BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Former Hearts favourite Gary Naysmith insists Robbie Neilson is a victim of his own success after the Jambos head coach came in for criticism following their Scottish Cup exit against Hibernian.
Neilson began his coaching career at East Fife in 2013, serving as assistant manager to Bayview boss Naysmith, and has subsequently enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top job at Tynecastle.
Since his promotion from Hearts’ under-20s boss to head coach in the summer of 2014 he has largely enjoyed unmitigated success, claiming the Championship title at a canter ahead of Hibs and Rangers. Their points total of 91 represented a new second tier record.
The capital club are sitting in third spot following their return to the top-flight and on course to secure a European place, however their Edinburgh derby record under Neilson has come in for scrutiny following Tuesday night’s 1-0 reverse at Easter Road. They have won just one of six capital clashes during the 35-year-old’s reign, prompting some supporters to vent their fury online.
Naysmith believes the flak is part-and-parcel of the Edinburgh derby experience – a fixture he admits to dreading – and indicative of the lofty standards set by Neilson and director of football Craig Levein since their arrival.
He told Capital City Press: “Criticism comes with the job, but where Robbie has been fortunate – and this is entirely down to his own success – is that he hasn’t received much of it. Hearts have just gone from strength to strength since he took over and the expectations are always rising.
“They had a winless run earlier in the season, but this is maybe his first real set-back because Hearts fans ALWAYS expect to beat Hibs.
“With the generations of Robbo [John Robertson] and Gary Mackay, up to the cup final in 2012, Hearts have had the upper hand, so it doesn’t sit well when they don’t win the derby. It hurts, and the manager gets the flak.
“Honestly, I never used to like the games against Hibs – it was just relief when you won, but if you lost you wouldn’t leave the house for a few days!
“But Robbie understands that as much as anyone and he will handle it and regroup. I think the vast majority of fans realise that he has done a terrific job.
“It’s worth keeping the bigger picture in mind. If you had said at the start of the season that Hearts would be sitting third and in the driving seat for a European place, most fans would have snapped your arm off.”
Naysmith reckons the anger will swiftly turn to adulation again if Hearts earn a place in next season’s Europa League, with Hearts currently 11 points ahead of Ross County in the final qualification spot with two games in hand.
He played alongside Neilson during one of the Jambos’ most famous European nights of recent years, their 3-2 win over Stuttgart at a raucous Tynecastle 16 years ago, and has backed his former teammate to bring nights like that back to Gorgie.
Naysmith continued: “European qualification would be a fantastic achievement for Hearts. It would be more big games, more sell-outs under the lights at Tynecastle – those fixtures are brilliant occasions.
“Depending on the luck of the draw you could end up in the group stages, so there is still plenty for the Hearts players to aim for.
“Robbie will probably be looking even higher and trying to put as much pressure on Aberdeen in trying to finish in second place, because I do believe Celtic will win the league. They won’t be giving up on that.”
Hearts will attempt to bounce back this weekend and arguably have the perfect fixture, as they travel to crisis club Dundee United.
The former Scotland international added: “Everyone is hurting after the Hibs game, but football is a game of ups and downs. If it was all ups then it would be easy. It is about working hard, dusting yourselves down and getting the right response. That starts against Dundee United.”