The Hearts boss looks set to shock Scottish football by leaving the Edinburgh side, currently fourth in the Premiership, to join a club currently languishing near the bottom of League One.
While there’s still a chance Neilson will decide to stay at Tynecastle, the fact that Hearts have begun to search for a replacement would suggest the 36-year-old is on his way.
Considering Hearts’ penchant for casting their net far and wide when it comes to player recruitment - Osman Sow, Juanma, Arnaud Djoum etc - it wouldn’t be a great surprise if they’ve got something up their sleeve.
However, for the meantime, here are the leading contenders for the vacancy should Neilson choose to depart.
Described as a “remarkable young man” by Hearts director of football Craig Levein, Cathro is looked upon as one of the brightest and most progressive coaches produced by Scotland in recent years. He was head of Dundee United’s youth academy at only 22 - where he was initially hired by Levein - and has enjoyed spells as assistant manager at Portuguese side Rio Ave, Spanish giants Valencia, and now as No.2 to Rafa Benitez at Newcastle United. Hearts even tried to recruit him to be under-20s coach in the summer of 2014 before his move to the Mestalla.
Pros: He helped bring through the likes of Ryan Gauld at Dundee United and is committed to developing players technically. He has a strong working relationship with Craig Levein and is highly thought of around Europe.
Cons: He has no experience in management. It’s very different implementing ideas under an authoritative boss and being the top dog, especially when he’s still relatively young at 30 years old. Cathro is obviously a great teacher, but will he be a great motivator or evaluator of talent? He could be, but at this point we have no idea.
Thought of as a leading candidate because of his availability, prior connection to the club and good personal relationship with Levein, Pressley has had three stints in management with Falkirk, Coventry City and Fleetwood Town. While he was sacked from the latter two, there were mitigating circumstances, especially at Coventry where the club has been in a downward spiral for years and Pressley, having managed exactly 100 games before being given the chop, was granted more time than most in the hotseat. He’s stayed active since leaving Fleetwood by scouting for Scotland boss Gordon Strachan. Pressley spent eight-and-a-half years with Hearts as a player. He became club captain under Levein in 2001.
Pros: He’s had a history of developing young players from his time at Falkirk and Coventry. He may not have leaned on the kids so heavily were it not for budget constraints, but the fact remains he helped nuture a number of good, young talents across the two clubs, including Jay Fulton, Stephen Kingsley and James Maddison. He also showed himself capable of finding the odd hidden gem, as evidenced by the signings of Farid El Alagui and Lyle Taylor, who were top goalscorers for Falkirk in the Championship in consecutive seasons.
Cons: He’s yet to complete a managerial job that’s been looked upon as universally positive, with fans at each of his stops happy to see him go, even at Falkirk. His demeanour rubbed fans the wrong way, while some accused him of stubbornness with regards to picking and dropping certain players. There’s also the nature of his 2006 departure from Tynecastle and controversial return as a Celtic player. The resentment continues to linger among some Hearts fans.
Prior to last season, he would have headed the list of preferred candidates in the eyes of the Hearts support. Not only is Hartley a former hero - you’d probably go as far as to say he’s a modern-day club legend - he did some excellent work at Alloa and then in his first season-and-a-half with Dundee. In three consecutive years Hartley won promotion, getting the Wasps from League Two to the Championship before leaving to take over the reins at Dens, where he promptly won the Championship title. Once in the top flight, he secured a top six finish, aided by the excellent play of an attacker picked up on a free transfer from Cowdenbeath (Greg Stewart). However, last season saw a bit of a regression, and the first 11 games of this campaign were a disaster. Results have picked up recently, three wins in four, but Dundee remain among the clubs battling against relegation.
Pros: While things have been a little bumpy recently, over the course of Hartley’s managerial career there’s been more positive than negative. He was thoroughly well liked at Alloa Athletic, where he completely re-energised a club who’d gone from the brink of the Championship to the bottom tier in the space of 12 months. With Dundee he earned adulation for the signings of Kane Hemmings, Greg Stewart and Scott Bain, earning him a reputation for being able to pluck talents from the lower leagues.
Cons: Aside from the aforementioned moves, he’s not recruited all that consistently at Dens Park. Some of his more curious deals include Luka Tanculic, Philip Roberts, Simon Ferry, Riccardo Calder, Rory Loy, Daryll Meggatt, Rhys Healey and Julen Extabeguren. Robbie Neilson gets a tough time from sections of the Hearts support for the club’s signing policy since they returned to the top flight, yet he’s been better in that regard than Hartley.
The former Hearts left-back was thrust into management shortly after joining East Fife as player-assistant in 2013. Less than a month after arriving, boss Willie Aitchison was given his marching orders, with Naysmith finding himself in temporary charge before being granted the job on a full-time role a month later. He failed to avoid the drop with the Fifers at the end of that season and, after a so-so 2014-15 campaign, fans were calling for his head with progress continuing to flounder well into late 2015. Then everything came together as the Methil club enjoyed a terrific second half to 2015-16, marching towards the title. Life back in League One started well, though results have tailed off recently.
Pros: The fact that he’s one of the best left-backs in Hearts’ history, including helping to stop the trophy drought with the Scottish Cup win in ‘98, will do his chances no harm in the eyes of the fans. Like Pressley, he’s another who’s worked well with young players. Nathan Austin was nothing but a raw talent when Naysmith took over, but he eventually moulded the striker into the division’s best. His honesty, in contrast to Neilson’s habit of telling the odd fib to the media, will also go down well with the Hearts support.
Cons: He’s been accused of being too cautious and setting up his side to counteract the opponents rather than trusting his team’s own strengths; a sentence that will sound very familiar to Neilson critics. And while he’s performed an admirable job at rebuilding the East Fife squad and adding a feeling of professionalism to the club, he’s far from the finished article at League One level. The jump up to Hearts could prove to be too much.
Stevie Crawford/Jon Daly
The assistant manager and under-20s coach, respectively, are next in line should Hearts’ hierarchy look to promote from within. Levein has talked before about creating a conveyor belt at management level to match the youth-squad-to-first-team journey taken by players. However, today’s news would suggest Neilson is looking to take Crawford with him to Mk Dons, while the job might come a little too early for Daly, who only joined Hearts earlier this year from Raith Rovers, where he was still playing.
Pros: They’ll know the set-up and the players and could keep things going seamlessly from one manager to the next.
Cons: Similar to Cathro, they lack the experience. Crawford had one job in football management - with East Fife, funnily enough - but didn’t make a great success of it.