Scotland View: Brutal axing brings Aussie opportunity in $9.3m ‘league within a league’

In his latest column for KEEPUP, Edinburgh News and The Scotsman journalist Barry Anderson explains the stakes that have led to Hearts sacking Robbie Neilson – and what it means for the Australian quartet within their ranks.

Four Socceroos find themselves embroiled in turmoil here in Scotland after Hearts sacked manager Robbie Neilson on Sunday.

Kye Rowles, Cammy Devlin, Nathaniel Atkinson and Garang Kuol will have their own individual feelings on that decision, but collectively they are now in a pressurised situation with seven games remaining of the Premiership season.

The Edinburgh club have named their B team coach, former Scotland striker Steven Naismith, as interim manager while they seek a permanent successor to Neilson. He will be assisted by one of Neilson’s assistants, Gordon Forrest, plus youth academy director Frankie McAvoy. Their first game is Saturday’s Edinburgh derby against Hibs at Easter Road.

Neilson lost his job after a run of six defeats in seven matches brought supporters’ anger to boiling point. The atmosphere at Tynecastle had become toxic and the board decided to act following Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat by St Mirren (Keanu Baccus and Ryan Strain both played for Saints). It is a situation that will test the resolve of every Hearts player over the coming weeks, and the four Aussies would be forgiven for wondering what has hit them.

The weekend result saw Hearts drop from third place to fourth in the Premiership, where they now trail Aberdeen by two points. The pre-season target was to finish third with the potential to guarantee a place in the group stages of European competition for next season.

It might seem harsh to many reading this that Neilson was dismissed as soon as Hearts fell below third, particularly given there is only a two-point gap with seven games left. That is the demand among clubs seeking to win the ‘league within a league’ by being closest to Celtic and Rangers at the top.

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Finishing third in Scotland carries a financial carrot of up to £5 million (A$9.3m) if it includes that European group spot. This season, provided Celtic or Rangers win the Scottish Cup, the club finishing third in the league will be guaranteed that money through passage to either the Europa League or Europa Conference League groups. Hearts took that route into this season’s Conference League and badly want to do so again. The stakes are higher than ever before.

It is an expectation and an environment the Australian quartet may still be getting used to. Their individual fortunes under Neilson had been mixed this term. Now they must adapt to a new structure put in place to revitalise and rejuvenate the dressing room in pursuit of the above prize.

Rowles has been an established starter since joining Hearts from Central Coast Mariners last summer. Overall, his performances at left centre-back have been consistent and justified the outlay to bring him from the A-League. The Tynecastle chief executive Andrew McKinlay hinted at how high Rowles is valued when asked about his selling price back in December.

“I couldn’t put a number on it. I am not encouraging it at all, but it would be a mind-boggling offer that would even make us think it was something we would consider,” said McKinlay. “What a great signing, he has been brilliant. I would much rather Kye stayed here, made himself a Hearts legend and then we sell him on and make Hearts money. I don’t want to put a number on it because that’s the bid that will come in. But he’s worth a lot of money in my opinion.”

Rowles’ recent displays have fallen below his early season standards, likewise many others throughout the Tynecastle squad. Devlin has featured regularly in midfield when fit this season and always brings energy and tenacity. He has struggled to gain momentum and looks like he needs a sustained run of matches in a settled role.

Atkinson fell out of the team some months ago and so far has spent the majority of the campaign sat on the substitutes’ bench. He is second-choice right-back behind the experienced Michael Smith and will be eager for more action. It remains to be seen whether he has a future at Hearts beyond the summer.

Kuol, Australia’s teenage prodigy, has cut a frustrated figure since arriving on loan from Newcastle United in January.

That is mainly down to a lack of games. He doesn’t turn 19 until September so has plenty time on his side, but the loan move to Edinburgh was designed to enhance his development. He has, in truth, merely been treading water since he got here and is another one mostly seen on the bench.

What the four Socceroos and their Hearts team-mates have now is an opportunity. Naismith has no previous managerial experience at senior level and starts off with an intense derby match. In a high-octane fixture, there is a priceless chance for players to redeem themselves after some truly abject recent displays.

Football can be brutal at times and there will be some who feel Neilson’s removal was just that. He is the fifth manager of 12 in the Premiership to lose his job this season, which underlines how cut-throat Scotland’s top-flight can be.

Maybe the change will give Kuol more exposure, maybe it will calm Hearts down, or it might further unsettle people.

The next few weeks in Gorgie promise to be fascinating. Some of the Aussies might well find themselves playing central roles in all the theatre.

Barry Anderson has been a football correspondent for The Scotsman and Edinburgh Evening News since 2005, primarily covering Hearts and the Scotland national team.