Moira Gordon: ‘Big game’ failings cast cloud over Neilson

Robbie Neilson shakes hands with Alan Stubbs. The Hearts coach came off second best in the cup. Picture: SNS
Robbie Neilson shakes hands with Alan Stubbs. The Hearts coach came off second best in the cup. Picture: SNS
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When things are going wrong, it’s easy to believe that nothing is going right. Having had two chances to beat their city rivals, Hearts’ exit from the Scottish Cup has not gone down well with the punters. Out of both knockout competitions, while Hibs can look forward to a League Cup final and at least a quarter-final in the Scottish Cup, the storm clouds have gathered.

The fact is Hearts were poor on Tuesday. They weren’t great in the first match either and, blinkered by disappointment, the view of some of the more hysterical Hearts supporters is that head coach Robbie Neilson has had his time. Although emotions are raw, that should be filed as a ridiculous overreaction considering the success he has already delivered. But, judging by his comments in the wake of both derby games, he recognises there have to be more signs of ongoing improvements.

From others, though, there also has to be a degree of realism, given where the club was and where it is now, both on and off the pitch. The move back up the leagues hasn’t been by accident and Neilson has been a big part of the resurgence. But he isn’t the finished article. Still a relatively new boss, he has made an impressive start to his managerial career, and brought in quality players and polished up a few rough diamonds. To quell the criticism, though, he has to prove that he is learning lessons.

The common complaint is his record against the likes of Celtic, Rangers, Hibs and Aberdeen. Then there are the accusations that he is a ‘tinkerman’, who doesn’t know his best line-up and shuffles personnel and formations for the sake of it, and certainly more than is necessary. While Alan Stubbs said he did not change his approach for anyone, boosting the confidence of his players and the fans, Neilson is labelled as more negative and appears too easily swayed by the opposition. While injuries and suspensions have contributed, he has admitted that he believes certain styles and individuals are better suited to different conditions, opponents and venues.

A very good footballing side, with much more to them than a robust physical presence, that isn’t always evident in the way Hearts tackle matches, particularly away from home, when the primary purpose often appears to be stopping the opposition, then hitting on the break. When he trusts them to go out and play to their own strengths, they can deliver, which is where most of the fans’ frustration stems from.

Had they gone into the Hibs games with the same personnel, tactics and mindset as they did when ousting Aberdeen in the previous round, the chances are they would have been preparing to welcome Inverness in the quarter-finals.

The loss of Osman Sow was huge, though, and given the assertions that his replacement Abiola Dauda can be just as good, the timing of the cup derbies was unhelpful. Like the other newcomer, Don Cowie, the striker will develop a better understanding with his new team-mates over time.

Neilson’s own post-match assessment is that, all over the pitch, there is still a lot of improving to do. On a night of passion and frustration, it was a measured response and while that will earn him plaudits in some quarters, that composure is another of the traits which has irked some fans who prefer to see demonstrative displays which indicate that the manager is going through the same mental wringer they are.

Managers who are viewed as ‘one of us’ by the fans tend to get a bit more leeway and it is accepted that ‘good Hearts men’ are able to whip players up into a do-or-die frenzy when it comes to derbies.

Neilson isn’t a Csaba Laszlo, he isn’t a Jim Jefferies or a Gary Locke. His heart isn’t embroidered on his sleeve. For him football is more cerebral than emotional. Rightly or wrongly, that leads the more rabid fans to believe that wins don’t mean as much to him as they do to them and the defeats don’t pain him the way they hurt them. Ahead of the cup replay he was not willing to single out the derbies as defining results, saying he, like every other manager, would be judged on every result. That simply isn’t true.

Derbies will always have greater significance. The 2012 cup final win will always mean more to Hearts fans than the 2006 triumph over Gretna and the opposition is the reason for that. Playing down the significance of capital clashes does Neilson no good.

In a sport which prompts dogged debate like no other, it is all about opinions, perceptions, suspicions and interpretations. It is also about preferences. But no-one should doubt that Neilson is driven and he is a winner. He just needs to find a way to do it in more of the key games. If it was easy, though, everyone would be doing it.