He passed with flying colours, which is why he has graduated from shuffling salt and pepper pots at a restaurant called Jam Jar to head coach at the Jam Tarts. Appointed by Hearts’ new director of football, Craig Levein, the former Tynecastle full-back and under-20 coach only sussed he was being sounded out for his new role when he was contacted last weekend.
“Looking back on it, I spoke to Craig when he was at Dundee United. We spoke about football, I enjoy sitting down and talking about football, and then again when I was at Falkirk we went for something to eat and spoke. Then, about four months ago, we spoke again. We spoke about football in general, what I thought about things, about coaching and other things.
“It seems he was doing his homework on me – and I must have spoken well. I realised that when I got the phone call on Sunday. It was a whirlwind right away and I’m thankful I’ve got the opportunity. I always hoped that I would get the managerial job at Hearts one day. But I was expecting it to be a few years down the line.”
If that was the theory part of the exam, the practical element remains ongoing.
“I think there is a calmness and intelligence about him,” says Levein. “Myself and Robbie went out for dinner not so long ago and he must have wondered what was going on. But we sat for a couple of hours and talked about football. I’ve also watched him coach, I’ve seen his under-20 team and I like the way he sets his team up, their organisation and the changes he makes within games. Can I say he is absolutely going to nail it? No, I can’t. To do that I would need a guy who is proven. Gary [Locke, the man replaced by Neilson] has had experience but is he proven? No.”
The deposed Hearts gaffer was named manager of the month for results accumulated during the final period of the season and, while Locke said he couldn’t discuss the issue due to contractual legalities, Neilson revealed: “I spoke to him on Tuesday morning. Football can be difficult and Monday was the first time I’ve felt that. Once you take that step into management you think ‘one day I’m going to be in that position’. It might be a year, it might be three years, five years or 15 years. But I get on great with Gary, he’s a good guy and he wished me all the best. He’s a big Hearts fan and he said he wants Hearts to do well.”
After a turbulent year, with financial uncertainty prompting a reliance on young players and a fledgling manager, those who have railed against the changes swiftly implemented by new owner Ann Budge and Levein, have questioned the sense in replacing Locke with someone who is even rawer.
Stating it was never an emotional decision and certainly not a personality contest, Levein conceded the move was far from fair on Locke but felt Neilson’s lack of experience as a first-team coach was balanced out by other traits.
“They’re different types of people. I firmly believe Gary’s managerial skills are excellent and I said that to him on Monday. Sometimes, tactically, the coaching of the team and patterns of play… not so much. I thought he got players playing well, his management of the supporters, of the media and the way he carried himself – those were all management traits.”
But Neilson knows that only results will vindicate Levein’s faith in him. “I am a big believer that the difference between most formations is three or four yards on the park,” says the new head coach. “At the academy, we played a 4-4-1-1 but, with the first-team situation, that might change and when that changes the academy will as well.”
That continuity throughout the ranks is key to the club going forward. The focus is on producing a conveyor belt of players and new coaches who can be promoted from within.
Levein will be there to mentor Neilson but the ultimate decisions on players, tactics and team selection will be Neilson’s. “If I don’t let him make the plan and execute the plan then I would be as well doing the job myself,” argues Levein. “He has to learn. In education of any type you have to give people their head and let them make their mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, I will ask ‘what do you think about this? What if the opposition do this or that?’ I will be there to help him but it has to be his decision because, if I interfere in it, how do I know if he is any good?”
But, while appointing a young coach and watching him grow excites Levein, he says that, when it comes to player recruitment, this summer the emphasis is on experience.
“We’ve got a decent crop [of young players], they’ve had a year’s experience but there are times when they need support. When I played, Sandy Jardine played alongside me. That’s support. You’re going through a game and someone’s encouraging you, giving you a word at the right times. It makes you feel good but these kids haven’t had that. They need good professionals, and by that I mean guys like Elvis [Steven Pressley] helping Andy Webster, Robbo [John Robertson] had Sandy Clark. You can go through every team and you’ll find the type we need here. We don’t need ill discipline. We don’t want young players learning bad habits.
“There’s no code of conduct at the club – incredible. The contracts are like nothing you’ve ever seen in your life – I’m telling you, it’s bizarre. You’ve no idea, all the things that are wrong that need looked at.
“We need somebody who is a good player and a good person, 100 per cent. The players who come in have to recognise what the club is all about and they have to buy into that.”