Hearts won the second tier at a canter in his first season and he placed his side firmly back among the elite in the top flight the very next campaign. And yet, assuming there is no last-minute hitch on his deal to join MK Dons, he leaves a fan base divided in its opinion of him.
While he was backed 100 per cent in his first season, as time went on an alternative viewpoint of the manager grew stronger and stronger within the stands at Tynecastle.
It got to the point where not since the early days of the Vladimir Romanov era had someone split opinion among the Hearts support quite so thoroughly, which is an odd thing when you consider their respective personalities.
Romanov was an egomaniac who sacked managers at will, promised Champions League success and made ridiculous statements in the press. Neilson, by contrast, was measured, humble and, unlike Romanov, actually delivered on what he set out to do.
Neilson said previously the criticism doesn’t bother him, but the man’s only human. When a group of supporters, in March of this year, felt the need to hire a plane to make their dislike known, it surely would have rankled, if not stung just a little.
After all, considering what he’d achieved, surely he deserved more respect.
He may have also recognised the growing sense of discontent and what it could mean to his future career prospects, which perhaps played a part in his decision to swap the top four of Scottish football for the bottom half of England’s League One.
Due to the Foundation of Hearts and the levels of money currently being pumped into the club’s infrastructure, including the rebuilding of the main stand, Hearts fans have greater influence than most.
The board may not pay much attention to your average grumbler from the terraces, but if monthly pledge cancellations started to rise, and it affected the bottom line, they would have been forced to consider the manager’s position. And with the way things were going, fourth place, where Hearts are expected to finish in terms of budget compared with Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen, was not enough to satisfy the home faithful.
From the outside looking in, it was easy to underplay the anti-Neilson sentiment and pass it off as a few undesirables holding a vendetta against the current coach.
However, it wasn’t just the “Neilson out” brigade who were growing disillusioned with the manager’s weaknesses. At one point during a recent trip to Inverness CT, there were audible boos from the away end when Neilson went to retrieve a loose ball out of play as his side trailed 2-0. Even though Hearts fought back for a 3-3 draw, it wasn’t enough to quell the dissatisfaction. For all his tactical acumen, there were routinely three knocks on Neilson: that he tinkered with the line-up too much, that he struggled in “big games”, and that his approach was too cautious.
Then there was the Hibs cup game; the massive blot on Neilson’s copybook.
Hearts led 2-0 at home to their nearest rivals, but sat back in the second half, conceded two late goals and exited the cup after a replay.
It was the result even hardened Neilson supporters could not excuse. It lent credence to the negativity around him and, though many felt it was beneath a club of Hearts’ proud history to condemn someone for poor results against one club only, when Hibs went on to end their 114-year curse by winning the trophy, it stung the support even more.
Ultimately, Neilson’s legacy is going to be impacted massively by what comes next. If Hearts plateau in fourth place, exit early in the Scottish Cup and fail to make significant inroads into any competition next season, then we will know the Tynecastle club have already struck their head off the glass ceiling and, excluding the collapse against Hibs, Neilson did as good a job as could be expected.
Similarly, if he becomes a success at MK Dons, leading them back to the top of League One or even higher, then there may be pangs of regret from within the Hearts support that they should have cherished him more while he was still in Edinburgh.