Pas­sion­ate, gritty, but jury’s out on Rob­bie

The Football League Paper - - ROBBIE NEILSON - By Chris Dunlavy

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.

Cor­ner­stone

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

NEW CHAL­LENGE: Rob­bie Neil­son is out to im­press at MK Dons

STEADY-ED­DIE: Rob­bie Neil­son in his Hearts days made the most of mod­est abil­ity.

“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,

In­tel­li­gent

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

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