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Hearts assistant Lee McCulloch sees a lot of Walter Smith in Robbie Neilson

© SNS GroupRobbie Neilson explains his thinking to his backroom staff, Gordon Forrest and Lee McCulloch
Robbie Neilson explains his thinking to his backroom staff, Gordon Forrest and Lee McCulloch

Robbie Neilson has been favourably compared to Rangers’ legendary boss, Walter Smith.

The Hearts manager’s assistant, Lee McCulloch, spent four years under Smith as a player at Ibrox between 2007 and 2011.

It was a hugely successful period that included repeat wins in all the domestic trophies, as well as the march to Manchester for the 2008 UEFA Cup Final.

Neilson only started out as manager in 2014, three years after Smith retired.

Already he has led both Dundee United and Hearts to Championship titles, steering the latter to third place in the top flight the year after their success.

This season, he has Hearts at the top of the second tier and strong favourites to win promotion.

Plus, of course, he helped them secure their place in today’s Scottish Cup Final.

“Robbie is very mature. He reminds me – and I’m not trying to put pressure on him – of Walter,” said McCulloch, who will be beside Neilson in the dugout at Hampden.

“He has the serious look, he has the nasty side, a touch of old-school mentality. But I feel he’s a modern-day coach.

“The way we go through the opposition, there’s a lot of video analysis done – and he’s only going to get better.

“When you look at being in Europe with Hearts the first time, winning the league with Dundee United and then coming back to Hearts, he’s had experiences, including his spell in England with MK Dons, even if that didn’t go the way he planned it to.

“But sometimes when you don’t do so well, you learn more than you do winning all the time.

“So he’s been tested, and I believe he’s in the top five managers in Scotland, without a shadow of a doubt.

“I’m not saying he’s won enough stuff to back that up, but I can only go on what I’ve seen and all the managers I’ve seen and he’s 100% in the top five – by a mile.”

© Ian MacNicol/Shutterstock
Lee McCulloch is congratulated by Walter Smith after Rangers had clinched the league title in 2010

McCulloch has been working under Neilson for less than two years but, as he explained, the connection stretches back to the days when they were kicking a ball – if not each other.

“I knew Robbie from playing against him, and then he won the Championship when I was playing,” said the former Scotland midfielder.

“Then when I was coaching the strikers at Dundee United, I was speaking to him a lot because I was intrigued with what he was doing in training.

“I was impressed, but I was just trying to learn as a coach at the time and get as much information out of him as possible.

“Now we’ve come together, along with Gordon Forrest, who’s a tremendous coach.”

© SNS Group
Robbie Neilson and Craig Gordon enjoy the Scottish Cup Final win over Gretna in 2006

The Championship leaders will go into the Final as underdogs, but McCulloch points to the semi-final success over a Hibs team going well in the top flight as evidence of what is possible.

“To go and beat them certainly helped confidence in the squad and the club, and probably gave the fans a little back when they have been missing that in the last 18 months,” he said.

“It shows we can punch above our weight if we want to. We certainly have match-winners in our group.

“Guys like Craig Gordon, with his vast experience, and Stevie Naismith’s the same, played at a ridiculously high standard for club and country.

“Liam Boyce and Mikey Smith are current internationalists, then there’s Jamie Walker, 49 goals for a club the size of Hearts.

“We just hope we all turn up on the day, and everything’s covered from a coaching staff’s point of view.

“We won’t be putting any pressure on ourselves.

“We know everyone is expecting Celtic, with their track record and the amount of trophies they have won, to come out on top.

“So all we can do is try our best to upset them.”

Lee McCulloch was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.