The evening of November 30, 2016, is difficult for anyone of a Hearts persuasion to forget. Quite simply, their team has not been the same since Robbie Neilson shuffled up the tunnel and out of Tynecastle’s old main stand late that night to join MK Dons.
He left the Edinburgh club sitting second in the Scottish Premiership after a 2-0 home win against Rangers. They slid almost uncontrollably downwards in the intervening three and a half years, culminating in a controversial relegation last season after coronavirus struck.
Now Neilson is back and ready to rebuild again having chosen to leave Dundee United. His reappointment is part of a long-term plan, underlined by his three-year contract, and makes a good deal of sense on many levels.
Right now, Hearts are facing a campaign in the Championship following that enforced demotion. Legal action to have it overturned would propel them back into the Premiership if successful, so they need a manager who knows both divisions just in case.
Should they remain in the second tier, they will push for automatic promotion and would therefore require someone with top-flight insight for this time next year. Neilson ticks every box.
In the two separate full seasons he has managed in the Championship, he won the title by a distance on both occasions.
United sat 14 points ahead of second-placed Inverness when football entered shutdown in March and were deservedly promoted a few weeks later. That success added to Neilson’s record-breaking title triumph in the same division with Hearts in 2014/15.
He knows every team, every coach, every player and every ground in the division. Indeed, he could probably tell you the colour of every away dressing room door and how many pegs hang on the walls.
Like most second-tier leagues, the Championship contains many idiosyncracies and Neilson has experienced them all. Unique situations won’t faze him, like how to set a team up away at Arbroath on a Tuesday night when the North Sea wind is biting the faces of you and your players.
He can recall the toughness of winning in Greenock, where Cappielow is another traditional venue bereft of many modern-day luxuries Hearts players will be used to. Morton scored more home goals than any other team in the division last season outwith United, a statistic not lost on Neilson.
Going to places like those, dealing with the elements and conditions, handling the pressure of being overwhelming favourites and still leaving with points is critical to any promotion bid.
In addition to Championship knowledge, Neilson’s CV details a third-place finish in the Premiership with newly-promoted Hearts in 2015/16. That secured a Europa League qualifying place and remains the only time in the last nine years that the Edinburgh club finished in the top four.
Luring him away from Dundee United to replace Daniel Stendel appears a shrewd move on the part of Ann Budge, the owner at Tynecastle. Particularly in light of the Tayside club’s guaranteed Premiership status.
Which begs the question of why Neilson swapped Dundee for Gorgie after getting United promoted? There will be different reasons and most of them won’t be made public.
However, United’s need to reduce costs could affect the impact they make in the top division. They reported a £3.75million loss in their last annual accounts and much if it is down to wages being 133 per cent of turnover.
Their prize asset, the Scotland striker Lawrence Shankland, may be sold to mitigate the situation. It was Neilson who signed him from Ayr United last summer and helped develop him into a full internationalist despite playing in a lower league. “If bids come in, we’ll have to look at them,” said Tony Asghar, sporting director at Tannadice.
Not that Hearts are without financial concerns after cutting wages and releasing players in line with other teams across Scotland. However, their balance sheet looks healthier with philanthropists like James and Morag Anderson donating millions. The club will pay United compensation for taking their manager.
Neilson, now 40, is more mature as a person and a manager after experiences in England – MK Dons sacked him after 13 months – and at Tannadice. Importantly, he already has a working relationship with Budge which has proven successful.
Some Hearts fans will still need convincing. The 2016 Scottish Cup fifth-round replay loss to Hibs under Neilson remains a sticking point given the Easter Road side went on to lift the trophy for the first time since 1902.
Then there is the well-documented aeroplane incident orchestrated by one group of supporters in March that year, despite Hearts closing in on a European place at the time.
The affection for the outgoing Stendel should not be underestimated either. The German developed something of a cult following despite only taking charge of the team for 17 matches.
He is now gone, his contract rendered invalid by relegation. It must be hoped Hearts acknowledge him with a proper farewell statement given he refused to take a salary once coronavirus stopped football in March.
What cannot be debated is that Hearts’ future will now be shaped by Neilson. Since 2016, Ian Cathro, Craig Levein and Stendel could not recapture the heights he reached and he has been tasked with picking up the pieces.
In whatever division that may be, he is more than adept and experienced enough to help restore some prosperity.
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