Robbie is right man for MK Dons
ISTILL remember the first time I met Robbie Neilson. We were part of a Scotland B squad playing away in Germany. You’re only together for three or fours days on those trips, but even in that short space of time I could have told you he’d be a manager.
The new MK Dons boss spoke when things needed to be said. He had an assurance in the dressing room. He was very, very knowledgeable about the game.
When you go away on international breaks, you’re constantly having meetings about tactics and strategy. To be honest, I think it’s just to eat up the time.
He was particularly involved in those and he told me later he was already doing his badges. For a guy of 24, that was remarkable. He definitely had the future mapped out.
Over the next few years, I played against Robbie plenty of times. When I was at Celtic, he was part of a very good Hearts team under George Burley.
As a player, I’d say he was a Steady Eddie right-back. He wouldn’t score goals or get manof-the-match awards, but he was very solid defensively.
If you averaged his marks out over the course of the season, he’d be a solid seven out of ten.
A good SPL player, if that isn’t too disparaging.
But what that team had in abundance was intelligent footballers: Steven Pressley, Paul Hartley, Craig Gordon. He was basically surrounded by managers in the making.
As a player, you learn much more from people like that than you ever would from playing in a team full of skilful individuals.
I interviewed Bobby Zamora recently. He was probably the best player I ever appeared with, but he had no real knowledge of tactics and systems. He was just a goalscorer.
People like Neil Lennon and Roy Keane, though, had the package. They’d tell you things in a game and you’d think ‘Ah right, I didn’t see that’.
Those days at Hearts must have aided Robbie’s coaching skills enormously.
Certainly his record is hard to fault. He took charge at Hearts in 2014 and won the Championship that season ahead of Rangers and Hibernian. He won 29 of his 36 games, scoring 96 goals in the process.
Last year, Hearts finished third in the Premiership and qualified for Europe.
The club is back where it belongs and, for a manager who is just 36, that is a remarkable achievement.
Now he has quit the club to take over at MK Dons, a move that shows you just how lightly success in the SPL is regarded in England these days.
The question is: can Robbie prove he deserves to be managing higher than League One?
To succeed as a young manager – and Lee Johnson is a prime example – you need to have great mental strength. There will always be players who think ‘What does he know?’ That will be his first battle, but I’d back Robbie to win it. His work at Hearts suggests that.
He will also need the players to take responsibility.
A team playing Championship football last year should not be battling relegation in League One.
Dean Lewington needs to show his experience and leadership. Kieran Agard hasn’t really come to the party. Ryan Colclough is playing well but it isn’t fair to rely on a 21year-old lad for goals.
Will the quality of League One comes as a shock? If Robbie had managed in the SPL for only three years, I think it would be.
But, in my opinion, the Scottish Championship is about even with League One. The year he spent there with Hearts will be a good grounding. Even so, there are more teams, more competition, more expectation. In Scotland, you’re never going to win the title. Celtic have it sewn up. You’ve never got that real pressure and responsibility. MK Dons, meanwhile, are expected to challenge for promotion. It’s a gamble for Robbie and for the chairman, Pete Winkleman, but I’m glad he’s taken the plunge. I’d much rather see a fresh young face given an opportunity than somebody who’s been on the managerial merry-go-round for years.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Robbie Neilson as the Hearts boss and, below, in his playing days