Robbie Neilson ‘will pick Hearts team next season’

ROBBIE Neilson has revealed that he only agreed to take over as Hearts’ head coach after being assured by Craig Levein that he would have responsibility for selecting the team.

Craig Levein, left, with Robbie Neilson
Craig Levein, left, with Robbie Neilson

Neilson, who was promoted from under-20s coach at Tynecastle on Monday after Levein’s takeover as director of football, explained that the new job offer was only made the evening before his appointment was announced, and that he accepted once he had been given complete clarity about his role.

“I will pick the team,” Neilson said. “When Craig spoke to me on Sunday night that was one of the questions I asked him, and he assured me I would pick the team. That’s the reason I’m sitting here.

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“Head coach can mean coaching or running the team, so I had to understand what it was. My point of view is the head coach has to pick the team, as I’m the guy there day to day in training [and] see how the boys are doing, deal with their issues.”

Levein, appointed by Hearts’ new majority shareholder Ann Budge, explained that under the new structure he will put in place, he and Neilson will discuss team selection and tactics both before and after games. But, like Neilson, he insisted that the coach would have the final say when it came to picking the team, and explained that he saw the discussions as part of Neilson’s education as a young, relatively inexperienced coach.

“My responsibility as the director of football is overseeing everything that’s involved in the football department,” Levein said. “It’s much better in my mind that my thoughts and Robbie’s thoughts and the other coaches’ thoughts are aligned on how we see this thing working.

“We’ve already got this agreed at board level. I don’t want to pick the team, I don’t want to pick the players: unless I let the coach make decisions how is he going to improve? That’s the crux of the matter. I can’t make those decisions, because Robbie Neilson has to stand on his own two feet. I’m there to help and on a Thursday – and this is for Robbie’s benefit – we will sit down and discuss the tactics for the Saturday, who he’s going to play, why he’s going to play, how he sees the game going. And then once the game’s finished we’ll sit down on a Sunday to do a debrief and we’ll go through the same process and talk about what we’ll do next week that will help.

“I wish I had had someone doing the same thing with me. I see it as a hugely positive thing.” Neilson, who only joined Hearts as a coach late last year, also said that he had talked to Gary Locke yesterday morning, the day after Budge had decided not to offer Locke and assistant manager Billy Brown new contracts. “I met him at the academy,” he said. “I wanted to speak to him and let him know the situation.

“Gary is a good guy. We get on well and we’ve known each other for years. It was a difficult situation for me as well on Monday, although not to the same extent as Gary. I feel deeply for Alan [Combe, the goalkeeping coach who also left], Billy and Gary. It should be a time of excitement, but it is

difficult, you’ve got to balance it off.

“I had to tell him what happened. It’s the way football works and it was as much a shock to me as it was to him. I feel for Gary, because he has been very dignified in the way he has led the team and the club.”

While Budge had decided that Levein was the right man for the job some time ago, Neilson said it was only because of the short notice he had been given that he could countenance taking the job. Having worked closely with Locke up until the end of last week, he could not have done his job properly if he had known beforehand that he was effectively being lined up to replace the manager.

“I’d probably have not been able to come into my job, to be honest. I would have been in a situation where something was going on in the background and I couldn’t have done it, sitting in the same office [as Locke].”

One of Neilson’s first tasks in his new post was to have brief talks with Levein about which players should go. Of those out of contract, only teenagers Gary Oliver and Sam Nicholson have been offered new deals.

“Craig and I discussed it briefly in the morning and I put my point across. It was very much right there and then. It was difficult. But ultimately it’s about moving forward with the club.”

Asked if the released players had gone for financial reasons, Neilson replied with one word. “No.”