BY ALAN TEMPLE – Capital City Press
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has revealed he has not spoken to Gary Locke since replacing him in the Tynecastle dugout 16 months ago.
Neilson was a member of Locke’s coaching staff during the 2013/14 campaign, giving up his role as assistant manager at East Fife to take charge of the Jambos’ under-20 side.
The pair were also club-mates for five years in Gorgie.
However, there has been no contact between the duo following Ann Budge’s decision not to renew Locke’s contract and install Neilson as head coach as part of her takeover last summer.
Neilson has played down any suggestion of a rift with Locke, who was in attendance at Tynecastle on Sunday, insisting the wall of silence is simply because their “paths have not crossed”.
Neilson explained: “Gary left and went to Kilmarnock and that is the nature of the game. I will leave Hearts one day – players and managers leave clubs.
“Gary is focused on the job at Kilmarnock and I am sure he will have them ready to try and beat us.
“Our paths have not crossed since and I have not spoke to Gary since he left Hearts as we were down to the Championship.
“But it’s just football. People move on and people come and go. It is the same with players, it is just part and parcel of football.”
While Neilson has no relationship with Locke, Hearts winger Billy King insists he will always be grateful to his former boss for throwing him in at the deep end following the Jambos’ descent into administration.
With his squad decimated by the club’s financial collapse and facing a 15-point deduction, Locke was forced to rely heavily on academy products, with the untested King playing 34 games as Hearts suffered relegation in 2014.
As one of several teenagers pitched into senior action, King readily admits that he was not cut out for the rigours of the Scottish Premiership as he tackled the steep learning curve.
However, that enforced focus on young talent such as King, Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson has seen those players go from strength to strength. And King reckons that baptism of fire helped make him the player he is today.
He said: “I owe him a lot. It was a tough time for Lockey because he was having to play young, inexperienced players like myself and there were not a lot of players to go with.
“I was really young when I was brought through, as a lot of us were, and it forced us to learn quickly and grow up.
“It was an extremely difficult time and, personally, I didn’t think I was ready but we had no choice, there were not a lot of players available at the time so I just did my best when I went on.
“I knew before most games that I was going to play a part and it was just a matter of trying to influence the games – but it was a difficult season and confidence was low sometimes. You just had to keep going.
“But we have probably played a lot of games other young boys in Scotland haven’t and that is a positive thing for us and has stood us in good stead for the future.”
Hearts are desperate to get out of their current rut after suffering three league defeats on the bounce – their worst run since March 2014, when Locke was still in charge.
And King believes their League Cup tie will provide welcome respite ahead of a daunting trip to Celtic Park on Saturday.
He added: “The most important thing is to get back to winning ways and we want the games coming as quickly as possible to try to put that right.
“This season we knew things would be a bit more difficult than last season. We knew we weren’t going to win games like last year and it’s important when we do get defeated that we keep our heads up and go again.
“We need to get back to what we were doing at the start of the season and try to get a win.”