Scottish Cup: Dundee Utd's Robbie Neilson on cricket, coaching & Hibs

Robbie Neilson
Robbie Neilson's United have won 17 of their 21 league games this season
Scottish Cup fourth round: Dundee Utd v Hibernian
Venue: Tannadice Date: Sunday, 19 January Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Coverage: Watch live on BBC One Scotland, listen on BBC Radio Scotland, and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website

Robbie Neilson is fretting about Sunday. His Dundee United side host Hibernian in the Scottish Cup fourth round, but that is not what is worrying the head coach. Rather, it is the Masters assignment he is due to submit the following day.

The 39-year-old needs to produce a 30-minute video on "coaching the coachee", then do a critical, reflective report.

"God knows where I start with that," he says, with a look somewhere between panic and bewilderment. "I need to get the finger out because I should have started it ages ago. But now it will probably end up being a problem for Sunday night and all done at the last minute."

For someone who was last in a classroom at the age of 15, the routine of studying has come as something of a shock to former Hearts and MK Dons boss Neilson, who started his degree in sports directorship in September.

The majority of the course is distance learning, but every six weeks or so, he spends a few days at Manchester Metropolitan University with around 25 other students from various fields.

A large cohort are from the world of cricket, which is entirely alien to Neilson - "there's a boy Petersen who played for South Africa... Not Kevin" - as well as others from football, hockey and business. One familiar name is Edinburgh scrum-half Henry Pyrgos, while former Hibs head coach Paul Heckingbottom started the term before opting instead to pursue a PhD.

"I don't really follow any other sports, but I've really enjoyed it," says Neilson, who will travel south next week. "It's a wee break from the day-to-day of talking about who started for Inverness.

"When you go on football courses, we all know each other and people are quite guarded because they might be playing against you on the Saturday. But on this one, everyone is very open. You go down there and the rugby boys will be talking about something and you'll think 'that's no bad, I quite like that' and take it away and try it.

"It brings a bit of freshness to your players. You want them to learn, so it's important that you do the same yourself and be a role model."

One of Neilson's assistants, Lee McCulloch, recently graduated from the course, with both having been pointed towards it by United sporting director Tony Asghar. All three are advocates of fusing practices from other sports with football, with the likes of James de Montfort, the former head of fitness at Red Bull Formula 1, having visited the club, as has Scotland rugby coach Gregor Townsend.

The latter, in particular, piqued Neilson's curiosity, with the United head coach and his other assistant, Gordon Forrest, attending Scotland training sessions before last year's World Cup.

"Some of the stuff they're doing, especially around analysis and getting players to engage with it is fantastic," he says. "I've thought a lot about the culture and togetherness of rugby and I'd like to get that in our teams. The thing they've got is that you can get seriously injured if you don't play as a team, whereas football's not quite like that. So that's a puzzle to try and solve."

Keeping the US owner in the loop

While some of his peers might spend their days consumed by the minutiae of running a club, the way United work allows Neilson the time and space to consider such conundrums.

During his first year in charge, American owner Mark Ogren has invested heavily to buff up the faded glamour of the Tannadice outfit. As well as renovating the ground and bolstering the playing budget, there was a spell when a new head of this or that seemed to be appointed every other week.

Robbie Neilson

Given that United - under Neilson - missed out on their stated aim of promotion last season, some might have doubted whether that initial munificence would continue, but instead it has accelerated. And so, too, has the team. United sit 17 points clear at the summit of the Scottish Championship, with fans already poring over fixture lists in a bid to divine when the title might be clinched.

Whether Ogren is doing likewise in his Minnesota base remains to be seen, but the avuncular owner has struck up a strong relationship with Neilson. Indeed, before each match, the head coach emails a report to the States outlining what the team, tactics and challenges will be.

"It's just so he's in the loop," explains Neilson, who did similar at both Hearts and MK Dons.

"The people who invest the money should have all the information. He watches the game and he shouldn't be doing that having no idea what is happening. He should understand why we are doing things - if a player is injured, or we're leaving someone out - because ultimately it's his team and he pays the bills."

Cup tie offers a taste of things to come

Ogren will not be at Tannadice on Sunday as United attempt to gauge their progress over the past year. Neilson is very careful to talk about "if" rather than "when" it happens, but it would take an astonishing collapse now for United not to end their four-year exile from the top flight and make fixtures such as these more regular.

Watching Hibs in preparation has been refreshing for the head coach, who acknowledges that the United fans will expect a side that has won 11 of their past 12 matches to win again, regardless of their visitors' Premiership status.

"It's a brilliant chance and it's going to be a test, but we believe if we play as we can, we've got an opportunity," Neilson says. "We've aspirations to get into the top flight and this gives them a taste of hopefully what is to come."

And what is to come? Will United return to the elite with an aim of just surviving? Or will their ambitions be grander?

"It's down to what the owner wants and the financial clout he gives us," says Neilson. "Are we going to be a team that goes up and wants to stabilise? Or are we going to be a team that tries to push for the top six, or even higher than that?

"What I'd like to see is promotion, top six, then try and get the team into Europe. That's do-able at a club like this and I think we've got the players - and the young ones coming through - that can get there, but it's about how quickly we can get there."

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