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Robbie Neilson on Hearts return and his hopes of ending ‘torrid year’ on a high

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Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Sunday, 20 December Time: 14:15 GMT
Coverage: Watch live on BBC One Scotland & online, live radio coverage on Radio Scotland & text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app

From Willie Maley in the 1800s to Jock Stein in the 1900s to Neil Lennon in the 2000s, the story of Scottish football is full of men who have won the Scottish Cup as player and manager.

One thing connects them all – a link with Celtic or Rangers. Nobody outside of the Old Firm has ever done the double. It is 146 years and still we wait.

Robbie Neilson has a shot at it on Sunday. He has done the playing bit, beating Gretna in the 2006 final – but now comes the hardest part, bringing down the quadruple treble-chasing Celtic in a stadium where they have won 15 straight games.

We cannot exactly say that the Hearts manager swoons at the historic gravitas of our killer stat, but then again it probably takes a lot to make somebody as laidback as Neilson go a bit giddy. “Aye, interesting,” he smiles, in the manner of a guy who is not in the least bit interested in such trivia.

“Been doing your homework, fair play. Hopefully we can do it on Sunday and then I’ll be a meaningless quiz question in a pub somewhere in 20 years’ time.

“It’s all about what the players do. If I become a quiz question on the back of what they do, then great.”

We are at Oriam in Edinburgh and the days are counting down to the cup final. Neilson is thinking about his first final, that nervy day at Hampden 16 years ago. “We’d beaten Hibs 4-0 or 4-1 or something like that in the semi-final”, he says, the “something like that” bound to cause hoots of laughter among his own support.

Come the final, they were weary. Long season, heavy legs, great burden of expectation upon them. “Everybody was emotionally drained,” he explained. They almost blew it, but won on penalties. “We just about got over the line,” he says. The feeling, he recalls, was one of happiness but also profound relief.

‘I wasn’t here but I knew how people were feeling’

This has been a year when everybody has been encouraged to stay at home. For Neilson, it was a year when he returned home. It was also a year when Hearts lost and lost on the field, then went to war with the football authorities and lost again.

The anger of the summer remains. Truth be told, it will never go away for many Hearts supporters. It was bad enough that they had to watch their team perform so dismally, but to have a chance of redemption taken from them when the season was called early was an insult added to an injury.

Steven Naismith
Hearts were relegated last season but their fate was decided off the pitch

It is still raw and it is still relevant, says Neilson. “This game is massive for the club, especially after what’s happened in the year – put down to the Championship and having to fight our corner to get ourselves going again,” he explains.

“Do we use it? 100% we use it. Comments in papers, social media, TV about the mentality of the club. This and that. I wasn’t here last season but I knew how people were feeling. I’ve been associated with Hearts since I was 16, came here as a kid. I understood. Hearts are my team.

“It’s why I came back from Dundee United. I speak to the fans. I meet them sometimes outside the stadium. Some still come, socially distanced I have to say. It shows the love they have for the club and the hurt they feel being put down into the Championship.

“We were disappointed with the way it turned out. You look for help and it doesn’t come [from the SPFL]. Now we know that we need to look after ourselves.”

Even allowing for the frailties that Celtic have displayed in recent months, Hearts are 9-1 to win this final. A tad generous, perhaps, but you can see where the odds-layers are coming from.

Hearts might have scored six against Queen of the South and another six earlier in the season against Dundee, but they also lost to Dunfermline and were put out of the League Cup by Alloa.

Of course, there is one victory that stands above all others in terms of relevance to Sunday and that is their semi-final win over Hibs in extra time. That is where the hope comes from.

A month after Hearts beat Hibs, Hibs almost beat Celtic. The champions scored twice in the last 11 minutes to force a 2-2 draw. It is a thin form line, but something to go on if you are the Hearts manager.

‘They want to be here, they want to fight’

When he returned to Tynecastle in the summer, Neilson felt that not a lot had changed since he left four years earlier. There was a new stand, sure, but the environment was much the same.

“There should always be progression, every six months, every year,” he says. “Adding bits and bobs. We shouldn’t be standing still and maybe it had a little.

“I spoke to every player and some of them said they didn’t want to play in the Championship. That’s fine, no bother, on you go, we’ll get somebody else in. Every single one of the guys we have here said they wanted to be part of it and they wanted to fight. You have to have that mentality.

“We have a good win percentage, we’re top of the Championship, we’ve beaten our local rivals in the semi-final and we’re playing one of the top teams now and feeling like we have a chance of winning. I don’t see it as a free hit, I see it as an opportunity.”

He smiles at the memory of his first experience of Celtic, a visit to Glasgow for a league game half a lifetime ago. He was only 20. Hearts took the lead through a Colin Cameron goal after 13 minutes “The worst thing we could have done,” he recalls. “We were 4-1 down at half-time.” They lost 6-1, then lost 5-2 at his next attempt. It took him nine goes before he finally beat Celtic.

Neilson played Celtic 28 times in his career and Lennon was involved in many of those games. Lennon’s travails have not been lost on him. The managers do not know each other well, but there is respect there. He knows what he is up against – both in the manager’s dugout and out there on the pitch.

Celtic’s slump in form earlier this season – seven defeats in all competitions – offers hope but no expectation. “People keep asking about their form, but their form going into the Aberdeen game [the cup semi-final that Celtic won 2-0] was probably similar to now – but it was probably their best 45 minutes of the last year,” says Neilson. “In the big games the best players step up to the plate.

“Getting flak is part of being a manager. You lose a couple and it’s the end of the world. I’ve had it here, I’ve had it at MK [Dons], I had it for a period at Dundee United. You show your mettle when the chips are down.

“He’s had flak left, right and centre but he’s a big character. I don’t know him too well but I think he’s one of those guys who thrives on that flak and is certainly not somebody who pulls out of a fight, that’s for sure.

“When I look at Celtic, they’ve players who have moments in them and what I mean is guys who can change a game just like that. I went to their match against Killie last weekend and they didn’t really create a lot.

“Then, all of a sudden [Mohamed] Elyounoussi gets it on the left-hand side, comes inside, little feint and slots it. That’s the game over. You can be tactically right, but they have a lot of good football players in their team.”

He knows he has players in his team who believe – truly believe – that they are good enough to beat the champions and that there are others who say they believe but will harbour doubts.

“My job is to give them more information and confidence, things that Celtic do that we can take advantage of, things they do that we need be be wary of,” he says. “It’s about building it up day by day so that come Sunday everybody believes and everybody’s ready.”

Robbie Neilson with the Scottish Cup in 2006
Neilson got his hands on the famous trophy in 2006

He still remembers the drive to Hampden 14 years ago, coming off the motorway at Polmadie and seeing throngs of Hearts supporters walking towards the stadium. He recalls the buzz of the approach, the noise and colour of the crowd as they passed, the energy as they drove into the tunnel and the cacophony that greeted them there.

There will be none of that on Sunday, but that is the world we live in right now. So much is different, but so many things remain the same. The manager’s lot, a weird amalgam of excitement and torture, never changes. Torture and triumph, he hopes.

“It would be a nice way to end a torrid year, put it that way,” Neilson adds.

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