BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
CRAIG LEVEIN admits he made no attempt to hold on to head coach Robbie Neilson once he expressed a desire to join MK Dons – but insists the former Jambos boss leaves behind a “fantastic” legacy at Tynecastle.
The SkyBet League One side made their move for Neilson on Monday afternoon and the 36-year-old swiftly intimated to director of football Levein that he was keen to discuss terms with their chairman Pete Winkelman.
Lauding Neilson’s headstrong mentality, Levein insists it would have been fruitless to attempt to change his mind and, while stopping short of declaring it a good move, understands his protege’s thought process.
The former Scotland manager, along with owner Ann Budge and chief operating officer Scot Gardiner, will now spearhead the hunt for a new boss, with Newcastle coach Ian Cathro their prime candidate.
Hearts coaches Jon Daly and Andy Kirk, meanwhile, will take charge of the side to face Ross County today.
Levein said: “Robbie is very strong-minded. Once he intimated to me that he wanted to go, I didn’t even bother trying to convince him otherwise. He left me in no doubt that’s what he wanted to do.
“I’ll be sorry on a personal level to see him go because I consider him to be a friend as well as a good young coach, but he sees his way to the top level. There’s a logic to it.
“When he comes up with something logical, it’s hard to say ‘that won’t work’. Whether I agree with him or not is almost irrelevant. I don’t want to be disrespectful to MK Dons because they have a bigger stadium than us and they have the potential to be a good team – so he goes with my best wishes. Will it be a good move? Time will tell.”
Neilson and assistant Stevie Crawford leave the club in second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership, with a Championship title and European qualification on the CV, while sports science chief John Hill could soon follow.
“Robbie’s been fantastic,” lauded Levein. “It was his first job and we have had far more experienced and guys who were getting a hell of a lot more money who go nowhere near the level of consistency he did.”
Neilson did not, however, always have the complete backing of the Hearts fan-base. The most visible sign of dissent was when a small group of disgruntled supporters banded together to hire a plane with the message ‘No style, No bottle, Neilson out’ over Tynecastle prior to a game against Partick Thistle in March.
“Some people didn’t like Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United,” smiled Levein. “You have an element nowadays that can be more vocal because there are avenues to express it. I’ll concede: the plane was quite unusual . . . they could have put it on Facebook!
“But the biggest indicator of how well Robbie Neilson did was the season ticket sales and the attendances at Tynecastle. We’re selling out every single week. We have never done that before. We have sold a record amount of season tickets.
“So what does that tell you? It tells you that the vast, vast majority of Hearts supporters were happy with the job Robbie Neilson was doing.”
Hearts are keen to appoint Neilson’s successor before their trip to face Rangers at Ibrox next Saturday, with Levein stating: “That would be nice. Whether I am optimistic or not about that is irrelevant – but I’d be hopeful.”
Taking over press duties during the club’s weekly press conference ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Ross County, he was reluctant to confirm that the Jambos would make an approach for Cathro, with whom he worked at Dundee United.
But, at 30 years of age, the former Rio Ave and Valencia assistant would be the youngest boss in Scottish football – and would fit the bill for what Levein sees as the perfect job for a enthusiastic, innovative coach.
“That [young coach] is the approach we have decided on,” he continued, after confirming the new man will be able to select his own assistant head coach.
“The salary is not astronomical and, just like signing players, sometimes you need to see potential in people. It is about finding someone who is value for money who maybe doesn’t have the ceilings in their thought processes that everyone else in Scotland has.
“Somebody who is like-minded, intelligent, a good communicator, enthusiastic and hungry for success. But this is a great job for someone.”
Meanwhile, Levein has dismissed suggestions that he interfered with team selection during Neilson’s reign.
In his maiden job in management, the former Hearts skipper led the Gorgie outfit to a record-breaking Championship title win in his first season in charge, claiming 91 points to secure the trophy ahead of Rangers and Hibernian.
He then achieved Europa League qualification on their return to the top-flight and leaves the Jambos second in the Premiership.
Yet, Neilson was dogged by persistent rumours that Levein was pulling the strings behind the scenes – accusations that the former Scotland manager insists are partly due to personal vendettas.
“I think that people don’t understand my role and then, of course, some people just don’t like me so they continue to say the same stuff – even though it doesn’t make sense,” Levein hit back.
“The role was always to assist the head coach. It was never to tell people what to do. If I had been telling Robbie what to do, we would never find out how good he is.
“The head coach has to make his own decisions because, if he doesn’t, then I would be as well doing the job myself.
“I have so much stuff here to deal with. The academy has grown at such an enormously quick rate and there is so much stuff going on that needs attention.
“Robbie would sometimes come to me and ask advice about stuff – sometimes he would ignore it and sometimes he would do something I suggested. I’m here to help.
“The perception of this role is skewed. I’m here to help, not to tell people what to do, and that will continue.”