Robbie Neilson's new Hearts deal highlights club's stability and best of the rest status
When Robbie Neilson returned to Hearts in June 2020 he found a club in a very different place to the one he left three-and-a-half years previously when he joined MK Dons.
The Hearts he left sat second in the Premiership having comprehensively defeated Rangers at Tynecastle Park. The Hearts he took over were a Championship team having been relegated – or demoted, depending on your view point! – following the sudden end to the 2019/20 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fast forward two years and he – along with his management team of Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest – have signed new long-term deals, a testament to the stable position the club finds itself in after what was a trying 42 months.
Hearts ultimately finished fifth following Neilson departure. That was followed by two sixth places and then 12th. Three managers came and went during that time.
Ian Cathro’s spell was ill-fated. An intriguing appointment which simply did not work. Director of football Craig Levein then stepped into the position operating a dual role. That ended in acrimony with fans venting their displeasure at the direction of the club. The Daniel Stendel-era promised much but delivered very little.
When Neilson was tempted back from Dundee United it is safe to say Hearts fans were at best indifferent over the appointment. But it was a smart move. A manager who knew the club, who knew how to navigate the Championship. He was the steady, reliable, safe pair of hands which were required.
He joined at a low ebb. On and off the park. More than 50 players had been signed for the first team since he left. There was no connection between the team and the fans. Exacerbated further by fans not being able to get into the ground.
That connection looked all but broken when supporters protested against Neilson following a defeat to Brora Rangers in the Scottish Cup. An embarrassing loss and one which, from the outside looking in, would be hard to survive, especially with the fan anger. The easy decision would have been to part ways at that point, especially with the way Levein’s tenure meandered slowly to an end point fresh in the rear-view mirror.
Hearts saw past the noise. A big player in that was Joe Savage.
When he arrived as sporting director there were some within the support who thought it may well lead to Alex Neil becoming the next manager. But it shouldn't be underestimated how well and closely Savage and Neilson work together. It is a strong and effective dynamic.
Savage has spoken of how the prospect of Neilson being shown the door after the Brora debacle didn't cross his mind. The partnership has been key in the progress the club has made and the stable position it finds itself in.
Stability is key
And that is huge. The stability. Hearts have not been in such a position for decades. Well-run off the field. Well-run on it. You only have to look at how the last 12 months have transpired and how Aberdeen, Hibs and Dundee United are playing catch-up. Hearts finished the league in such a position that you could argue ‘best of the rest’ is fourth place.
Neilson, having led the team to a Scottish Cup final and third place, secured European group stage football. Being the team who constantly finishes third and pushes closer to the Old Firm is the one the club wants. Savage has played up that ambition. Not the opposite way which is so often the case.
Football is such a capricious beast, it can alter so quickly, but Neilson will be key to that.
Hearts fans, it is hoped, can appreciate how competent a manager they have and how he is better than his first stint when he attracted the ire of an element of supporters. The Scottish Cup-winning right-back has been more bullish in his approach in the media, his communication is much more in line with how the fans feel. He has also shown his coaching capacity. He and Savage have built a team who have many strings to their bow. They can play quick, direct football but also a controlled, possession-focused. The team is balanced with creative, exciting talent.
Fans always want more and a cup would cement Neilson’s legendary status at the club. Now he has the backing, time and platform to do just that.
Hearts are building forward with strong foundations. This long-term deal for the management team demonstrates that.
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