Hearts boss Robbie Neilson says Mihai Popescu has shown he has the bottle for promotion chase

Having denied him in the past, Neilson knows Romanian’s ability

St Mirren's Mihai Popescu celebrates scoring for St Mirren during the play-off penalty shootout win over Robbie Neilson's Dundee United. Photo: Rob Casey/SNS Group
St Mirren's Mihai Popescu celebrates scoring for St Mirren during the play-off penalty shootout win over Robbie Neilson's Dundee United. Photo: Rob Casey/SNS Group

Mihai Popescu was instrumental in denying then Dundee United boss Robbie Neilson his Premiership dream – but they are hoping that together they can bolster Hearts’ one.

The Romanian was a key player in the St Mirren side that staved off relegation by beating the Tannadice side in the 2018/19 Premiership play-off, but although he disappointed Neilson in that tussle, his performances in the two-legged tie impressed the man who is now manager of the demoted Tynecastle side. And, looking for a swift return to the top flight, he believes the 27-year-old centre-back will prove an asset in helping them achieve that.

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“They beat us in the play-offs when I was at United so I know the type of player he is and I know he has the bottle to play in big games,” said Neilson.

“I know his strengths and his weaknesses and I spoke to people at St Mirren about his character and everything came back very well so we are delighted to get him. I think he will be great for us because he can defend but he can carry the ball out of defence as well.”

While the rearguard resolve is vital, the ability of the former Dinamo Bucharest star, who became a firm fan favourite during his six months in Paisley, to turn defence into attack aligns him with Neilson’s desire to push forward at pace and keep the opposition under pressure.

Isolating due to quarantine rules, the player who has signed a two-year deal, he is expected to be joined by a new left-back, midfielder and another attacking option, should Neilson get his way and the club succeed in moving the squad surplus on.

Time is of the essence, though, as the club embarks on their League Cup campaign against Inverness Caledonian Thistle on 6 October, and the Championship starts a couple of weeks later.

“The important thing for us is to build a strong squad. We have [Peter] Haring still to come in, [Christophe] Berra to come back, [Steven] Naismith is to come back [all from long-term injury] so we have real quality there but, for me, I still think we need to add another one or two as well. It is important that we have that strength.”

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