Big Interview: ‘Celtic and Rangers could play Championship or higher’ says new MK Dons boss Neilson

By Sam Elliott

I DIDN’T intend it to come out quite how it sounded. It wasn’t supposed to be another stab aimed in the direction of the MK Dons – and it certainly wasn’t aimed at taking any gloss off what was a remarkably good first full week in his new office.

It was more the pursuit of an answer that football fans north and south of the border would actually quite like to hear.

Quite why has Scottish football’s big managerial hope left its top flight, said goodbye to the fantastic city of Edinburgh, the profile that is inevitably attached to being in charge of a club with the history of Hearts and said hello to Milton Keynes?

Robbie Neilson didn’t need reminding of the risk he is taking. Not just leaving a place where he is revered for winning the Scottish Championship in his first season and last year taking the Jambos to third place in the Premiership, but also leaving home.

Jumping ship when things were going wrong? Hardly.

Hearts are real contenders to win the Premiership. Well the one in a league without Celtic that many Scots like to conjure up in their minds.

Second place is well within their grasp.

Word on the street is that Neilson was next in line for the national team job.

His decision to leave is as much a damning indictment of the Scottish game as it is a compliment to English football.

Sacrificing all that for an opportunity he just couldn’t refuse, of course. And last Saturday Neilson was leading the MK Dons on to the pitch against AFC Wimbledon, having been reminded all week just what his new club had  got away with back in 2002.

He was taking up the job in the hope of stopping them being relegated into League Two and his first task was winning a home game for the first time in ten months.

The Hearts he broke, meanwhile, were walking out at Ibrox in front of more than 50,000.

“It was a big decision for me,” said the 36-year-old Neilson, who got the job at stadium:mk after talks between chairman Peter Winkelman and Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard had broken down.

“You only get one chance coming down to England from Scottish football.

“It’s a massive opportunity for me and that’s purely the reason I came here.”

“I moved from a team with 18,000 fans watching it every week. We would take 7,000 to away games, so, yes, it was a huge decision for me.

“When you need to make a big call, it has to be 100 per cent the right decision. You can’t just hope for the best. It might not happen overnight, but we need to move this club in the right direction.

“The draw about coming here was quite straightforward. When you make the move down here from Scotland, there is one really important factor you have to consider and that holds the key.

“The situation has to be right and the club you go to has to be right.

“Many Scottish managers have come down and jumped at the first opportunity.

“A lot of the time it’s not been right. They have gone into a club with no stability, to work with a chairman who is not right for them.

“Sometimes, there have been financial problems and it’s all gone wrong quite quickly.  That’s what I had to avoid. I needed the right environment. It had to be stable, just like it was at Hearts, and I think I have that.

“We were building for two and a half years at Hearts and I see MK Dons as a similar project in a way.

“The chairman backs his managers to the hilt and he’s built a stadium fit for the top level. Now, he wants a team that can play there.”

Dream start: Neilson watches his new team down rivals AFC Wimbledon through a Dean Bowditch spot kick (Photo: Action Images / Adam Holt)

What a first week it has been. By winning the game MK just couldn’t afford to lose against AFC Wimbledon – avoiding the nationwide ridicule which would have come with it – he instantly endeared himself to his new public. Defeating Charlton and Dons’ ex-boss Karl Robinson in Tuesday’s FA Cup replay after extra time, was a mark of their endurance and progression.

“It’s been a good start. On Tuesday, I wondered if we would fight or if we would crumble,” he said.

“The players had energy and they had spirit. They have shown me in the first few games that the club shouldn’t be where they are in the table. There is talent here.

“I don’t know why the club has gone so long without a home victory, and that was one of the first things we had to set right.

“But it’s all very well saying the players are better than how they are playing. You need to back up ability with performances and so far, so good on that front.”

Of course there’s another question that needs answering: how would the Scottish game’s bigger clubs fit into the English Pyramid?

“It’s a higher level of the game in England, that’s for sure,” Neilson added.

“The main thing here is an opportunity to develop a team who can go higher and higher and higher.

“There’s not really that chance back in Scotland.

“That’s the view I think of most of the Scottish guys who come down. Celtic would probably be Premier League here and be OK.

“Then, you have the teams below it. Your Rangers, your Aberdeens and your Hearts would probably be in the Championship somewhere.

“The rest? I’ve got to say League One at best. The divide in budgets is so vast up there. Celtic’s is £24m, your next £7m (Rangers) and £4m at Aberdeen. At Hearts, ours was £2m or thereabouts now.

“The main difference is how competitive it is. All the leagues are in England.

“It’s not the same back home, but that’s not to say there aren’t great things about it, but football down here is very special. I just wanted to be a part of it all.”

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