BY ALAN TEMPLE – Capital City Press
Robbie Neilson spent his formative years as a coach watching SPFL managers run ragged by numerous disparate demands, from sourcing transport to outfoxing agents.
It has only served to strengthen his belief that, in the fullness of time, Hearts will be viewed as trend-setters in Scotland.
The Tynecastle club’s decision to utilise a director of football in Craig Levein has been widely regarded as a success, with the Jambos cantering to a dominant Championship title triumph last season.
It is a role Levein latterly occupied with Dundee United, combining it with his position as manager.
And, ahead of this afternoon’s return to Tannadice, Neilson elucidated on the dynamic at Hearts which, while commonplace on the continent, remains relatively unique within Scottish football
“We are one of the first in Scotland to have a sporting director but, believe me, there will be more,” explained Neilson. “On the Pro Licence course, other coaches and players ask me about it as well.
“They’re interested in the way we train, the days we give them off, what we do with them. A lot more teams will be doing it in the future.
“I was at Falkirk and East Fife before I came here and, even at a club like East Fife, where Willie Aitchison was manager, it was amazing all the stuff that he had to deal with.
“He was dealing with agents, trying to get a pitch sorted out, get floodlights fixed, get shorts and kit. It’s never-ending. Here it the same except it’s double the scale. You don’t have time to make sure a bus is there on time!”
However, Neilson believes the marquee benefits to having Levein in are most visible in the transfer market, citing the protracted capture of Nigerian internationalist Juwon Oshaniwa during the summer.
The notion of a ‘transfer committee’ has been met by scorn in some quarters following Brendan Rodgers dismissal by Liverpool, the most prominent proponents of the strategy.
Again, however, Neilson cannot speak highly enough of a structured approach to recruitment, with Levein and head of recruitment John Murray playing major roles.
“I’ll decide if I want a striker or a central midfielder and then I’ll decide what kind of one,” said Neilson. “Do I want one that’s going to sit or one that’s going to go forward? Do I want one that’s 6ft 2 or 5ft 2?
“Then it’s up to my scout to find them. Once he finds them, I’ll have a look at them and decide what one I want. Then it’s up to the transfer committee or sporting director to go and try and get the deal done.
“Years ago you would phone the player direct and ask him if he wanted to come and offer him money. Now it can take months.
“When we tried to get Juwon Oshaniwa it took us about four months with all the paperwork, dealing with the agent, the club, another agent. It’s so time consuming. This is definitely the way forward. It takes so many time constraints off me.”
Neilson’s relationship with Levein was thrown into sharp relief this week after former Celtic player Davie Provan alluded to Levein making “an appearance” in the dressing room during the interval of Hearts recent 3-1 defeat against Aberdeen.
Provan, in his national newspaper, column added: “Love to know what Robbie Neilson made of it.”
Presented with his opportunity to respond, Neilson was keen to underline that the dressing room is very much his domain.
“Craig doesn’t come into the dressing room at half-time, he leaves that to me,” continued Neilson. “These things get said and get talked about all the time. I’m happy with the situation here. So people can say what they want. It’s not going to hurt me.
“I think the dressing room is a place where I should be the one that speaks. If anyone else is going to speak, it would be my captain.”
On the pitch, Hearts’ latest test comes at Tannadice – where Levein spent three years as boss – as the Jambos attempt to avoid succumbing to the new manager ‘bounce’ following the appointment of Mixu Paatelainen.
Neilson’s own spell at Dundee United was brief, spending seven months playing under Peter Houston during the 2011/12 campaign, but it provided a pivotal grounding ahead of his move into coaching.
“I enjoyed my spell up there, it was a good time,” added Neilson. “Peter Houston was the manager who brought me back up. I was coming to the end of my career and I wasn’t training a lot but it’s a good club and the fans were great with me.
“At that point, I was always going to go into coaching. I started at Leicester and did bits and bobs at United. Peter was great with me, he’d give responsibility to the older players on the training pitch.
“We had some top young players at that time, like Scott Allan, Johnny Russell and Ryan Gauld. I’ll always remember Gauld coming up. He must only have been 15 or 16 but he came into train with us and you could see right away that he was a top player.
“They’ve always produced good players and they’re still doing it. I’m not fooled by United’s league position. They have very good players there, both younger ones and experienced pros, and it will be a real test for us.”