In a statement issued late last night, the Tynecastle club said they would “like to sincerely thank Robbie and Stevie for the enormous part they have played in helping to re-establish the club in the upper echelons of Scottish football.
“The record-breaking 2014-15 Championship-winning season, which secured our promotion back to the top flight at the first time of asking, will long live in the memory of Hearts supporters, as will the highly impressive third-place finish and the return to European football which was achieved the following season. They leave us in an enviable position, sitting second in the Premiership table with a healthy playing squad, rich with talent and promise.
“We wish them every success in their new challenge with Milton Keynes Dons FC.”
In a statement on their website, the English side said they would finalise personal terms with the pair today.
Neilson’s record dictates that he leaves Hearts with his head held high but he decided to sneak out of a side door as he left the club’s training ground yesterday, having issued farewells to players and backroom staff before heading off to Milton Keynes to put pen to paper on the next chapter of his managerial career.
But just as he had enjoyed the last laugh on Wednesday night, watching the team he had assembled defeat Rangers to move into second place in the Premiership and make a mockery of his critics, who had claimed that he couldn’t win the big games, he also had a chuckle at the expense of the media who had been waiting for hours yesterday for him to leave the Oriam training centre for the final time as Hearts boss.
As a decoy emerged and headed towards his car, decked out in a jacket bearing the initials RN and hiding behind a cut-out cardboard Robbie Neilson mask, the man himself was strolling out of another exit, his mind already focused on MK Dons’ FA Cup tie against Charlton.
Behind the scenes at Hearts, efforts are already well under way to bring in his replacement, albeit there will be interim cover in place for tomorrow’s trip to face Ross County.
Ian Cathro remains the frontrunner to take the job on permanently despite his current employers, Newcastle United, stating that no official approach had been made for their assistant first-team coach.
It is understood that is now imminent and while the St James’ Park hierarchy rate the 30-year-old, insiders have said that they are unlikely to stand in his way.
“Ian is a great coach,” said Rafa Benitez, speaking at a press conference yesterday, before Neilson’s move was completed.
“We don’t have any official approach. We are happy with him and we will continue with that. He is a young coach, he has some experience and has a great future.”
But with another of the names linked with the Hearts job, Gary Naysmith, last night being unveiled as the new Queen of the South manager, primed to assume his duties in the Championship after he oversees East Fife’s Scottish Cup tie against Edinburgh City tomorrow, then Cathro remains the massive favourite to replace Neilson.
Whoever takes over the reins will do so at a time when there is a lot of positivity surrounding the capital club.
If yesterday represented a low-key departure by Neilson, Wednesday had been a high-octane hurrah for a man who kicked off his managerial stabilisers during his Tynecastle tenure. Having taken over a newly-relegated squad, he guided the club to promotion in his first season, rampaging to the Championship title and leaving Rangers and Hibs flailing more than 20 points behind. He followed that up with a third-place finish on the club’s return to the Premiership and leaves them sitting second.
But his successor will have to deal with growing interest in several first-team players. While several clubs have been watching Callum Paterson, with the intention of trying to lure the full-back, who is out of contract at the end of the season, south in January, Derby County manager Steve McClaren has revealed that he was also eyeing up striker Bjorn Johnsen, winger Jamie Walker and defender John Souttar on Wednesday night.