Passionate, gritty, but jury’s out on Robbie
HEARTS legend Gary Mackay still remembers the “miserable winter’s night” in Clyde when he realised Robbie Neilson would cut the mustard at Tynecastle.
“He was just a young man, out on loan at Queen of the South,” recalls Mackay, who made a club record 640 appearances for the Jambos before becoming an agent.
“It wasn’t a game for the faint-hearted and late in the second half Robbie and Andy Milne went into a tackle together on the touchline. Andy was a hard player and raked his studs all the way up Robbie’s thigh.
“Lesser men would have come off but Robbie just got up, gave Andy Milne a glare and got on with his job. I knew then that he was made of the right stuff.”
Few who watched the 36year-old perform over the subsequent decade would refute Mackay’s assessment.
In 200 league games for Hearts and more at Leicester, Dundee and Falkirk, the right-back with the fearsome throw was the epitome of professionalism and commitment.
“Robbie was always composed, very much in control of himself,” said John McGlynn, the former Hearts coach who nurtured Neilson through the youth ranks and then worked on the first-team staff under George Burley.
“He was a disciplined, organised guy who basically ticked all the boxes of being a good professional. He was a great athlete, a great trainer. In any exercise you did he would always be at the front.”
Lee Wallace, a team-mate at Tynecastle, recalls a formidable work ethic. “Without fail, Robbie was the first through the door and the last to leave,” he says.
Alongside the likes of Craig Gordon and Steven Pressley, Neilson was a cornerstone of the Hearts side that overcame managerial upheaval and the chaotic ownership of Vladimir Romanov to win the Scottish Cup in 2006.
McGlynn cites Neilson’s goalsaving challenge in the final against Gretna as the defender’s defining moment. “He just wouldn’t be beaten,” he adds.
A secondplace finish in the same campaign also split Old Firm rivals Rangers and Celtic for the first time in over a decade. Yet for all his virtues, Neilson spent his career splitting opinion. For every supporter who relished his attitude and endeavour, another questioned his pace and ability, his genuine class at the summit of Scottish football. When Leicester made their approach in 2009, a poll on influential fans’ forum Jambos Kickback saw 68 per cent of supporters vote not to renew his contract – hardly a ringing endorsement of a 28-year-old stalwart supposedly entering the peak years of his career. It is certainly true that Neilson
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“If you averaged his marks out over the course of the season, he’d be a solid seven out of ten,” said FLP columnist and ex-Celtic defender Adam Virgo.
“He wouldn’t score goals,
beat people up the line or get man of the match awards but he was very solid defensively. A steady-eddie, a good SPL player, if that isn’t too disparaging.”
But what Neilson lacked in legs, he made up for in brains. From the decision at 16 to ditch the Rangers youth team in search of an opening to the relentless badgering of coaches on the way up, the defender sought ceaselessly to improve and understand.
“He was very laid-back and quiet around the place,” said Peter Houston, a youth team coach at Hearts who later managed Neilson at Dundee. “But he was very bright, very articulate. He was like a sponge when it came to soaking up information.”
Wallace added: “We worked with a number of bosses at Hearts, but he was always keen, always asking questions.”
Rangers boss Mark Warburton briefly worked with Neilson at Brentford in 2011 and knew then that he was destined to remain in the game.
“He was very intelligent and switched on,” said the 54-year-old. “I liked his company. We’d sit down every day with a cup of tea and talk about the game.
“Robbie has a football intellect, that’s for sure.”
In 2014, handed an oppor- tunity to revive Hearts following their descent into administration and the Championship, the 34-yearold manager learned at the hand of director of football Craig Levein.
Within 18 months, the Jambos were once again the second-best team in Scotland.
Those who have worked under him tell a familiar tale. An intense focus on fitness, double training sessions, long periods of analysis.
Before a game on Alloa’s synthetic surface, Neilson hired out an astroturf court to help his players acclimatise.
Yet for all the miracles wrought, the Tynecastle faithful remained on the fence.
Questions were raised about a negative style of play, Levein’s apparent