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In focus: Robbie Neilson

2 December 2016

Following his appointment as the Club’s sixth manager, mkdons.com takes a look at the 36-year-old’s playing and management career...

Born in Paisley – a town in the west Central Lowlands of Scotland –Neilson was originally a member of Rangers’ Boys Club as a youngster but opted for a move to Heart of Midlothian where he continued his development as a right-back.

In December 1999, Neilson joined Cowdenbeath on loan and made eight appearances for the Miners, helping to keep clean sheets in half of those matches.

The defender made his Hearts debut the following season, helping them to a 2-0 Scottish Premiership win over Dunfermline and over the next two seasons he tallied 26 appearances – including two in the UEFA Cup.

Neilson joined Queen of the South on a short-term loan deal in August 2002 and during his time at Palmerston Park, he helped Doonhammers win the Scottish Challenge Cup courtesy of a 2-0 win over Brechin City at Broadwood Stadium.

He returned to Hearts in January and played five times in the Scottish Premiership before the season’s end, setting up what would be his breakthrough campaign in 2003/04 – Neilson made 35 appearances, assisting in the Jambos’ successful push for a European place.

It was in Europe the following campaign where Neilson scored his first competitive goal – an 89th-minute winner away at Basel in Hearts’ only group-stage victory of their 2004/05 UEFA Cup campaign.

He made a total of 50 appearances that season, playing a key role as Hearts reached the semi-final stages of both the Challenge Cup and the Scottish Cup, but it was during the 2005/06 campaign where Neilson and his team-mates enjoyed the most success.

Playing 43 times, the full-back helped guide Hearts to Scottish Cup glory at Hampden Park – the Jambos won 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw, with Neilson converting one of the four successful spot-kicks.

Neilson & Co also secured a second-place finish in the Scottish Premiership – the club’s highest finish in 14 years – which ensured them a place in the UEFA Champions League qualifying stages.

The defender played in all four of Hearts’ Champions League fixtures in 2006/07, as well as 19 other fixtures in league and cup. It was that season too where Neilson made his first appearance for Scotland – he played 89 minutes in a Euro 2008 qualifier in Ukraine.

Over the next two seasons, Neilson added a further 67 appearances to his name, taking his total for Hearts up to 249. He also captained the Gorgie club during the latter part of the 2008/09 season.

Neilson’s Hearts contract expired at the end of that campaign and after 13 years at the club, he opted for a new challenge in form of then-Championship outfit Leicester City.

His Foxes debut came in a goalless draw with Ipswich City – one of 32 appearances he made during his two years at Leicestershire. He also spent time on loan with Brentford while contracted to Leicester, visiting Wembley Stadium with the Bees in the EFL Trophy final.

After two years in England, Neilson returned to Scotland in 2011, joining Scottish Premiership club Dundee United. He played 23 times for the Tangerines before moving to Falkirk the following year.

During his time at Falkirk he worked his current assistant, Stevie Crawford, who was partner to boss Steven Pressley in Stirlingshire.

Neilson left Falkirk in the summer of 2013 to take up a player-coach role at East Fife.  He played just four times for the Fifers, however, focusing his attention primarily on the coaching side of his game.

Manager
Then came his return back to Hearts to become the club’s Under-20s development manager in November 2013. He performed in that role until May 2014 when he was promoted to head coach of the Scottish Championship outfit.

Neilson won his first seven games in charge, while they maintained an unbeaten run until January – a stretch which saw them build-up a comfortable lead at the top of the Scottish Championship table.

The rookie head coach won three Manager of the Month awards during that run but he and his side weren’t done there –in February,  they equalled a club-record victory by thrashing Cowdenbeath 10-0 and a month later they got their hands on Scottish Championship title.

They finished the season with 91 points to their name – 21 points clear of his nearest challengers – having scored 96 goals and conceded only 26 times.

Neilson’s superb first campaign as head coach saw him shortlisted for the PFA Scotland Manager of the Year award, but his good work continued into the 2015/16 campaign.

Hearts, again, started the season in terrific fashion, winning their first six matches and scoring three or more goals in half of those matches.

They maintained their good form throughout the season, winning 47% of their games en route to a third-place finish in the Scottish Premiership table, which secured a berth in the UEFA Cup.

Hearts also made a positive start to the 2016/17 season and in Neilson’s final 13 games as head coach, he guided the Edinburgh outfit to seven wins, including a memorable 2-0 success over title-contenders Rangers in what proved to be his final match before his move to Milton Keynes.

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