Hearts: Robbie Neilson would be giving up a lot to join MK Dons

Robbie Neilson
Robbie Neilson is in his third season as Hearts head coach with MK Dons keen to recruit him

When the business of Robbie Neilson's prospective move to Milton Keynes Dons is mentioned, there's one argument that's heard a lot.

It's the one about him having done as much as he can possibly do at Hearts, that, as a manager in this Celtic-dominated landscape, his head is now bouncing off Scotland's glass ceiling and he'd be as well getting on the road to England.

It's an analysis that has a few flaws. Neilson, 36, is a relative pup as a manager. He's had two-and-a-half promising seasons in the job but of all the things that are realistically achievable he's done none of them yet.

He hasn't taken Hearts to second place in the Premiership, because he's only had one attempt. He hasn't won a cup. He hasn't made the final of a cup. He hasn't made the semi-final of a cup.

He's had eight cracks at Celtic and lost six and drawn two with an aggregate score of 19-6 to the Glasgow team.

He hasn't had a run in the Europa League and if folk think that's an ambition too far for a club like Hearts then how does anybody explain Dundalk's run in the competition?

Robbie Neilson
Neilson led Hearts to the Championship and promotion in his first season as a manager

He remains the Hearts head coach for now.

Football management, eh? For the last few weeks, up until Saturday's thumping win over Motherwell, things have been dicey for Neilson at Tynecastle. So many goals conceded, so few points won, so much cause to doubt, if you were that way inclined.

It's hard to put a percentage on the number of Jambos whose faith in Neilson has been challenged this past while, but the negativity is out there in pockets, that's for sure. And yet, in the blink of an eye, MK Dons are in pursuit of him.

Telling young players about the concept of the grass being greener on the other side is usually a mug's game. Scotland cap Callum Paterson, Hearts' regular right-back and Neilson's best player, has arrived at that point now.

Callum Paterson and Robbie Neilson
Paterson, like Neilson, has been linked with a move away from Hearts

He's 22 and will be leaving in the summer. That's understandable. A footballer has a limited time-span. It's different for a manager. Paterson is in a hurry and you couldn't blame him, but at 36, Neilson is really only starting off in this game.

The MK Dons look to be a stable club, they've got that going for them. Their last manager, Karl Robinson, was there for six years so the revolving door, so prevalent in England's Football League, doesn't seem to exist in Milton Keynes.

It's said of Winkelman that he backs his manager. True, but Robinson was easy to back for the longest time. He got the Dons into the play-offs for the Championship in each of his first two seasons, then missed the play-offs by four points in his third season. His fourth season was a let down, but his fifth was exceptional. The Dons were promoted automatically.

They had a star turn in young Dele Alli, a kid that Robinson nurtured and who scored 16 goals in their promotion season. In their short history, it was the first time the Dons had ever made the Championship. In preparing for their big season, 2015-16, they sold Alli to Spurs for £5m.

Unavoidable, for sure, but their attempts to replace him and bolster the wider squad were dreadful. There are questions about how they recruit and who does the recruiting that Neilson will need to clarify.

With the smallest budget in the Championship, they got relegated. Their average attendance was 13,158. Now it's 9,229. For their last home game, against Chesterfield, they had 7,429. Their wonderful stadium holds 30,500.

Hearts celebrate
Hearts had a solid season last term and could go second if they beat Rangers on Wednesday

Winkelman has spoken about how the stadium belongs in the top-flight and he might be right, but there's not the finance or the playing resources at the club to get anywhere near that level. There's ambition and then there's fantasy. MK Dons, with their fine stadium and not a lot else, are like a character who's all dressed up but who has nowhere to go.

Robinson exited with the club in 19th place in League One - only a few points outside of the relegation zone but only eight outside of the play-offs.

If he takes the job, Neilson will back himself to do better than 19th but how much better is good enough?

Neilson would be giving up a lot in Edinburgh for a roll of the dice in Milton Keynes. He's at a club where the hierarchy believe in him and where the vibe is progressive.

There's a new stand being built. They've sold more season tickets this season - 14,000 - than ever before. They have near sell-outs for every game. They have reason to believe that a cup win or some kind of run in Europe is not beyond them.

At his age, Neilson shouldn't be in any rush to leave them behind, not for an MK Dons. The chances are, though, that he will leave. And if he does, you would hope that in a year or two he won't have cause to regret it.