OLLY LEE feared his Hearts career was over until a reassuring phone call from incoming boss Robbie Neilson.
But now he feels like he has returned to an entirely new club.
The 29-year-old spent last season on loan with League One side Gillingham after falling out of favour with former Jambos manager Craig Levein, also missing the entirety of Daniel Stendel’s subsequent brief reign.
Despite enjoying an impressive campaign south of the border, Lee endured crippling uncertainty when Covid-19 halted the season – ultimately resulting in Hearts’ relegation and Stendel’s departure.
However, with a year left on his deal, Lee was quickly contacted by Neilson, who told him he would be a key player for the club in their bid to return to the top-flight.
Asked whether there were times he felt a Tynecastle exit was on the cards, he said: “Yes, definitely. There were massive moments of that.
“We didn’t know who the manager would be and things like that.
“But when Robbie got the job he rang me up and told me he wanted me to be part of the plans.
“That’s all I wanted to hear from a manager and to get that reassurance early once he got the job meant a lot to me. It was a nice confidence booster that there was a manager who wanted me.
“I’ve always said that I wanted to play for this club – I’m proud to do that – and with this manager at the helm I think we’ve got the chance for long success in the future.”
Lee, who initially joined the Jambos in the summer of 2018, has rewarded Neilson with a couple of fine showings in pre-season and was among the fittest players at the club during the medical examinations last month.
And Lee reckons the change in ‘vibe’ under Neilson and assistants Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest is palpable compared to the Levein regime.
He told Hearts TV: “Training is different – Gordy [Forrest] and Jig [Lee McCulloch] have been massive in that – and I can’t speak highly enough of the three of them together.
“We’re already building the togetherness and the gaffer has spoken about us being a team unit. You need that when you have new players coming in and people coming back.
“It’s like coming back to a different club, to be honest. It’s nowhere near the same atmosphere or vibe.”
Hearts, meanwhile, have been dealt another defensive injury blow after Christophe Berra was ruled out for at least a fortnight due to a slight calf strain.
The news comes hot on the heels of John Souttar suffering devastating achilles damage, and will further accelerate Neilson’s desire to snap up another centre-back.