It looks like a game of football-golf. Folf, perhaps, or gootball. Goalposts, flags, cones and bags of balls are the targets, as the trio wind their way to the final “hole” where Neilson’s No 2 Lee McCulloch attempts a pitch-and-run which overshoots by several feet and the boss rolls one up stone-dead. Amid the fistbumps there are mock disputes over alleged banditry earlier in the contest but Neilson is all smiles. And right then a plane flies across the cloudless sky.
It is too high to have been trailing a banner intended to be seen from the ground by, say, an under-pressure manager. But, while these were Neilson’s circumstances before, they aren’t now. Albeit that they lost for the first time this season last weekend, his Dundee United sit at the top of the Championship. Surely they will go up this time, won’t they?
Neilson approaches and shakes my hand, says he’ll be back in a minute, nips inside the pavilion, and reappears to shake my hand again. This is funny because all the time he was at Hearts he turned down my requests for an interview. I mention this and he laughs, apologising for being so evasive, before we jump in his club car and head into town where we’re almost swept up in a tsunami of undergraduate excitement before he leads me up a cobbled lane to locate the only coffee-shop table not occupied by students embarking on the new academic year and the rest of their lives.
So, since they’re topical, let’s talk banners. In 2016, Gorgie airspace was used for the unfond refrain: “No style, no bottle, Neilson out.” Last Saturday the man who got him into coaching, Craig Levein, was on the receiving end. This was the more prosaic, more urgent “Levein out” and the placard was merely held aloft outside Tynecastle, but maybe we shouldn’t bet against the dissenters taking to the skies tomorrow for the Edinburgh derby.
As a member of the managers’ union – unofficial motto: “Dust ourselves down, take each sacking as it comes” – the 39-year-old Neilson has enormous sympathy for Levein and also Paul Heckingbottom, also feeling a tightening around the collar after Hibernian’s underwhelming start. “I was speaking to Paul the other day and we talked about a load of different things, because he says he doesn’t feel any pressure. I know Craig very well and he’ll view the pressure as external, which it is. We can soak it up, we can bat it away. And as managers we can only work with our players through the week and prepare them for the next game. What will be in football will be.”
We’re chatting soon after Watford emptied yet another manager, just four games into the new English season, despite him last term taking this unglamorous English club to the FA Cup final and 11th in the top flight. “This is the nature of football now, the nature of the beast,” adds Neilson. “You only need to lose one game. You’re judged on the moment.
“That’s also life,” he adds, looking round the cafe at this sample of the nation’s youth. “A kid will wear a T-shirt for a couple of months and then ditch it. A few years ago that wouldn’t have happened. The culture now is what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?” Or, in the case of football, who’s next?
The internet drives a lot of this and verdicts are instant, likely to cause a pile-on, damning and often final. “Whenever any team loses a game now social media will be full of: ‘We need to make the change, it’s over, he’s had his shot.’” Limited shelf life. Built-in obsolescence. Zero attention spans. Mob rule. The situation may be unfair but managers just have to suck it up, hoping that the patterns on their T-shirts don’t fall horribly out of fashion.
But Robbie’s doing okay, isn’t he? Until defeat at Ayr United, the Tannadice Tangerines had begun the campaign in a tearing hurry, persuasive performances culminating in them thumping Dundee 6-2 and equalling the record victory in the derby. “Okay” he’ll accept; no more. Long way to go and all that. “Some folk are saying we’re on the right road at last but I think that’s been said a few times here. We’re not getting carried away. There will be more ups and downs.” Hopefully more ups and a decisive number of them, leading United back to the Premiership after a four-year banishment.
Still, that was some win against the rivals, no? He won’t bite. “It was only three points,” is the time-honoured, downplayed response. Yes, but he was caught by the TV cameras flaunting six fingers to the delirious home fans. “There are days when you just have to enjoy the result,” he says, with all the ecstatic lugubriousness of the Rev I.M. Jolly.
“This is part of the game now,” Neilson adds, and by “this” he means the likelihood – premature, caused by trigger-happiness and unfair as it may be – that at some point a manager will be issued with his P45. “You are going to get sacked. I could get sacked tomorrow.”
Now he sounds like Private Frazer in Dad’s Army. So why do it? Why put yourself through all this stress and worry and doubt? He smiles. “I just like football,” he says. “I like getting on the grass, I like the relationship with players, I like seeing them get better. Callum Paterson who was with me at Hearts has played in England’s Premier League and now George Baldock who was at MK Dons is doing it with Sheffield United. It’s the best feeling seeing these guys do so well.”
In public, on the touchline, Neilson may display a gloomy countenance if he’s not winning by six to two but he’s good company today, a thoughtful fellow with principles, not the demonstrative type for sure, but his own man with some pointed views about the state of the game.
Some – Hibs fans mostly – saw him as Levein’s puppet when he was at Hearts but this was more a comment on the latter’s power and influence at Tynecastle. Maybe if Neilson had consented to those interviews we’d have learned more about the young man in charge of the team. He smiles: “As you get older and more experienced, you become more relaxed about doing them.” But getting his head down in 2014-15 obviously worked and he had the last laugh, Hearts romping the glitteriest Championship there will ever be. “We had a group of boys – Paterson, [Sam] Nicholson, [Jason] Holt, [Billy] King – who had no fear. As players get older they can be apprehensive about going to Ibrox but these boys weren’t scared. To complement their energy we had guys who’d been around a bit: [Prince] Buaben, [Morgaro] Gomis, [Neil] Alexander. That’s the kind of blend I’ve tried to create at United with [Mark] Reynolds, [Calum] Butcher and [Mark] Connolly providing the experience.” Well, been-there-done-it Reynolds may be, but he currently tops the board for the number of fines the players dole out to each other.
When Neilson was the rookie manager, Levein was the old hand. He approves of the concept of director of football or, as he has at United with Tony Asghar, sporting director. He didn’t have that help at MK Dons, suffered and was sacked. Certainly the boss’s role ain’t what it used to be and Neilson foresees further change: “I think the way football is going managers will start to become consultants. The job might become quite transitory: six weeks here, three months there. Some will have their specialisms: guys who’re good at survival or who work well at clubs in administration. The whole world of work seems to be going this way.” Hot-desking is already here. Get ready for hot-dugouting.
Regarding how a manager handles young players Neilson suggests another modification to the job-spec: “We’re more mentors and guides now. If I shouted at kids the way Craig and Jim Jefferies shouted when I was playing they would just switch off. How can you scream blue murder at a lad who’s already a millionaire? His attitude will be: ‘I’m going to be here longer than you.’”
The hairdryer approach, though, isn’t really Neilson’s style. But he says this about the younger generation: “Some have been brought up in cloud-cuckoo-land. Academies have to nurture but they must also set standards. It’s a job young players have and they’re paid to train and look after themselves in the correct way. If a manager says to them, ‘You’re in the team’, they should regard that as their bonus at the end of the week. But they think they’re paid to play and they’re not.
“If they end up having to leave football and enter another profession these standards will be useful. But if they’re mollycoddled as young players and told they can turn up when they want and wear what they want, then the first day at a factory might come as a big shock. These kids can end up not just falling out of the game but out of life.”
Neilson’s philosophy probably has its roots in his own circumstances: how his big brother Graeme works at Rolls-Royce in East Kilbride, where his father Iain worked, while he got lucky enough to make football his life.
“Graeme was a very talented player but he maybe didn’t have the desire to put in the hours. I think that happens to a lot of older siblings and by the time they get to 16 they can be distracted. Meanwhile I was the annoying little brother who always wanted to play with him and his pals, which probably accelerated my development.”
Although Neilson grew up in Glasgow, attended Bannerman High School in Baillieston which also produced his wife Julie and his striker Lawrence Shankland and is listed by Wikipedia as a boyhood Rangers fan, he insists his team were St Mirren, having been born in Paisley and given a thrilling introduction to Buddie life – the 1987 Scottish Cup final triumph as the first game attended.
He joined Hearts at 16, netted a collector’s-item goal to win a Uefa Cup tie in Basel and established himself as the redoubtable right-back in time for the Vladimir Romanov revolution in 2005 when a George Burley-led team roared to the top of the league in a manner that still prompts wistful “What if … ?” reflections in the Diggers and other maroon-favoured salons. What if Burley hadn’t been sacked, the first but by no means last eccentric act of Vlad the Mad? “Would we have sustained that great start? I don’t think so. George’s pre-season was different, totally ball-oriented. Normally you’re battered. His approach meant we were fresh but by November we would probably have blown up anyway.”
Neilson would win the Scottish Cup in 2006 but how to describe the Romanov years? “It would be War and Peace if we went into the whole shebang and I need to get back to see my kids,” says Neilson, dad to three girls. “I wish I’d kept a diary but I think Banksy [goalkeeper Steve Banks] was the only one of us who did. To begin with, it was exciting. Big names – Euro winners – were coming through the door all the time. Tynecastle was a great place to be: a fantastic club, passionate fans. But then it all started to fall apart. Late payments [of wages], non-payments, interference…”
He left the club with Romanov causing mayhem and returned with Ann Budge restoring order, confidence and serenity. “She was brilliant right away. Not being involved in football previously, and also being a woman, she viewed it entirely differently. She’d ask: ‘Why are we doing this?’ The answer would be: ‘Er, because that’s how it’s always been done.’ Then she’d go: ‘Why not try this … ’ Invariably it would be good.”
I ask about managerial influences. Neilson thinks back to his first youth coach, Tam Eadie at Wolves Boys’ Club, and his tireless dedication: “I’m fortunate, getting paid for what he did for the love of the game.” He’s had “loads of good bosses and loads of bad ones”, the latter almost certainly referring to the flurry of them in his final couple of years as a Hearts player. Ultimately, though: “Managers have to be themselves. If you try to be someone else, and you see this all the time, then players will sniff you out.”
Neilson left Hearts as a manager to take charge of MK Dons with the League One club’s flamboyant owner Pete Winkelman hailing him as the best young boss in Britain, which is perhaps the kind of hype expected of a former pop mogul. But Milton Keynes, while his wife and daughters Eva, Ruby and Lula liked the lifestyle and were sorry to leave, was the wrong fit for our man.
“I missed the intensity of the job which I had at Hearts and have found again at United. At Hearts I spent a lot of time trying to take the pressure off the players. It was there in the stadium and in the city. But at MK the fans weren’t really bothered whether the team won or lost. The players could have been beaten three-nil and still able to have Saturday night on the town. The Hearts boys would have had to be a bit more wary about doing that.”
Dundee, he says, is more his kind of town, United the challenge he needed. The history, the tremendous team of the Jim McLean era, doesn’t daunt him. “It’s actually one of the reasons I came here because I had nothing like that in my last job and I hated it.” So we end the conversation where we began, with fuming fly-pasts. His airborne aggrievement had not, he thinks, been wholly connected to performances on the park, even though it quickly followed Hearts being dumped out of the Scottish Cup by Hibs, then a division below. “There was an issue in the stadium, some unrest, and the club were trying to move a group out. As the manager you’re an easy target for any flak that’s going. I remember talking to some other managers later about protests. One said that a banner on the back of a plane must be the ultimate and I surprised them when I went: ‘I’ve had that.’ The guy came back with: ‘Blimey, you must have been terrible!’
“In a funny sort of way, though, I almost took what happened as a back-handed compliment. Think of the trouble it must have taken to make the banner big and tough enough, and then to hire the plane. Something like that helps give you a thick skin because if there’s one quality a manager definitely needs it’s resilience.”
Out on the street he apologises once again for his previous coyness and I wish him and United well. Today there seem to be only clear skies ahead; tomorrow, though, will be another day. “I will get sacked again,” he says. “Hopefully that won’t be here but it will happen.”