Ah! The start of any good pub argument amongst Hearts fans, and this article could start another. No other player in recent years has provoked as much debate about what a football player is, or should be. There have been few games when Robbie has not at some point passed the ball down the line straight into row C. When his first touch has almost as clumsy as his third or fourth – if the left-winger hadn’t dispossessed him by then. When his pace made you wonder if the groundsman hadn’t put quicksand on that bit of the pitch. Surely there were better right-backs available than Robbie Neilson. But as quickly as someone would point out his failings, someone – quite often the same person - would quickly point out that there wasn’t a player in Scotland who was more consistent, reliable, professional in his work, ready to overlap, decent cross in him, and what about that long throw… the fact of the matter is that Robbie, like Walter Kidd before him, is a professional footballer doing a professional job, and his longevity under different managers tells the true story.
I’m told that I texted Davy Allan sometime in 2000, giving Robbie pass marks plus for a good performance. Definite prospect, I said, seems to know what to do Well, it all went terribly terribly wrong at Livingston at the start of the following season, when a Hearts team on the decline was shown up by some brash young upstarts in their first ever Premier League match, and halfway through the second half, right in front of the Hearts support, Neilson couldn’t do anything right and suddenly, almost from nowhere, received the sort of critical response that English comedians got at the Glasgow Apollo. Some might say they were wrong to do so. But something very bad happened: Neilson visibly wilted under the volley of boos and abuse. He almost froze for fear of doing anything wrong. It wasn’t great to watch. Craig Levein, who’d taken him on trial a couple of years before at Cowdenbeath, acted immediately and decisively, and took him off: and shortly afterwards he went to regain his confidence at Queen of the South. Whatever happened, Robbie returned, after quite some time, and slowly worked his way back into the team and the hearts of the support. No-one was ever totally convinced that there wasn’t a better alternative to be brought in from somewhere: when he arrived just in time to blast in the winner against Basel I wasn’t the only one who wanted him perhaps then to retire from the maroon on the highest of all notes, a hero. But what do we fans know? …. “Neilson??? Oh Jesus” we all went as he walked calmly up for the second penalty. Shame on us. He never doubted for a second he wasn’t going to score, which is why he scored. And between those two goals, he put up a consistent and consistently decent level of performance. No left winger enjoyed knowing he was up against Neilson. Robbie would be standing there, holding his position, never giving anything away. Pressley and Webster owe him, simply for just being there, doing his job. All of them owe Craig Levein.
Perhaps it’s insulting to focus on Robbie’s Neilson’s professionalism as opposed to his ability, but there have been hundreds of great footballers in Scotland who never made their mark in the game because, simply, they weren’t professional. Some of the more gifted can get away with it at teams like Partick, Morton (and, at a pinch, Hibs in a given year). But 95% of players in the Scottish Leagues are men like Robbie Neilson, doing the job to the best of their ability, and for the most part that’s good enough for most fans. He conducts himself properly on the pitch (referees have never had a problem with him) but just as importantly off it: his support of Show Racism the Red Card and his media-friendliness have been a credit to the Club. But mainly a credit to himself: Robbie Neilson’s a good guy. And that’s the main thing. (….apart from that penalty. Thanks Robbie, for that penalty, most of all.)
Andrew Goldie 10th May 2008