Robbie Neilson touched down at Edinburgh Airport in the early hours of the morning four years ago today. His face bore a look of satisfaction after two days in Tallinn, which culminated in Hearts’ 4-2 Europa League qualifying win against FC Infonet.
The trip was akin to stepping back in time given the Estonian capital’s medieval setting. Four years into the future, it is fittingly ironic that Neilson again finds himself outlining Hearts’ European ambitions having returned to Tynecastle Park.
That 2016 foreign adventure was too brief, ending catastrophically when the Maltese side Birkirkara eliminated Hearts in the following round. However, the whole process began two years previously with Neilson appointed manager and tasked with a rebuilding job in the Championship.
If it all sounds rather familiar, that’s because it is. The Edinburgh club find themselves in the very same position now, unless an arbitration panel upholds their appeal against relegation following the coronavirus pandemic.
Last time, Neilson rebuilt a team which then blasted its way to promotion back to the top flight ahead of Rangers and Hibs. They finished third in the Premiership the following season to restore European nights to Gorgie.
The same again would be most welcome by a support base craving prosperity. Indeed, the challenge of re-enacting the past was one of the things which drew Neilson away from Dundee United and back to the club where he has spent most of his career.
"Yes, that was part of it,” he said. “I looked at the squad as well and, for me, it's a very good squad. We probably all know the areas where it needs improved. If we can do that, I believe it's a team that can win games and get into European football as a matter of course. That appealed to me.
“The ultimate challenge for us is to get back to European football, and do that consistently. First and foremost, we have to try and win football matches. I think that's the reason I'm here because we haven't been doing that in the previous two or three years.
"We want to win games and get the team moving forward. If we do that, then we will progress through the leagues and into a position where we believe we should be.”
One difference this time round is his accumulated experience, gleaned from managing Hearts, MK Dons and United. Neilson was given his first break in management in May 2014 at the age of 33 when the incoming Tynecastle owner Ann Budge promoted him from under-20 coach to head coach. He is now 40.
“I'm more experienced as manager. I've managed a lot more games than when I was first here,” he stated. “I was in administration with the club and then Ann took over as we came out of that.
“There was the uncertainty of what direction we were going to go. The squad had to be totally rebuilt, whereas this time I think there is more stability at the club. Although the squad needs some alterations, there are really good players.”
Good players who badly require a sense of direction if they are to realise those European ambitions. Neilson’s first period at Hearts and his work at Tannadice confirms that is one of his specialist subjects.
"It was a chaotic year [last season at Hearts], a lot of changing within the squad and also on the managerial and coaching side. I think there were a lot of alterations, formations, tactics, everything. For me, it's about getting a bit of stability back to the team.
"It's about getting organised and one of the key things is communication with the players. This period where they've been off through Covid, they've kind of been left to their own devices. Now it's about trying to get some sort of structure for them and get them ready to come back.”
Hearts plan to restart training in early August, unless the independent arbitration panel restores them to the Premiership. Neilson will by then be working under a sporting director as interviews continue to find a suitable candidate.
“I like working with a sporting director. I think it's important,” he said, having had assistance from Tony Asghar at United and Craig Levein at Hearts previously.
“It takes a lot of the load away from me and that's important for a Saturday to get the team prepared. It also gives me somebody to speak to and bounce off. We'll hopefully be getting somebody into that position but it's got to be the right person.
“With the sporting director role, the most important thing is the manager and sporting director can have a good relationship. I've managed to have that at the two previous clubs. I had it with Craig and with Tony. He'll have his roles and responsibilities, as I do, but you've got to compromise within that.”
Neilson left Hearts sitting second in the Premiership in November 2016 to take up position at Stadium MK. His stock then was as high as the club’s and he is motivated to restore them to such heights.
He might privately regret leaving Edinburgh so hastily, but outwardly he extols only positives. “If I hadn't left then, I wouldn't be coming back in as the manager I am now,” he explained.
“The experience I've got, I've managed now for a number of years against a number of good managers in different leagues. I've been successful and made a lot of good contacts with different types of people and different types of players.
“I come back into the job a far, far better coach and far, far better manager than I was six or seven years ago.”
A message from the editor: Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you. In order for us to continue to provide high quality and trusted local news on this free-to-read site, I am asking you to also please purchase a copy of our newspaper. Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the highest standards in the world. The dramatic events of 2020 are having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers and consequently the advertising that we receive. We are now more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news by buying a copy of our newspaper. Thank you. Joy Yates, Editorial Director.