CRAIG LEVEIN believes his former protege Robbie Neilson picked the wrong club when he departed Hearts for MK Dons, claiming the English outfit lacked the support structure for an inexperienced head coach to succeed.
Neilson made the switch to Stadium MK in December 2016, just 24 hours after a comprehensive 2-0 triumph over Rangers in Gorgie had seen the Jambos ascend to second spot in the Premiership standings.
Levein largely kept his own counsel regarding the move at the time – aside from stating that his view was ‘almost irrelevant’.
However, as he prepares to cross swords with Neilson on Friday night, the Tynecastle boss has revealed that he always feared the decision would prove ill-fated.
Despite a promising start south of the border, Neilson ultimately lasted just 13 months at MK Dons and left the club by mutual consent following a run of one win in 11 outings which left them in the League One relegation zone.
He is now back in Scotland, seeking to rebuild his own reputation while returning Dundee United to former glories.
“I thought it was the wrong place for him,” said Levein. “I didn’t think there was enough support there, the structure wasn’t right.
“But Robbie’s a very determined guy and there was nothing I could have said that would have made a difference.
“It’s difficult to go into a completely new environment and I’m not sure he had as much help as he needed. But that’s water under the bridge.
“I’m glad he’s back in a job at a good club in Dundee United. There’s been new investment there and it’s an opportunity to get back on track.”
Levein is adamant Neilson should be afforded a hero’s welcome on his return to the Tynecastle dugout, insisting he was under-appreciated by some during his tenure.
Neilson, embarking on his first ever campaign as a manager, won the 2014/15 Scottish Championship ahead of Rangers and Hibernian, registering a record points total of 91.
He then secured Europa League qualification in Hearts’ maiden season back in the top-flight and ultimately departed with the club sitting pretty as ‘best of the rest’. Yet, that was not enough for some disgruntled supporters.
The nadir of his relationship with a small-but-vocal portion of boo-boys came during a fixture against Partick Thistle in March 2016 when a banner was flown over Tynecastle reading: ‘No style, no bottle, Neilson out’.
“He’ll get a nice welcome from me, that for sure, and he should get a great welcome from everybody,” continued Levein. “He did a terrific job and I think it’s sometimes overlooked.
“There’s always somebody that doesn’t like you . . . believe it or not, there are some people that don’t like me.
“But to have won a league that included Rangers and Hibs by March was a major achievement in my eyes.”
It was also a vindication of Levein’s decision to recruit rookie Neilson – the under-20s coach at Hearts previously – to work as head coach as part of the structure he implemented upon his arrival as director of football in the summer of 2014.
Hearts were emerging from the ashes of administration and reeling from relegation to the second tier and Neilson proved to be the perfect man to steady the ship and revive their fortunes.
“I had him as a player, knew his character and type of person that he was,” recalled Levein. “I also knew he was doing a fantastic job here with the under-20s.
“At that time you-re always looking at people with potential – and he had a lot of potential.
“He was the one I felt could do the job quickly. He was already in the building and it needed a change. When you get on a slide it can be very difficult to halt it and, in my view, the best way to do it is to make a complete change.
“I’m not saying that was a reflection on what happened previously, it’s just the club was in a bad place and needed a complete change to add to the new investment that was coming in. Robbie knew the players that were here and was untarnished. It felt like the right thing.”
Neilson is now seeking to work the same magic at another one of Scottish football’s giants to have endured a lamentable decline, Dundee United.
“A club can slide very quickly,” continued Levein, who managed the Tannadice outfit between 2006 and 2009. “If you don’t halt it immediately, you can have players in the building who are used to losing.
“Managers can fight valiantly but it’s tough to turn it around. You need to change the culture in the dressing room and take away that fear. It’s not easy. I could name a dozen clubs in England and Scotland who started the slide and keep going down.
“Dundee United are a bit like that up here. You can look at teams like Falkirk, Dunfermline, massive clubs that have fallen away, too.”