they secure victories tonight and then against Aberdeen and Hearts at home in the next two weekends, they would suddenly find themselves on course for the best placing possible in a campaign in which Celtic look untouchable. Not that Warburton is willing to provide any overview as to the challenge presented by the next three games.

“‘They are exciting games, but my only focus is on tomorrow night,” the 53-year-old said.

“Everybody talks about Aberdeen, Hearts, but it’s just about three points tomorrow night. We know it’s a tough game. But we are in good form. We have won five out of six, we are second in the table because we deserve to be.

“If I am sitting in a Hearts press conference right now I’m saying this is a chance to go above Rangers tomorrow night. Sitting here at Rangers I’m saying it’s a chance to put six points between us and Hearts.

“Whatever camp you are in, it’s an important game, but it’s just three points.”

It’s a somewhat more than that to Robbie Neilson.

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