DON COWIE reckons some Hearts fans should have been careful what they wished for.
The former Jambos captain still recalls his utter disbelief when a vocal minority of supporters chartered a plane sporting a banner calling for Robbie Neilson’s head in March 2016.
‘No style, no bottle, Neilson out’ was the message writ large in the skies above Tynecastle.
Hearts were third in the Premiership and defeated Partick Thistle 1-0 that afternoon and, having only arrived at the club five weeks earlier, Cowie was beyond baffled by the bizarre affair.
That noisy band of disgruntled fans were satisfied nine months later when Neilson departed Hearts for MK Dons. The men in maroon were in the rarified air of second spot.
Since then, Cowie acknowledges it has been a constant descent towards mediocrity under Ian Cathro, Craig Levein and, most recently, Daniel Stendel which culminated in their demotion to the Championship following a curtailed 2019/20 campaign.
“I played in the game where the plane was flown over with the banner and was just thinking ‘what is going on here?’” said the former Scotland star.
“I was astonished after what he had achieved the season before [promotion], and we were sitting third in the league at that time.
“Then, on the day he left for MK Dons we had just gone second in the Premiership after beating Rangers.
“Since then, it’s been a big dip – I think everyone would accept that – and if anyone can arrest that, it’s Robbie.”
Neilson will today carry out media duties for the first time since his return to the club was confirmed last month, breaking his silence on his shock decision to quit Dundee United.
And Cowie believes he can repeat the feat of lifting the Jambos out of the doldrums.
“I knew Robbie was going to be a top manager,” continued Cowie. “He was a young coach when I worked with him but he was so comfortable in the position and commanded respect among the squad.
“His communication with the players, his content in training, his enthusiasm and desire for the work was fantastic.
“And I’ve no doubt he’ll have learned a lot from his time down south – adding to the qualities I could already see in him. It’s a brilliant appointment for the football club.”
Cowie, now first-team coach at his boyhood club Ross County, accepts there was an ‘element of surprise’ that Neilson eschewed Premiership football with United for the likelihood of a Championship campaign in Gorgie.
However, he reckons that illustrates the emotional attachment Neilson has with the club, given his combined 15 years there as a player and head coach.
Cowie also says that, despite Tannadice sporting director recently disputing the contention, Hearts are simply a bigger club than United.
“There’s an element of surprise because Robbie is coming off the back of a successful season and, as it stands, is turning down the opportunity to manage in the top-flight,” continued Cowie.
“However, the draw of Hearts is huge for Robbie. He has managed the club before, knows the stature and size of the club and has achieved great things there.
“If I’m being honest, Hearts are the bigger club of the two.
“Yes, Hearts are in the division below but I’m sure Robbie will be thinking that won’t be the case in 12 months’ time.
“In the fullness of time, he’ll see more opportunity to progress at Hearts than Dundee United.”