Joel Sked: A defence of Hearts boss Robbie Neilson

Hearts performances in recent Edinburgh derbies has led some fans to be distrustful of manager Robbie Neilson, but such view points are incredibly short-sighted, as Joel Sked writes

Hearts have made terrific progress on the field during Robbie Neilson's tenure. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The full-time whistle sounded. The fans headed for the exits. Thousands made their feelings clear with a cacophony of boos (is there another term for a collection boos?). Heart of Midlothian had let a two-goal lead slip in the final 10 minutes – this isn’t meant to happen in the Edinburgh derby.

The man in front of me, a picture of frustration and ire throughout the game, finally loses the plot. The second half had pushed him to the brink, constantly turning around to those around him to see if we were sharing his feelings of disgust. It had been building. His hat is off. Incredulous. In my stunned daze I did not quite pick up what he said word for word but a hailstorm of vitriol was directed in the direction of Robbie Neilson.

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The next day I ventured over to the club’s Twitter account to check the ticket situation for the replay and decided to click on the club’s tweet with Sunday’s full-time score. Oh. My. Word. Replies ranged from simply ‘s****’, ‘*****bags’ and ‘chokers’ to more drastic, toys out the pram, I didn’t get what I wanted, what is the point of going on with life type stuff: ‘NEILSON OUT! Beyond a joke now that clown has had too many chances’ and ‘Robbie, you’re a joke. Bottled it again. We will never progress with you. You sold the game, yet again.’ There were also tweets which likened Juwon Oshaniwa to Ali Dia.

While they all provided some entertainment on a dreary Monday, it got me thinking about Neilson, Hearts and how he is seemingly perceived by the club’s fans. Think back to Csaba Laszlo. The fans instantly took to his passionate and enigmatic personality. It also helped that he was actually a football manager, after the previous incumbents or as the French say ‘les incompétents’. Jim Jefferies was revered, and rightly so, after what he achieved in his previous spell. Paulo Sergio was up next and by the end of his tenure he was serenaded with his own catchy ditty – helped by the song of choice and delivering arguably the club’s greatest triumph. John McGlynn . . . moving swiftly on. We then get to Gary Locke. The football was nearly as painstaking as under McGlynn and he was in charge when the club dropped down the division but his name was chanted on a semi-regular occasion. A ‘good Hearts man’ (ugh) after all and he stood by the club in its time of need.

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Now, do not get me wrong, each of those managers faced their critics during their time at Tynecastle. Boos were heard on numerous occasions and fans took to social media and messageboards to condemn whatever they felt needed condemned. This hasn’t changed. Actually it has. The bile has intensified. From my own observations, both at games, conversations heard in the pub and views read online, there seems to be a lack of respect and recognition for the job Robbie Neilson has done and is doing at Tynecastle. It is a pretty lousy barometer, I must admit, but I have heard Neilson’s name sung with gusto once, the day Hearts were presented with the Championship trophy. Yet, this is a manager who has achieved more than any other in the last decade – though I would consider reasoned arguments for both Valdas Ivanauskas and Sergio.

He has been in charge of 71 competitive games. He has lost only 11. He led the side to the Championship title in what was assumed to be the most competitive second level title race in many a year. The league was won by 21 points. Since September 21, Hearts have lost twice, and only to the two teams above them in the league. That’s two defeats in 20. The Jam Tarts lead fourth placed Ross County by 11 points and have two games in hand. Hearts will be in Europe next season. Two full seasons after entering administration. One since being promoted from the Championship.

Who can remember the football under Sergio? The football under McGlynn? The football under Locke? I would use football in the loosest of terms in regards to the latter two. Under Neilson the players have become more professional, more conditioned, more intelligent. That has shone through on the park. It has been more positive, more proactive, more varied.

The side swept all before them last season. You could say that is to be expected but how many times do sides regress into a mentality of ‘let’s just make sure we win’ and performances become stuffier, more sterile. In the Championship Hearts scored three or more on 15 occasions. The club’s goalscoring feats haven’t exactly dried up since the summer’s elevation. A fine start clouded teething problems which became apparent in a string of three defeats. Neilson worked on the side’s faults and foibles leading to six clean sheets in 11 games as the Gorgie side kept in touch with Aberdeen and Celtic at the summit of the division.

The club has been praised for its recruitment strategy. The process has allowed the playing side to constantly evolve. Improvement has been prioritised over sentiment. Neilson, following the club’s overarching aim, wants to develop Hearts into a team who can consistently challenge at the top of the table. Power has rightly been added to the skill already at the club. Big, strong and powerful Hearts . . . that can play football. The club refuses to rest on its laurels and with the forward-thinking Neilson in charge there is only one way the club is heading.

The fans’ main gripe is regarding the performances in the big games. Neilson has came in for criticism, this writer included, for the way he has set up his side in matches against Hibernian, Rangers, Aberdeen and, less so, Celtic. His team selection and mindset towards these contests has provoked disparagement from fans.

My own opinion is that the team can be too timid in their approach to the aforementioned, especially at Tynecastle. The stadium’s famous atmosphere is heading towards mythical status. Ever since those heady days in 2005 fans have become expectant and that has bred impatience. The crowd respond to an up-and-at-em approach (or perceived injustices delivered by the man in the middle). Tynecastle is conducive to getting the ball down the throat of the opposition and quickly, even more so in big games so Hearts immediately start on the front foot. Neilson, however, appears to prefer a more measured approach, one which takes a bit of ferocity and passion out the play. At times he even over-complicates matters – the back three experiment at Easter Road comes to mind.

His record in matches against the ‘big 4′’ reads: played 17, won 4, drawn 6, and lost 7. Not all that impressive. The low point was back on September 20 when Aberdeen turned up at Tynecastle and eviscerated the home side in a painful first half. Since then improvement has been conspicuous. Defensive resolve was displayed at Celtic Park before a positive attitude and spirit saw Hearts come from behind to draw level with Celtic twice at Tynecastle. A robust performance was put in at Pittodrie as Neilson made sure his team were not as easy pickings as the first meeting between the clubs. Only a nonsensical hand ball prevented Hearts picking up points before revenge was served with a more proactive victory in the Scottish Cup at home to the Dons.

The Hibs game, however, has left a sour taste in the mouths of many. An inability to hold onto a two goal lead against a lower division side. Again, there was no up-and-at-em approach and again Alan Stubbs appeared to have the better of his capital counterpart. Fans were incandescent as the team dropped deeper and deeper. Injuries and fatigue – something which Neilson definitely has to analyse in terms of his triple sessions – left the side incapable of playing and pressing higher up the pitch. Many will claim that they knew the Hibs goals were coming but realistically I did not. It was when Jason Cumming’s headed over Neil Alexander that I knew the equaliser was coming.

His comments regarding the replay being a money spinner certainly did not help his cause in the aftermath. But for fans to debunk his managerial ability and suggest it is time to go is ludicrous but ultimately unsurprising. Think back to Gavin Reilly, fans had written him off after a handful of performances. Some have failed to learn and are doing the exact same with Juwon Oshaniwa. The 21st-century football fan is a perfectionist.

Yet, so is the manager. And he is still developing, in tandem with the squad and the club as a whole. Fans seem to forget he is only 35. He is nowhere near the finished article, just like those at his disposal. He has more to learn, soak in and much more to give. He is the ideal man to take the club forward, better doing it at Tynecastle than at a rival or down south. Hearts possess one of the most promising managers in the game, fans should perhaps realise that.

If Hearts prevail over Hibs with a dominant performance, a performance that lives up to Hearts’ divisional superiority, tomorrow night then Neilson will likely be recognised and back in the good books of many. But if they don’t, it will be a bump, albeit a painful one, on the road to progress. Progress which has seen Neilson take Hearts so far in so little time.

• Joel Sked is a member of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast. Check out their website here and follow them on Twitter.