Football Expert & Columnist
Robbie Neilson: Hearts return after Dundee United promotion is 'strange call', says Andy Walker
Neilson has left newly-promoted Dundee United to return to Hearts, who have been relegated from the Scottish Premiership after the season was called prematurely
Last Updated: 22/06/20 3:44pm
Robbie Neilson's decision to leave his position as Dundee United head coach to begin a second spell managing Hearts is "bizarre", according to Sky Sports' Andy Walker...
I wouldn't doubt the credentials of Robbie Neilson as a capable manager for one second.
He guided Dundee United to the Scottish Championship title last term following the curtailment of Scottish football amid the coronavirus pandemic, but has now decided to return to Tynecastle on a three-year contract.
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In his first spell as Hearts boss from 2014-2016, he led Hearts to promotion from the Championship in the 2014/15 season, in a division that included Rangers.
His Jambos team dominated the entire season, finishing astonishingly 21 points ahead of nearest challengers Hibernian, and 24 points in front of Rangers, as they returned to the top-flight.
On their return to the Scottish Premiership, Neilson's side finished the 2016/17 campaign in third and qualified for the Europa League, which constituted a marvellous achievement.
No wonder he attracted the attention of MK Dons following his exploits during his first spell at Hearts, and I know he was keen to try his luck in English football.
It didn't work out for him there. Neilson left the club by mutual consent with them languishing in the League One relegation zone in January 2018, following a poor run of one victory in 11 matches.
Nevertheless, the coach quickly showed what he is made of when he arrived back in Scottish football at Dundee United.
They narrowly missed out on promotion in 2018/19 when his former club lost to St Mirren on penalties in the Premiership play-off final.
But United were the standout second-tier side this season, concluding the campaign an impressive 14 points clear at the top of the table, and they were declared champions when the league seasons in Scotland ended prematurely.
From my point of view, I'm glad to see Dundee United back in the Scottish Premiership. They're renowned for having a wonderful footballing history in the Scottish game.
When I was coming through as a young player at Motherwell, United were competing with the best in Europe and had Richard Gough, Dave Narey, Paul Hegarty and Maurice Malpas as a back four. They had quality in every department.
The potential for Neilson to kick on at Tannadice in their return to Scotland's top-flight promised to be an exciting and challenging prospect on Tayside - and yet Neilson has chosen to return to the Championship by taking the Hearts job on a three-year deal. How utterly bizarre.
To go from the thrilling prospect of being back at the top table of Scottish football due to start in the first weekend of August, you have to consider that the Championship clubs are hoping to have a 27-game season starting in October.
Right now, there's no guarantee that all the clubs at that level will be able to ensure the safety of their players as they head back to training. For every club in the Championship, things are still so uncertain.
Clearly, Hearts is in Neilson's blood... but swapping the Premiership for yet another season in the Championship is a strange call.
As a club, Hearts are also acting strangely. They've been pleading poverty for months after giving an ultimatum to the players in March to take a 50 per cent wage cut or move on, just as the challenges of Covid-19 took hold of everyone.
In recent weeks, they have vowed to spend whatever it takes on a legal challenge as they take the SPFL to court over their enforced relegation from the Premiership.
As well as some sort of pay-off for the now sacked Daniel Stendel, they have paid hefty compensation for another club's manager and like when a new boss arrives at any club, there will be money made available for Neilson to strengthen the squad.
It seems as though Hearts can find the money for everyone except the current players who have taken massive wage cuts.
The appointment of Stendel clearly didn't work out for either party. He won just five of his 17 games in charge but in my view, there were signs that he was getting there.
Wins over Rangers in the Scottish Cup and against Hibernian in the league were highlights of his tenure, but after pursuing him for as long as five weeks to succeed Craig Levein, he was shown no mercy when the leagues were controversially called.
To his credit, Stendel refused to take any of his salary in the last few months of his reign as the effects of the Covid-19 crisis were hitting everyone hard.
And so, it's the return of Neilson in Gorgie that the Hearts fans will look forward to next season.
Given how it ended for Neilson the first time around at Tynecastle in 2016, it'll be interesting to see how he's received.
I remember the baffling sight of a light aircraft - paid for by a group of Hearts fans - flying over the ground trailing a banner that read, "No style, No Bottle, Neilson out."
Part of the banner referred to his poor record as Hearts boss against Hibernian. One derby win in six attempts doesn't endear you to the home support.
Throwing away a two-goal advantage over their great rivals at Tynecastle in the 2016 Scottish Cup was painful. Hibs won the replay and went on to secure their first cup win in 114 years.
Clearly, Hearts is in Neilson's blood. He has found it irresistible going back to the club he loves.
But swapping the Premiership for yet another season in the Championship is a strange call.
I wish him well and hope he brings his team up at the first time of asking. Hearts have been treated badly in these most challenging of times; the Premiership will be a better and stronger league with them in it.