What is Robbie Neilson’s Hearts legacy and what’s next for Steve Naismith?
From the outside, the removal of Neilson after the weekend’s defeat by St Mirren caused some surprise and more than a little confusion. After all, Hearts have been in the group stage of the UEFA Conference League this season and sit fourth in the Premiership table. Neilson was the man who ejected them from the championship, securing a third-place finish last season and guiding them to two cup finals.
On the other hand, Hearts fans will remember that he led them to arguably their worst result in club history with a Scottish Cup defeat by Brora Rangers. Dig a little deeper and it was clear that dissatisfaction with Neilson’s leadership of the club has been brewing among Tynecastle supporters for some time and the recent run of six defeats in the last seven games has seen those grumblings come to the fore Throat spilled protests over the weekend.
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The 2-0 loss to St Mirren was Hearts’ fifth straight loss and forced them to give up third place that seemed so destined to them. At the end of January, Neilson’s side conceded a 5-0 thump against a scrambled Aberdeen side. Remarkably, it was the Dons who edged them to third place on Saturday night.
Neilson’s sacking may have come as a shock to non-Hearts supporters when the news broke on Sunday afternoon, but for Gorgie faithful, the moment was seen from afar. For many, recent results were simply a case of results keeping up with performance.
And perhaps it was those fans that ultimately prompted the Hearts board to take action. Once followers turn back, which they undoubtedly have, there is seldom a way back.
With just seven games left and an Edinburgh derby on the horizon against a highly volatile Hibernian side, Neilson may have felt he had enough credit on the bench to at least get that period to spark a revival.
But the shifting stakes that have come with third-place finishes being rewarded with guaranteed European football in the group stage next season, and the millions in revenue that come with them, may also have helped shift the Hearts hierarchy.
Would finishing fourth in the Premier League have been a baggy offense for a Hearts manager in times past (other than the Vladimir Romanov era)? Almost certainly not. But by letting go of Neilson now, Hearts are hoping to spark a similar turnaround in form that Aberdeen has seen since Jim Goodwin was replaced by Barry Robson.
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No doubt the reaction Robson was able to provoke in Pittodrie, and similarly the revival Stuart Kettlewell wrested from Motherwell, will also have played a role in the club’s thinking.
However, the main difference between Hearts and these teams is that both Aberdeen and Motherwell not only brought in a new manager, but also made good recruitments in January, particularly in solving their defensive problems.
Angus MacDonald and Mattie Pollock have joined Graeme Shinnie in midfield to bolster Aberdeen’s appalling defence, while Calum Butcher and Dan Casey have had a similar impact at Fir Park.
Steven Naismith will now get the chance to stake his claim on the Hearts role after being asked by the club to be temporarily promoted from the B-Team. He will face many of the same issues as Neilson, the main one undoubtedly being long-term injuries to key personnel.
Captain Craig Gordon, centre-back Craig Halkett, midfielder Beni Baningime and forward Liam Boyce have all missed either large parts of the season or almost all of it. The arrivals of James Hill, Garang Kuol and Yutaro Oda in the winter window did little to nothing to make up for their absences.
It also has to be said that there are some from the Hearts team who may have cause to reconsider their own role in Neilson’s departure. People like Barrie McKay and Stephen Kingsley, for example, have played well below the level they are capable of, and whether that’s because the manager isn’t getting the best out of them or because of the application of those players, it’s up to them conscience.
Only they could tell you. However, her performances under Naismith in the coming weeks could provide an answer.
Wherever Hearts go from here, there’s no guarantee it’ll be at the top. In fairness, the same goes for Neilson. Though he’s probably done enough to be considered for other jobs of a similar level.
It only seems a shame that the warm sentiments now expressed for his work at Tynecastle have been drowned out by the venom that hit him in the latter part of his reign. No doubt he too will have a bitter taste in his mouth at how all this happened.
In the end, his legacy with fans will be that of a true Hearts man and – in time – a more than decent Hearts manager.