The loss for Jim Goodwin’s men in Ayrshire brought back some painful memories for those of a maroon and white persuasion, but also allowed for a period of reflection. Less than two years ago, on March 23, 2021, the team fell to a 2-1 loss at Dudgeon Park to Highland League outfit Brora Rangers in the Scottish Cup. The team that represented the club that night was shared across social media and around group chats. Despite so little time having passed, there were names in there many in the Hearts support had already consigned to the recycle bin in their memory and tried to empty numerous times.
The fallout from the loss was intense. Despite games being played behind closed doors, supporters turned up at Tynecastle four days later to vent their fury, protesting against both Neilson and then-owner Ann Budge. The last thing the manager, the players and the club hierarchy needed was a calamitous defeat to Queen of the South in the Championship. Except, that's exactly what happened. Plenty of fans thought a change of manager was required and that frustration grew as many felt the club weren’t listening to the supporters, parallels drawn to the end of Craig Levein's reign. Neilson, who said he understood the feeling amongst supporters, had the confidence of the board and perhaps most importantly sporting director Joe Savage.
22 months transformation
Twelve months on from the Brora debacle, Hearts sat third in the Premiership, 14 points ahead of fourth. A further ten months on and the team are once again third, seven points ahead of Livingston. Well clear of Aberdeen and Hibs and into the next round of the Scottish Cup following a ninth game unbeaten against their city rivals.
It has been quite the turnaround for Neilson. Success at Easter Road was the least he deserved and, in a way, completes that turnaround, from under-fire manager to one with strong support, plenty of credit in the bank and an increasingly impressive derby record. Will there still be those who are not fully behind the Hearts boss? Most likely, but they are now very much in the minority.
When Neilson addressed the press after the Brora defeat, he talked about there still being remnants of the team which were bottom of the Premiership when the league was canned due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He spoke of a ship heading only one way, which needed turning around. He and Savage, with the backing of the board, have, over four transfer windows, given the ship a new sail, made it more robust and versatile, while providing it with much-needed ammunition. They have not only caught up with rivals but left them in their slipstream.
Since returning to the club for his second spell, Neilson has been more bullish in how he communicates with supporters via the press. He has a clear understanding of the demands of the fans. But it is in recruitment and playing style where the club have made big strides. Take this summer, for example. The team have been crying out for a goal scorer. Lawrence Shankland was a priority for Neilson, having worked with him at Dundee United. He knew he could get the best out of him once more, whether it was as a No 9 getting on the end of crosses or balls into the box or as a more all-round forward who works as part of a collective.
Savage deserves huge praise for overhauling the club’s recruitment department, managing to unearth gems, but as fans of other teams will know it still requires a head coach to be able to reap the rewards of those at his disposal. Neilson continues to do that. The only defeats in the league outwith the Old Firm coming at Aberdeen and Livingston, while doubts about his derby record have been eradicated.
Style and bottle
There was a suggestion during his first spell and then at points last season that the team lacked style. That can’t be levelled any longer. Hearts have scored three or more goals on ten occasions this campaign, with some of the best games of the Premiership season coming at Tynecastle Park. Recently, however, there has been a significant defensive improvement, aided by a somewhat settled backline. They haven't reached the team’s very best but still managed to score 11 without concession in three games against Hibs and Aberdeen in the past three weeks.
There is a flexibility to the way the team play. A back three is the preference but they can easily switch to a back four. The team stretch the game horizontally with the wing-backs. The diagonal, booming switch of play is key to how the team opens up opponents and creates space centrally for the likes of Shankland and Barrie McKay to pick up pockets and combine with Josh Ginnelly. Under Neilson’s coaching, Ginnelly has blossomed into a rapid central striker. Defender Alex Cochrane continues to reach new levels, while the likes of centre-back Kye Rowles and midfielder Cammy Devlin have found an environment to showcase their talents. You look around the squad and players are confident playing different roles on the field, epitomising the togetherness which has been fostered on and off the pitch.
There are still areas for improvement, from the club's away form to the emergence of talents from the academy, while everyone involved at the club is eager for another crack at Europe. Right now, you expect them make those improvements, guided by managerial nous of Neilson.