Robbie Neilson won a record-breaking Championship title with Hearts. He steered them into Europe as a newly-promoted club – past aeroplanes carrying “Neilson Out” banners over Tynecastle. He also helped rescue John Souttar’s career. That last point is as significant as any ahead of Dundee United’s visit to Edinburgh this Friday.
Now managing at Tannadice, Neilson returns to his old touchline in the first Betfred Cup tie of season 2019-20 live on BT Sport. His achievements there deserve huge recognition, although his work with Souttar was somewhat understated.
In February 2016, Hearts paid United £120,000 for a 19-year-old defender who is now vice-captain, a Scotland internationalist and worth seven figures. Neilson ordered him to play centre-back and helped transform his game before leaving for MK Dons.
Souttar doesn’t forget. “Robbie basically said: ‘You are a centre-half and you’ll play centre-half.’ He wanted to work on me one-to-one and, as a defender himself, he did a lot of work with me on heading the ball and being physical. He was big on the importance of the gym and that was ideal for me.
“Robbie was brilliant for me when I came here. He’s a top manager and a good man and I hope he gets Dundee United promoted this year. They are a big club and you want teams like that in the Premiership.”
The current Hearts manager Craig Levein has further honed Souttar’s talent. He was director of football when the transfer went through but it is wrong to assume the move was all Levein’s doing. “Both Robbie and Craig were part of the process,” recalled Souttar, now 22.
“I think Hearts bid a few times. They bid £90,000 then £100,000 and Dundee United were saying ‘no, no, no’. It got to the last day of the January window and they accepted £120,000. I came down the road and did the medical that night. I signed with five minutes to go.
“Looking back, it was a massive point in my progress. I don’t know what would have happened to me because I was stagnating at United. Fortunately, Robbie signed me and worked wonders for me. That was the wake-up call for myself. When I made the move, United were just going one way really and I’m thankful that Robbie got me out in January. I got a lot more games than I expected when I first arrived, too.”
Neilson faced the most bizarre episode of his fledgling managerial career just weeks later. An aircraft carrying a banner with the words, “no style, no bottle, Neilson out” appeared in the Gorgie sky during Hearts’ 1-0 Premiership win over Partick Thistle.
“That was ridiculous,” admitted Souttar. “I don’t know if things were just going so well that there was a perception that we needed more, more, more. But we were third in the league when that plane flew over.
“Robbie won the league at the first time of asking and some of the stick he got was extremely harsh. He was appreciated by everyone inside of the club, we all knew how good he was.
“The people inside the club are the ones who can judge and are seeing him every day. I’d imagine he’ll get a warm welcome on Friday. He certainly will from all the staff and the players and I’m sure the fans, too.”
Satisfaction from Neilson’s last appearance at Tynecastle still lingers. He left Hearts sitting second in the Premiership after a 2-0 win over Rangers and headed south to join MK Dons.
“That was a weird night. We were unbelievable and Tynecastle was rocking,” said Souttar. “It was one of the best nights at Tynecastle I can remember. It wasn’t confirmed before the game that Robbie was leaving, but everyone sort of knew. There hadn’t been a conversation between the manager and the players to say ‘we’re going’, but we sort of knew. It was the elephant in the room.
“Even after the game, no-one knew for sure.
“He came back to say his goodbyes a couple of days later.”
Neilson should get a decent welcome on his return. Souttar will certainly be glad to see him again.