Why Hearts believe sacking Robbie Neilson gives them improved chance of finishing third
The Tynecastle chief executive was speaking 48 hours after ending Neilson’s second spell in charge at Hearts. Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat to St Mirren generated serious discord in the stands and was viewed as a tipping point by the club’s hierarchy. B-team coach Naismith has been promoted to interim manager and he will be assisted by coach Gordon Forrest and Frankie McAvoy, the club’s academy director. McKinlay knows Naismith’s appointment cannot guarantee a turnaround in fortunes after five successive defeats led to Neilson’s exit. But the board have put their faith in the 36-year-old’s ability to overhaul Aberdeen, who have just supplanted Hearts in third place.
“That's the million-dollar question and the question we all asked ourselves,” McKinlay admitted. “Will we give ourselves a greater opportunity if we make a change or leave it as it is? In the end we took the decision that we think we're giving ourselves a better chance by making the change.”
McKinlay said he “struggled” to see how Neilson could turn things round for himself and for the team given the scale of backlash. “That’s been building over the last few weeks," he said. "You come to every game thinking ‘this will be the one, we will turn it round’. But then Motherwell, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock .. even the games we won before then there was a concern about how we were winning.” McKinlay revealed that he with the players at the club's Oriam training complex on Tuesday morning and told them: “I don’t know what will motivate you for the rest of the season, but do it for yourself”. He added: “Will they listen? I don’t know."
But the chief executive firmly believes sacking Neilson will give Hearts the impetus to finish behind the Old Firm, as the size of their budget indicates they should be doing. McKinlay estimated this would mean securing between £5-6 million extra income. This tops the prize money earned by the Scottish Premiership champions. He also admitted that the fact third place would likely mean the guarantee of European group football until Christmas “skewed things” slightly when discussing Neilson’s future. The board concluded that it would have been riskier to continue with the status quo than turning to Naismith, who has only managed in the Lowland League.
McKinlay addressed the matter of Naismith’s relative inexperience and said he would be given every chance to advance his case for the permanent role in the next seven games, starting against Hibs on Saturday. Discussions are nevertheless ongoing with regards to alternative candidates. A sub-committee within the board will compile a shortlist of names. “There is no point sitting back and waiting for that seven weeks to play out one way or the other,” said McKinlay. “It is important for us to have a parallel process, for want of a better phrase, looking at what the alternatives might be. But he (Naismith) has an opportunity. The seven weeks are the seven weeks, that’s a fact. And he has an opportunity to show us what he can do in that period.”
McKinlay admitted Barry Robson’s success since coming in at Aberdeen, as well as Stuart Kettlewell at Motherwell, was "in the back of the board’s mind" when deciding to change course so late in the season. But he stressed that Naismith’s credentials are also clear to see. “Steve Clarke took him into the national team set up initially on a one-game basis to replace Austin MacPhee, who had Covid,” said McKinlay. “Even though Austin came back in, Steven has been there ever since. He is highly respected by the national team, which says a huge amount about him.”