Neilson’s affection for Hearts is both unshakeable and hard to hide. He still attends games as a supporter despite playing for a rival SPL club. Most recently he was at McDiarmid Park for the Scottish Cup fifth-round replay with St Johnstone. His father is even roped into accompanying him on occasions.
He has not been back to Tynecastle since he left for England, though, and is eager to reacquaint himself with his formative club. It is fittingly ironic that Neilson’s last home match as a Hearts player was a 3-0 win over United in May 2009. That victory ensured Hearts pipped United to Europa League qualification under Csaba Laszlo, however Neilson defected to Leicester City on a lucrative three-year contract just weeks later.
On Saturday, he returns to where it all began after being released by Leicester and joining United last autumn. He expects an emotional reunion with a club and supporters he still connects warmly with.
“I’ve not been to Tynecastle since I left Hearts but I’ve been to a few away games,” said Neilson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I went up to Perth last week for the cup replay with my dad. I like to try and get along and watch Hearts when I can because I had a great time there.
“Hopefully I get a good reception on Saturday because I always had a good rapport with the Hearts fans. My first game for United was against Hearts at Tannadice and I got a great reception from the away support that day. It’s a club I’ll always respect. I’ve got a lot of good friendships there which were built up over 13 years. Hearts was a big part of my life.
“I’m looking forward to playing at Tynecastle again. I always enjoyed playing there. It’s a great stadium, everyone knows the atmosphere is second to none. I’ll just need to make sure I go into the right dressing-room when I get there. There are a lot of people at Hearts I haven’t seen since I left. People in the office, people who work on matchdays. I want to see them again.
“A lot of the players have left but Webby [Andy Webster] is back again and Rudi [Skacel] is also there. A few of the young boys have been promoted into the first team, which is always good. Driver is still there, Temps [David Templeton] was just breaking through when I was there, as was Ryan McGowan. Jamie MacDonald now has a chance to play because of Marian Kello’s situation. There has been a big turnover of players but that’s the same at most clubs in two and a half years.”
The obvious highlight of Neilson’s Hearts career is the Scottish Cup success of 2006. Just as memorable were countless sojourns across Europe with a swarm of diehard Jambos. “The European trips were just fantastic,” he recalled. “Travelling with the fans to and from the games, there were some great experiences. Going to places like Bordeaux and winning, going through in Braga, then travelling to Mostar to play Siroki Brijeg. Feyenoord and Stuttgart also stick out.
“The guys you travel with spend a lot of money to go on these trips, they are the real diehard fans and they create a brilliant atmosphere. The away games in Europe are definitely amongst my best memories.”
Neilson’s finest moment in Europe was, unquestionably, his winning goal in Basel in November 2004. His self- effacing nature ensures he avoids mentioning that game. Those who were there won’t forget.
“The Bordeaux game, for example, was brilliant,” he continued. “For a team like Hearts to win 1-0 in Bordeaux was unbelievable. I’ll never forget the flight back with the supporters. The fans start drinking when the sun comes up on these trips and the atmosphere is fantastic. It makes you feel like one of them, like everyone is in it together. Hearts was like that, it’s like a big family. If the fans liked you then you became part of the Hearts family.
“Whenever I’m in Edinburgh, people stop me and speak to me about playing at Hearts. Guys like Gary Mackay and Steve Fulton will get that for the rest of their lives and I still meet people who want to talk about Hearts. There’s always a lot of affection between players and fans.”
After an unfulfilling time in the Midlands, Neilson is back in Scotland sooner than he expected. Peter Houston, the Dundee United manager, offered him a contract until the end of the season having worked with him as Craig Levein’s assistant at Hearts. “I always thought I’d go down to England and stay there for a long time,” said Neilson. “I felt I would come back and play in Scotland eventually, although it’s probably happened sooner than I wanted it to. It’s great being back in the SPL because I left Leicester in the summer and there weren’t any offers I really fancied. I preferred to come back up here and play at a good level.”
His addition to United’s defence coincided with a notable upturn in form. Before Neilson’s arrival in November, Houston was under mounting pressure with only three league wins to his credit. Neilson’s debut brought a 1-0 victory over Hearts on November 19, and since then United have lost only three matches in all competitions. Two of those were to Celtic.
Saturday’s visitors to Tynecastle will therefore arrive in confident mood. Since the aforementioned result between the clubs in May 2009, Hearts have endured a miserable record against United, winning only one of ten subsequent matches between the clubs. Neilson isn’t paying heed to previous form, however. “Going to Tynecastle is a big game for Dundee United. The players we have actually play better away from home, I think,” he explained. “Hearts are above us in the league so if we can win there it would be a great result.
“I think we have a better chance at Tynecastle because the players at United are more suited to the counter-attack. Guys like Johnny Russell, Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong are quick running with the ball from deep positions. Being away from home suits them. You get a more high-tempo game at Tynecastle and that suits me. I prefer playing like that and that’s why I prefer Tynecastle to anywhere else.”
And, of course, he wouldn’t let reminiscing over good times with the opposition compromise his professionalism. “Once I go on the park it’s just about playing for United. I’ll speak to plenty people before and after the game about Hearts, but I’m the kind of person who just gets on with the game. I won’t let anything else affect me.”