Dundee United boss Robbie Neilson lifts another award but keeps eyes on top prize
It is Hollywood awards season and there are some winners of categories already provoking great debate and gnashing of teeth. Take this week’s Golden Globes for example, where the controversies over who won what are still keeping Tinseltown occupied.
This is resolutely not the case in Scotland as Robbie Neilson picks up his latest Ladbrokes manager of the month award amid little fanfare and even less discussion. It’s logical, as Mr Spock might say (United midfielder Calum Butcher won the players’ award).
It is Neilson’s third triumph of the season and is reward for a spell where the Tannadice side stepped up the pace at the top of the league.
The month wasn’t quite perfect. A draw against local rivals Dundee thwarted their attempt to complete a 100 per cent record for December. A 2-1 win over Alloa Athletic at the start of the month maintained a seven-point advantage over Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Three more victories and that point against Dundee saw Neilson’s side tighten their grip on the title.
Inverness are still their nearest challengers but currently trail the leaders by 14 points. Saturday’s pair of wins for both sides meant the margin remains the same and resembles the situation at the turn of the year when Neilson was in charge of Hearts in the same division in 2014-15.
As with United now, the Tynecastle side were runaway leaders. Indeed, they led Rangers by 13 points five years ago this weekend, following a 5-1 win over Dumbarton in which debutant Genero Zeefuike got two goals. They tied up the title before Easter on that occasion, eventually increasing the gap between them and runners up Hibs to 21 points. It’s natural to wonder what Neilson can take from that experience. “You reflect back on things and see how you did in certain aspects,” said Neilson. “Although we had a good season, there were bits where you think we could maybe have done better. We just have to make sure we continue to be relentless, that training is right every day and the demands are there.
“People are talking externally about us doing this and that. It’s only us who can affect what happens on a Saturday.”
What he has learned is that you cannot take your foot off the pedal. Five days before their latest league assignment against Partick Thistle, it seemed as intense as ever yesterday at the training base United share with St Andrews University. Two players are currently on trial – former youth defender Kieran Freeman, who has returned from Southampton, and American midfielder Dillon Powers. It’s another sign that nothing is being taken for granted.
It’s a lesson underlined to Neilson by Alex Smith, pictured below, with whom he worked at Falkirk. Indeed, Neilson assisted the vastly experienced Smith during the latter’s brief spell as interim manager in 2013. Even though Smith has retired to Australia, they still keep in touch. They last spoke as recently as last week.
“Alex always speaks about when he started off as manager you got five years to build a team,” he said. “Now, though, it has changed and you get five games.
“You cannot slacken off in any way. You must push for every single detail to be covered, every training session to be monitored and make sure everyone is on it every single day. Whether you are top or bottom of the league, you have to win – that’s the difficulty of football. Two teams go into every game expecting to win but both can’t.”
He paid tribute to those in his backroom team as well as Tony Asghar, his director of football. He likened the arrangement at United to what he was presented with at Hearts as a young manager making his way in the game.
“I loved it there and I had great support in Ann Budge and Craig Levein,” he said. “And there was Stevie Crawford, who was exceptional having been at East Fife as a manager and is now manager in his own right again at Dunfermline.
“I was lucky in that I had good people around me, which I have at United as well. It’s important to have that support. Although I don’t have huge contact with the owner [Mark Ogren], we do speak whenever he is over, and I have great contact with Tony Asghar.”
His relationship with Asghar allows Neilson to concentrate on on-field matters. It appears to suit him and means he is not getting waylaid by other concerns, as happened towards the end of his MK Dons reign, where Neilson described himself as less of a coach and more of a manager.
“I came here because Tony was coming in and he can take care of the stuff that is not as important as your day-to-day, week-to- week stuff,” he said.