Craig Levein believes Robbie Neilson deserves a rousing welcome from Hearts fans at tomorrow’s Betfred Cup tie against Dundee United.
Neilson, the United head coach, returns to Tynecastle Park intending to upset his former club in the season’s first competitive fixture. Levein, the Hearts manager, hopes he will be warmly received.
It was Levein who appointed Neilson – then 33 – head coach at Tynecastle in 2014 through his role as director of football. The former full-back then won the Championship title with a record points total and guided Hearts into Europe as a newly-promoted Premiership club in 2016.
Some supporters did not appreciate the success, infamously flying a plane above Gorgie carrying the message: ‘No Style. No Bottle. Neilson Out.’
“There’s always somebody. Believe it or not, there’s some people that don’t like me,” smirked Levein. “Robbie will get a nice welcome from me. I think he should get a great welcome from everybody.
“He did a terrific job and I think it’s sometimes overlooked. To have a league that included Rangers and Hibs won by March was a major achievement in my eyes.
“He was very intense when he was here as a coach. The training was tough and the sessions were many. He had an intensity about him that let you know he was serious about his football and I don’t see that changing.”
Hearts had been relegated after administration when Levein arrived with owner Ann Budge and promoted Neilson from Under-20 coach to head coach. He explained the identification process. “I had Robbie as a player, I know his character and type of person that he was,” said Levein. “I also knew he was doing a fantastic job here with the Under-20s. At that time you’re always looking at people with potential and he had a lot of potential.
“He was the one I felt could do the head coach’s job quickly. He was already in the building and it needed a change. When you get on a slide it can be very, very difficult to halt it and for me, the best way to do it is to make a complete change and that’s what happened.
“I’m not saying that was a reflection on what happened previously, it’s just the club was in a bad place and needed a complete change to add to the new investment that was coming in and a new feel to it. Robbie knew the players that were here and was probably untarnished, if that makes sense. It felt like the right thing.”
Levein did not expect to return to management himself back then, let alone be facing Neilson. “At the time he was here I wasn’t a manager and I didn’t expect to be back in this seat,” said the former Scotland manager. “It is what it is and I am where I am. It will be good to see him. I have met him a couple of times in passing since he left but he’s a good guy. I really like him.”
Neilson left Hearts for MK Dons in December 2016 but lasted only 13 months in England. Levein felt his protégé moved hastily. “I thought it was the wrong place for him. I didn’t think there was enough support there, the structure wasn’t right,” he said.
“Robbie’s a very determined guy and there was nothing I could have said that would have made a difference. I’m glad he’s back in a job at a good club.”
Now 39, Neilson is likely to be stronger for a bruising experience down south, according to Levein. “Of course. It’s difficult to go in to a new environment and I’m not sure he had as much help as he needed. But that’s water under the bridge.”
Hearts begin the 2019/20 campaign just six weeks after facing Celtic in last year’s Scottish Cup final. Their manager is philosophical about the early start. “I have long ago stopped complaining about these things. It is what it is,” he conceded.
“We knew the start dates before the end of last season so there’s no point in complaining about it. It does provide challenges to get players up to speed and some players do take longer to get up to feeling 100 per cent fit than others, but that is the case regardless of when we start.
“Every team goes through this process of the players feeling their way back into things. We did okay in the Betfred Cup group stages last summer and it certainly helps you get ready to start the league campaign.
“There are only three main competitions that we are in, so you don’t want to be out one of them before you get the chance to take a breath. I think it’s important that I pick the players who are most advanced in their fitness and have their eye in a little quicker than others.
“It will be a good match and I’m sure United will have similar problems to us. Players they have signed like Lawrence Shankland – I’m sure he’s not quite 100 per cent.
“They only signed him a few days ago. Unless you have all your players in the building in the first day of pre-season, which is highly unusual, then you are going to have people at different stages in their preparation.”