ROBBIE NEILSON might be in his testimonial year with Hearts but he's unlikely to forget the grounding provided by educational spells in the lower leagues.
The full-back recalls productive loan periods at both Cowdenbeath and Queen of the South as central to his development, according him the necessary experience to later become an SPL mainstay at Tynecastle.
Whilst the club prepare for his testimonial match against selected luminaries from their 1998 and 2006 Scottish Cup- winning sides, Neilson implored Hearts to continue their policy of farming out youth players. Jamie Mole endured an unremarkable spell at Palmerston Park earlier this season but others, such as teenager David Templeton at Raith Rovers, are seeing the benefit brought by loans to provincial sides.
It's something Neilson considers essential to the evolution of a young footballer.
He said: "Any young player outwith the first team has to go and play, especially when you get to a certain age.
"I know Hearts have been looking to get boys out on loan but it's making sure they go to the right place.
"There's no point anyone going anywhere if they aren't going to play and aren't going to enjoy it.
"The club needs to pick the right environment for them to go and play and develop.
"I'm sure the likes of John and Darren Murray keep that in mind when a club shows an interest in one of our young players.
"Playing youth-team and reserve football, nothing really prepares you for facing seasoned pros. You train all week to have a game on a Saturday and when you it makes such a difference. It's a big learning curve."
Neilson is willing to overlook Mole's experience in Dumfriesshire to recommend Queen of the South as a worthwhile destination for any player.
He continued: "I still know a lot of the boys down there and big Neil MacFarlane is there too now. He's a good friend of mine who I speak to most days.
"It was great because I got the chance to play regularly at Queen of the South.
"I still hold the club in my heart and I look for their results on a Saturday after our game.
"The people down there were great with me, it's a well-run club and a real family club with a good spirit about the place.
"I know from speaking to the players that they have a great camaraderie between the players and that is carrying them through the season."
That observation becomes evermore pertinent when Neilson's thoughts transfer to Hearts' current predicament.
Michael Stewart revealed in yesterday's Evening News that defeats aren't always hurting certain players and his colleague is of a mind to agree.
However, notions of the team doing interim manager Stephen Frail a disservice by failing to qualify for the SPL's top six are routinely dismissed. Neilson attests that the entire club aspires higher.
"I don't think we've let Shaggy down, I think we've let the whole club down in not getting to the top six.
"Shaggy took over when we were second bottom of the league and gave us the opportunity to make the top six, which is a great credit to him.
"But a team of Hearts' stature shouldn't be languishing in the bottom six at the end of the season.
"Team spirit goes a long way and it's true some players do hurt more than others. If we can get that here it will serve us well next season. Things have been a lot better over the last few months and we want to build on it.
"It's disappointing to be out of the Scottish Cup when semi-finals are taking place. We have five games left which, although not meaningless, aren't as important as we'd like.
"It's just vital we win them and try to finish the season strongly because that can then carry over into pre-season and then the new campaign."