Reflections on Hearts (April 2023)

By Anthony Brown

As Robbie Neilson licks his wounds following the most chastening blow of his nine-year managerial career - this one surely stings more than MK Dons given his long-term affiliation to Hearts - he can draw some solace from the context surrounding his sacking last weekend.

It is an endorsement of the overall progress made at Tynecastle under his watch - a back-handed compliment, if you like - that he was relieved of his duties at a time when he had the team fourth in the Premiership, two points off third, and with a squad even the majority of his fiercest critics would concede is among the strongest the club has had for many years. Neilson has raised the bar over the last few years to a level he himself was unable to maintain over the past couple of months. In finishing third so convincingly last year, and given the level of finance invested in the team, he simply had to do so again this term, even allowing for the distraction of European group-stage football and an injury list far worse than anything he could have envisaged during his squad-building last summer. When his team slipped from third to fourth last weekend as Aberdeen motored in the opposite direction, the die was pretty much cast.

Although the vibe inside Tynecastle for last weekend’s 2-0 defeat to St Mirren was similarly toxic to those dark days in 2019/20 when the team was drifting horribly towards relegation under Craig Levein and then Daniel Stendel, the reality is that Neilson - despite the struggles since the start of February - has left Hearts in as good a shape as anyone could realistically have hoped when he was recruited from Dundee United in the grim, Covid-ravaged summer of 2020 to clean up the mess left by the aforementioned duo. 

When the dust settles and the lingering rage subsides over how the battle for third place has been allowed to swing back in Aberdeen's favour, even those who did not want Neilson back at the club in the first place will acknowledge he proved during the past three seasons to have been a good appointment by Hearts. “What this guy has achieved as a player and as a manager for HMFC deserves much more recognition than all the shit I have read or listened to these last days,” said Stephane Adam, one of the club’s most respected former players, posting on social media two days after Neilson’s sacking. “Let see what the change brings now...! All the best for what's coming next mate!!”

Adam was right to chastise the minority of Hearts supporters who have been openly glorying on social media in the departure of a man who has devoted the majority of his adult life - both as player and manager - to the club and who has done more than most to raise it from the doldrums over the past decade.

Despite consistently keeping his team at the top end of the league, Neilson - as is the way with most football managers in the social media age - has regularly been the subject of complaints about his style of play, team selection and tactics, while there has also been a curious desire to belittle his league placings by downplaying the standard of the other teams in the Premiership, as if all other managers who have managed to finish in the top four over the past 20 years or so have had to overcome formidable opposition from the league's also-rans to do so.

Anyone who has been watching Scottish football regularly over the past few decades will be able to testify that the standard of the league is not notably different now to what it was in 2003, when Levein’s functional but unspectacular Hearts side finished third, or 2013, when Motherwell and St Johnstone occupied second and third respectively. Remarkably, and perhaps underlining the perennial battle Neilson seemed to face in winning over a section of the fanbase, a perception has been allowed to develop in recent months along the lines that Hearts “didn’t actually play all that well in January” when defeating Hibs 3-0 on two occasions either side of a 5-0 hammering of Aberdeen, which was Hearts’ biggest top-flight win since Neilson oversaw a 6-0 victory over Motherwell in his first spell. Under most other managers, eye-catching results like those against two of their traditional main rivals would not come with any negative caveat attached. 

All such gripes are based on an individual's perception in any case, and all pale in significance when set against the hard facts of Neilson’s largely fruitful reign. The Championship title (a formality perhaps), backed up by a third place finish in the Premiership in the year when it mattered most due to the carrot of guaranteed European group-stage football, plus two Scottish Cup finals in which Celtic and Rangers were taken to extra-time, and an eight-game unbeaten derby record including two Scottish Cup semi-final victories and two of the highest-margin wins Hearts have enjoyed over Hibs in the past 20 years all ensure he leaves the club with his head held high and cast as one of the best-performing Hearts managers of the 21st century thus far. Even this term when dealing with Europe and the previously mentioned injury list, he looked to have his team coasting to third at the end of January until the wheels came off, costing him his job.

In his seven attempts at the domestic cup competitions, Neilson’s team was halted by the Old Firm on four occasions, while the European campaign went pretty much as expected: Hearts won the two games against the lower-ranked RFS of Latvia and lost the six matches against the three sides with greater resource and more European experience (Zurich, Istanbul Basaksehir and Fiorentina).

Cup defeats by Alloa Athletic and Brora Rangers in Neilson’s first season were undoubted blemishes that could easily have seen him sacked two years ago but, if anything, the manner in which he responded from the latter of those two setbacks and had Hearts back in third place in the top flight and heading to the final of the Scottish Cup a little over a year later merely underlined his credentials as a Hearts manager of substance. Indeed, the knowledge that he possesses the ability and the resilience to keep his head, handle the criticism and overcome such adversity will surely niggle at him this weekend, as he sits idle wondering how he could go from the high of romping to back-to-back 3-0 wins over Hibs in January to being cast aside by the time of the next derby some three months later.

Regardless of recent form, Neilson would have fancied his chances of steadying the ship with a derby win this weekend (Hearts’ form rarely matters when it comes to facing Hibs) and then kicking on to reassert the team in third place in the closing weeks of the season. Equally, however, Neilson - who can now be considered a fairly experienced manager - is sharp enough to recognise when the pressure is on. It was notable when he faced the media at Oriam last Thursday, for what proved to be his final pre-match press conference, that he seemed slightly more intense than usual, aware that he had to deliver some kind of bullish fighting talk and then follow it up with a win over St Mirren to arrest a four-game losing streak and silence the growing army of critics.

When the latter part of it failed to materialise and the masses turned on him after a fifth defeat on the spin, Neilson - although probably not expecting to be sacked quite so swiftly - would have known he was firmly in the danger zone. Ultimately, then, it came down to how many games in a row a Hearts manager can lose and not be deemed by the board to be in “unacceptable” territory. It is worth noting that even the widely-maligned pair of Ian Cathro and Levein did not lose more than four on the spin during their respective reigns, while Stendel lost five at the start of his ill-fated stint.

The first two of Neilson’s five defeats could be forgiven to an extent as they came against Ange Postecoglou’s imperious Celtic side, but the manner of the other three (3-0 down at Aberdeen after half an hour, losing 2-1 to a Kilmarnock side who played half an hour with 10 men, and then the limp effort against St Mirren) allied to fresh memories of the dire display at Fir Park in February which first set alarm bells ringing helped paint a picture of a team struggling to keep pace with Barry Robson's resurgent Aberdeen side, a scenario that ultimately prompted the board to take decisive action on Sunday.

There has been frenzied analysis on social media of the reasons for Hearts’ downturn since their impressive surge through the winter, with tactics, dressing-room harmony and recruitment all coming under intense scrutiny, but it is possible that nothing significant has changed and simply that a long and gruelling season has taken a toll on a team which has lost several of its leaders.

Or it could simply be that a relatively long-serving manager has run his course in this particular job. As one outsider put it to me as we casually discussed Hearts’ predicament on Sunday, it looks like a case of “Neilson fatigue” has set in whereby a long-serving former player, deep into their second spell as manager, has hit a bad spell of form and supporters and board have decided it is time for a fresh face and a new voice.

Just as Neilson's reign should not be defined by the unedifying ending, the majority of the current squad should have enough credit in the bank to be given a fresh start under Steven Naismith. Only two months ago they were on a run of eight wins, three draws and one defeat from their 12 games since the World Cup break. It was only five and a half weeks ago they beat St Johnstone 3-0 at Tynecastle - the third time they have hit three against the traditionally obdurate Perth side this season - to sit five points clear in third place. If any of Zander Clark, Michael Smith, Toby Sibbick, Kye Rowles, Stephen Kingsley, Alex Cochrane, Cammy Devlin, Peter Haring, Barrie McKay, Josh Ginnelly or Lawrence Shankland were to leave the club today they would be welcomed back in years to come as highly-regarded former players.

And that's before we come to the injured contingent of Craig Gordon, Craig Halkett, Beni Baningime and Liam Boyce, who formed the spine of the team that finished 13 points clear in third place last term. Despite their wretched recent form, this particular group of players have scored more prolifically than most Hearts teams of the past 20 years.

If Naismith can restore the confidence that has clearly taken a battering in recent weeks, there is no reason Hearts should not be capable of maintaining their impressive Edinburgh derby form this weekend and getting a positive result against a Hibs side who will be deflated by their own four-game losing streak and will not have any prospect of a "new manager bounce". Thereafter, it will be about trying to eke out enough points to finish ahead of Aberdeen, which should be well within Hearts' reach if they can rediscover their impressive home form in time for the post-split fixtures, of which one of them will likely be against the Dons. 

However things unfold, chief executive Andrew McKinlay - who admitted he endured a sleepless
Saturday night before being tasked with sacking Neilson - faces further big decisions in the coming weeks. Will Naismith get to keep the job permanently if he does enough to finish third? Would he be considered a suitable candidate to lead the team into European group stage football in what would be his first full season as a manager?

If Naismith is not to be the man, who is best-equipped to pick up the baton and try to build on the solid foundations laid by Neilson over the past three seasons? There are plenty competent managers out there with eye-catching CVs - both in Scotland and beyond - but as Hearts, Aberdeen and Hibs have all found to their cost in recent decades picking someone who can fulfil supporter expectations and deliver regular top-four finishes in the Scottish Premiership, regardless of the monetary advantage these three city clubs generally hold over the rest of the teams in the division, has proved a pretty tricky task. While Hearts fans will understandably not pay too much attention to the travails of former Hibs managers, the failure of Paul Heckingbottom to cut the mustard at Easter Road prior to his impressive current exploits at Sheffield United is a prime example of just how difficult it can be for a manager outwith Scotland to handle the unique demands of leading one of the three big city clubs who have virtually no chance of beating the Old Firm to the league title and can only realistically prove themselves by winning a cup or finishing third.

The fact Hearts will be attempting to replace a manager who has generally achieved his main objectives merely heightens the demands on the next incumbent, who - in order to be considered an upgrade - will effectively be expected to finish third consistently, maintain the dominant derby record, improve form against the seemingly ever-improving Old Firm and possibly even win a trophy, something Hearts famously went 36 years without doing between 1962 and 1998.

In this instance, it bodes well for Hearts that they are changing their manager from a position of relative strength. Despite the current sense of negativity around the club, Neilson has not left Hearts in a state of disrepair; they have been in a short-term slump but with seven games of the current season left and a fresh but familiar face in Naismith to lead the charge, they are in a good position to regroup and find some momentum at the most crucial phase of the campaign. Of further reason for optimism about whether Hearts go on long-term to vindicate sacking Neilson on the first weekend that his team slipped out of third spot, McKinlay appears a sure-footed operator with his finger on the pulse regarding what Hearts need next as they bid to build on the good work of a man who - despite ultimately being unable to fully silence his detractors - clearly moved the team forward and left it in a far better place than he found it.