Tynecastle head coach Robbie Neilson is a fan of the man who will seek to swat away his side’s attempt to jump into second place tomorrow night, saying that he always knew Mark Warburton would make it as a manager.
While there are some within Rangers’ own fanbase who are less convinced of his merits, Neilson crossed paths with Warburton five years ago, as the full-back served out a short loan spell at Brentford, where the club’s assistant manager impressed him.
Neilson, speaking before news that MK Dons were targeting him as their new manager, said: “‘I was at Brentford with Mark and I know him really well. I like him, I speak to him every now and then – and he is a really good guy with some great ideas. A lot of the things he did at Brentford I liked, when he was assistant manager at the time. I knew he would become a manager.”
He, perhaps, did not see him ending up at Ibrox, though, across the divide and currently in the way of his Hearts team improving on last season’s third-place finish in the Premiership.
“You never know where somebody is going to end up,” said Neilson. “You know what football’s like. So I couldn’t tell you I knew he was going to be a Rangers manager. But I knew he was going to be a manager in his own right. You could tell just from speaking to him, by the way he handled himself, the way he took training.
“He had a real passion for passing the ball, for movement – all the things you see now. And training was geared towards the game. So I’m not surprised by the way Rangers play, because that was the way Brentford played. They play 4-3-3, they try to be expansive and play their way through you.
“It has worked for him. You know, Rangers got promoted, that was the first thing. OK, they’ve had a little sticky patch in the top league. But they still dominate possession in games. And the stats say that, if you have a lot of possession, you will win football matches. It doesn’t always work. There are ways to play against it. But I think he’s done a good job first just to get them up, then to get them where they are at the moment, because it’s difficult. It’s really difficult.
“Anybody who takes a job in management, wherever it is, understands that when things are going good, everyone loves you. If they’re not, well, you take it on the chin.
“But I like what he does – and he will do well at Rangers. I’ve come across him in passing up here, meeting at games and I was with him at an event recently. I’ll look forward to seeing him again this week.”
The respective beliefs and playing style of both teams augurs well for a footballing contest under the Tynecastle lights tomorrow, according to Neilson, who will have Callum Paterson available after having the swelling in his face drained having sustained a head knock early in Saturday’s win over Motherwell.
The Gorgie boss relishes pitting his wits against his old friend for the first time this season. The Old Firm cup tie forced a postponement of last month’s head to head, but the wait has only heightened the sense of anticipation, in the stands and the dressing rooms, and there will be a fierce desire to come out on top.
“I think the rivalry with Rangers has been great,” Neilson added. “There is a real intensity to these games. The season we were in the Championship together, it was fantastic. Both times we went to Ibrox and the games at Tynecastle, they were great games. The atmosphere is always brilliant. Rangers will bring numbers through, a full allocation, and we’ve sold all our tickets again. A full house should make for a great night.
“I think winning at Ibrox in the Championship changed things for us. The first two weeks of that league campaign set the tone for us – and getting the last-minute winner away to Rangers was huge. We went one up, lost a goal with five minutes to go. Generally, when that happens to teams there, they’ll end up losing the game. But we went straight up the park and scored. That set us up for the rest of the season. It was a huge moment in the revival of the club, I believe.”