“I can see it already in training, he has real quality” – Neilson full of praise for new signing Ben Woodburn

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson met the media ahead of his return to former club Dundee United on Saturday. Jamie McIntosh reports.

(Photo Credit – SNS Group)

Having taken seven points out of their challenging three opening fixtures, Hearts head to Tannadice hoping to make it three wins out of four before the international break. 

Hearts’ away record has notoriously been the club’s downfall for a number of years, but after winning at St. Mirren earlier in the month, maybe this Hearts team is different to previous sides.

It’s a return to his old club for Hearts’ boss Robbie Neilson, who guided the Arabs back to the top flight during season 2019/20 and he was full of praise for the way his old club have begun their campaign.

“They’ve had a really good start,” he admitted. 

“A good Betfred Cup campaign. Beating Rangers at home and St Johnstone away, they’re two very tough games, so we know it’ll be a hard one up there, as it always is. 

“I know a number of players from my time there, so I’m looking forward to seeing them, but hopefully get three points as well.”

After Neilson swapped Tannadice for Tynecastle last summer, Micky Mellon replaced him for a season, before stepping down in May. 

Mellon’s successor came in the relatively unknown figure of Thomas Courts. Courts was in and around the youth academy towards the end of Neilson’s time at the club, but due to the structure the club were implementing, he admits he wasn’t surprised to see Courts end up in the hot seat:

“I met him [Courts] a couple of times. Towards the end of my time there, Tam was working with the 18’s – the way it was running at Dundee United, the plan was to start promoting from within, the same with the young players, so I’m not overly surprised [to see him in manager’s role].”

Last week, rumours began circulating that United’s star goalkeeper, Benji Siegrist had suffered a cruciate injury in training. If those rumours turn out to be true, the stopper will be a big miss for United and Neilson explained he was “gutted” for his former goalkeeper:

“I’m gutted for him. When I came in he was the number two choice, then I put him to number one, and he just flourished from there. I thought he’d probably have moved this summer, so I’m gutted for him that he’s picked up that injury, but I’m sure he’ll come back stronger.”

As transfer deadline day edges closer, Hearts have managed to capture another exciting player in the shape of Ben Woodburn. The 21-year-old joins on a season long loan from Liverpool and goes straight into Saturday’s matchday squad. 

“Yeah, it’s good to get him [Woodburn],” Neilson said. 

“It’s been a while; it’s probably taken about a month to get him in. I thought I had him about a week to 10 days ago and then it stalled a wee bit, so it’s good to get him, because I can see already in training he brings real quality to us.

“There was a lot [of interest] down south. We tried to sell the club to him, so we sent him a video of this place, the stadium, the fanbase and the city and he thinks it’s a good fit. 

“He had a lot of options, obviously he’s a Welsh international coming up. We’ve got great facilities up here and a good platform for him to play and from Liverpool’s perspective, they just wanted him playing week in, week out, and I think he’ll do that here.”

After scoring on his senior debut for Wales and featuring for Liverpool’s first team, Woodburn had loan spells at Sheffield United, Oxford United and Blackpool that didn’t go as well as expected. However, Neilson believes that if the loan spells had been a success, he wouldn’t be at Hearts:

“I think this is the market we’re in. It’s the same with Beni [Baningime], he came on to the scene at Everton, then he had a couple of loans that didn’t work out for him and Ben’s the same. 

“Now we hope to get him into an environment where he can kick on like Beni has so far and give him a platform. To be honest, if they burst into a first team, then go on loan to a couple of Championship teams in England and they’re unbelievable, then they aren’t going to be here. 

“We need to look at the ones that have got quality but can develop them further here.

“It’s very difficult for them [youngsters]. They burst on to the scene, but they need to be at that level consistency, that can be very difficult as a young kid, so they’ll have their dips and come out, but it’s about how they come back. 

“I still think Beni and Ben have got a chance of going on to the highest level.

“Obviously before that we had hoped to get him in, then we saw he was on the bench [against Norwich], which we thought might hinder our chances, then the following week he was in the squad, but not on the bench and we managed to get him out.”

Neilson admitted he is still hoping to strengthen in various areas, but particularly at the heart of defence, with centre backs David Bates (formerly of Rangers) and Bristol City’s Taylor Moore both linked with a move to Gorgie, however the latter looks the likelier of the two to happen. 

“There’s a couple of centre halves that have been put to us,” Neilson explained. 

“We need to recruit in that area, and we’ve been trying to get the right one in for a while and there’s a couple of opportunities that might come up in the next day or two. 

“There’s a lot of clubs looking for centre halves right now, but it’s about getting the right one in. I’d like to try get something done over the weekend. When it gets to the last day of the window, it becomes a bit frantic.

“We’ve been pretty patient with what we’ve done so far, we don’t need much more now. We’re looking for a centre half, an attacking player and a backup goalie, to help us out.”

After Hearts’ 1-1 draw with Aberdeen on Sunday, Neilson revealed that the plan was for a lot of the youngsters on the bench that day to depart on loan – he explained that plan remains in place.:

“We had a meeting yesterday. A lot of the young ones will go out to get game-time; Connor Smith; Euan Henderson; Leo Watson; Aiden Denholm and a couple of the senior ones will potentially go out as well.

“If they’re dropping down to the Championship we can wait until after the window. The focus just now is about getting people in.”

On Monday, the Foundation of Hearts will become the majority shareholder of Heart of Midlothian PLC when Ann Budge transfers her share of the club over to the fan led group. 

“It’s a big day for the club,” Neilson admitted. 

“What’s happened since Ann came in in 2014, to get to where we are now, if we can get a result at the weekend then we’ll go into that, top or joint top of the league. 

“We’ve now got Andrew McKinlay in doing day to day stuff, obviously Joe Savage as well, so the structure is changing and evolving as we go along. 

“The fan ownership just shows how strong the support is here, because seven years ago we didn’t know if the club was going to shut the doors or not and now we’re in a brilliant position.”

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