Hearts manager Robbie Neilson has emerged as the leading candidate for the vacant manager’s job at English League One side MK Dons.
Wednesday night’s SPFL Premiership match between Hearts and Rangers at Tynecastle could be Neilson’s last in charge of the Gorgie side.
The Milton Keynes side, currently 19th in League One, have made an official approach for Neilson and hope to open talks with him on Thursday, the day after the re-arranged Rangers fixture.
The 36-year-old has been informed of MK Dons’ interest by the Hearts board but all parties have agreed that no further discussions will take place until after the game.
A statement released on the official Hearts website yesterday, just hours after Neilson had conducted his pre-match media duties ahead of the Rangers match, read: “The club can confirm that MK Dons have made an official approach to Heart of Midlothian in relation to head coach Robbie Neilson.
“Robbie is aware of the approach but he remains fully focused on the immediate task at hand, which is of course, Rangers at home on Wednesday. No further comment or statement will be made by the club until after this match.”
However, it was reported last night that Hearts are currently discussing a compensation figure with MK Dons, while Ian Cathro has emerged as a likely replacement for Neilson.
Dundee-born Cathro is currently assistant manager at Newcastle United having previously occupied a similar role in Spain with Rio Ave and Valencia.
Neilson replaced Gary Locke as Hearts boss in the summer of 2014 and led the club to the Championship title ahead of both Rangers and Hibs in his first season in charge. He followed that up with a third-place finish on their return to the top flight last season, earning a place in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League.
MK Dons are currently just two points above the relegation places and Karl Robinson was sacked as manager last month after more than six years in charge, during which the club enjoyed a spell in the Championship.
They hope to have a new manager in place for their FA Cup second-round tie at Charlton on Saturday after talks with Steven Gerrard last week when the former Liverpool and England midfielder ended his playing career.
Gerrard said the job had “come too soon” for him. Now MK Dons have made it clear Neilson is the man they want.
“Milton Keynes Dons Football Club can confirm it has made an official approach for Heart of Midlothian’s head coach Robbie Neilson with regards to its vacant managerial position,” said their statement last night.
“The club respects that Hearts has an important fixture with Rangers in the Scottish Premiership on Wednesday evening and, therefore, no further comment will be made until after that match.”
Meanwhile, Neilson has warned tomorrow’s opponents Rangers that money doesn’t guarantee success.
The game will be the first meeting of the sides this season, and victory would lift Hearts above the Ibrox side and Aberdeen into second place, defying their respective budgets. That would also shake the pre-season belief of many outwith Gorgie and Pittodrie that the return of Rangers to the top flight after their extended exile would simply lead to the resumption of the old order.
“Everyone expects Celtic and Rangers to be at the top of the league, battling it out,” said Neilson. “But I think ourselves and Aberdeen have shown that we’re strong enough to compete in that area as well.
“I always believe you can go two or three places above where you’re budget takes you. It doesn’t always work out like, it depends how big the disparity is. You look at the budget of Celtic compared to everyone else, it’s a huge gulf.
“It would take a lot of things clicking into place to try and get there. My job is to produce a team that win games. Where we end up in the league won’t necessarily be decided by how we do against Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen. But we want to win these games. And we expect to win them.
“So budget doesn’t mean anything. It’s 11 v 11. It’s how you set your team up. Yes, there will be some players who have better quality than we’ve got. But it’s up to us to negate that.”
With the club chairwoman Ann Budge, left, admitting that anything less than a top-three finish would be disappointing and revealing that an advance on that is this season’s target, Neilson says that the board, while not matching the budgets of some of the teams above them, has shown a willingness to invest in success. At a board meeting on Friday, they agreed to allow him to bring in new signings in January, in the effort that they can push towards their season’s goal.
“ I think it will be a key window. I think the other teams around about us will all strengthen so we spoke about what I want. Ann, the Foundation of Hearts and the board agreed with it.
“Ann has been phenomenal with the club. Whenever I have asked for something she has produced it and that’s all you can ask for from an owner. We don’t ask for ridiculous things. We say, ‘this is what we need, this is why we need it’. Every time she’s backed us. But the club has to live within its means.”