Five Managers Catching the Eye: Robbie Neilson at Hearts
In the fifth and final section of our series on managers catching the eye outside of England, we make the short trip north of the border to Scotland, home to Hearts boss Robbie Neilson…
Robbie Neilson (Hearts)
Forget the title race, we all know it will be either Rangers or Celtic, as always.
It’s the battle for 3rd place that represents the real fight for glory and pride in the Scottish Premiership, Although, it appears to be a one team race right now, led by Robbie Neilson and his impressive Hearts side, who this time last season were playing Championship football.
A former Hearts player and development team manager, Neilson began his managerial career at the club in 2014. He stormed to the Championship title in his first season; beating rivals Hibs by 21 points while Rangers had to settle for 3rd. The momentum spilled over into the SPL season in which they finished 3rd.
Neilson was then tempted down to England with MK Dons, but two years later he returned to Scotland to lead Dundee United into the top-flight.
Re-appointed at Hearts in the summer of 2020, Neilson claimed his third Championship title last season, propelling the Jam Tarts back into the Premiership, while his troops agonisingly lost to Celtic on penalties in the Scottish Cup final.
Now back in the top-tier, in July Hearts handed Celtic - and new boss Ange Postecoglou - their first opening-day defeat in 24 years, then went unbeaten against each of the other 10 teams in the division - drawing 1-1 away to Rangers - through to late October.
A win-lose win-lose win-lose sequence followed, but they’ve since won four of their last five games, including a pivotal 2-0 win over Motherwell last weekend.
So, what makes Hearts so impressive this season as they bid to cement a top-three finish upon their return to the Scottish Premiership?
Hearts have been nestled in the top-three since Week Two. They enjoyed an excellent start to the season; amassing 42 points from 23 games so far. This tally puts the Tynecastle team 10 points clear of Motherwell (4th) and 12 points ahead of rivals Hibernian (5th).
Confidence is sky high with seven wins from their last 10 games; only the Old Firm have beaten them in that time. However, Neilson’s winning mentality means he demands more from his players in the big games.
“We’re doing alright but we’d like to beat Rangers and Celtic as well,” he said this week. “We don’t want to have the mindset that we’re happy to beat all the other teams but we’re also happy to get beat off the Old Firm.
“We want to win those games as well. We’ve had close games against them and performed well but the next step for us is to build a team with the mentality to beat the Old Firm.”
Home is where the Heart is - sorry, that’s awful - with only Rangers and Celtic coming away from Tynecastle with the spoils so far.
Defensive solidity has been key. Keeper Craig Gordon and his backline have conceded just 20 goals in 23 games, securing nine clean sheets along the way, while they boast the best defensive record on the road (just 10 goals conceded).
Up at the other end, only two players in the league have scored more goals than Liam Boyce, who has eight goals to his name so far: the two players above him in the charts have both played five more games.
In the January transfer window, Neilson bolstered his squad with the additions of Nathaniel Atkinson (Melbourne City), Ellis Simms (Everton-loan), and Toby Sibbick (Barnsley), although his most important work was keeping hold of centre-back John Souttar amid interest from Rangers.
Recently ranked the safest manager in the league when it comes to job security by outlet Football Scotland, Neilson will now look to cement that Europa League spot and, who knows, maybe even put a bit of pressure on the top-two…