His team had just taken all three points with a late, late goal and there was no looking back. The fledgling Hearts manager has said that result and the defiant manner of the win set the tone for the campaign. There were few dissenting voices back then, just a chorus of praise as they cantered to the title, ahead of the Govan side and Edinburgh rivals Hibs
Last season when a plane was chartered to fly over Tynecastle, pulling a banner lamenting the style of play and demanding Neilson’s departure, the drone of the engine was drowned out by the majority who gave a spirited rendition of One Robbie Neilson. But there has been a growing unrest. Bizarrely, a third-place finish last season, and an almost 60 per cent win percentage – allegedly the third best of any manager in the top flight ever, outwith Celtic and Rangers – wasn’t good enough for some who felt too many chances to convert that amazing finish into a second spot had gone begging.
Their claim is that Hearts, under Neilson, succumb on the big occasion. Ironic then that, in what was surely his final game at the helm, before departing for England’s League One and the challenge of reviving MK Dons’ fortunes in the way he has revitalised the Tynecastle team, his men grabbed the opportunity to go second with both hands.
It was more subdued than at those key moments in the past two seasons, but, in the 64th minute, some fans did sing his name.
He probably didn’t hear them, such was his total immersion in this game. Animated, argumentative and a source of almost constant irritation to fourth official Stephen Finnie, from the fourth minute, when Jason Holt went to ground on the edge of Hearts’ box to the last minutes, the departing manager was a fulminating force of nature.
Fair to surmise that he will not miss Scottish officialdom and good money is on them shedding few tears at his decision to leave their domain. If not a hate-hate relationship, it has been one doused in disdain, with the role of fourth official within the cramped confines of Tynecastle surely one of the least popular on the circuit.
Last night Neilson ran through his full repertoire. There was the questioning, the arms spread in feigned, or genuine, befuddlement, there was the finger wagging, the brandishing of the imaginary yellow card that irritates opposition fans and management teams so much and there was the untethered rage at every perceived and real sense of injustice. Most notably there was the sheer burst of emotion and joy as Hearts finally made the breakthrough.
Robbie Muirhead’s effort had just found the net when he ran out to the touchline, jumped and then spun to face the main stand, punching the air and bellowing in unfettered joy and relief.
No paperwork has been signed – that was a job for after this game – but he knows his mind is made up, This was his last game and he wanted desperately to go out on a high. He had emerged from the tunnel at the start of the match to be assailed by photographers wanting to document his every move, every emotion. He obliged when a programme was sent along the dugout for his autograph and then it was business as usual, the full focus on the game, and the officials.
But his team did him proud. They know he is off and they gave him the perfect leaving gift. And when Johnsen came off the park in the 89th minute, Hearts 2-0 up and the game in the bag, he sought out the man who had signed him to give him a hug. The fans followed on. As the game headed into stoppage time there was another chorus of There’s Only One Robbie Neilson and this time it was belted out from four sides of the ground.
They went on to beg Robbie, Robbie, gies a wave. They got better than that. He raised his hands and applauded them. Neilson was leaving but he was going out just as he had arrived in the league, with a victory over Rangers and the Hearts fans singing. Some will be happy to see him go but they remain the minority.