Neil MacFarlane knew what he was as a player. For Queen's Park, Airdrieonians, Aberdeen, Queen of the South and most prominently Heart of Midlothian.

Dogged, hard-working, reliable. A fan favourite, not really. An important component, no doubt. In the early 2000s, he was part of one of the most underrated Hearts sides in generations. He was someone Craig Levein knew he could turn to when it mattered.

"I was a defensive midfield player that broke up play," MacFarlane told Hearts Standard. "Listen, I think it is also important for any player, even the boys I am coaching now, to know what they are. I knew what I was. I knew myself I wasn’t the most creative at times but I knew I could be reliable for a manager, I knew I could play in the big games, handle pressure in the big games."

When Hearts went to De Kuip to face Feyenoord he was in the starting XI. As he was in key games against Bordeaux and Braga. And a regular when Hearts played the Old Firm. 

He added: "That’s what I am preaching to my players just now, you need to keep improving, keep getting better technically and tactically but you have to have that attitude and desire whereby the manager can rely on you. I think that’s a big, big thing and at that point, I felt he could."

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MacFarlane is currently manager of Brentford B, a position he will have held for five years later this year. It's clear he also knows what he is as a manager. Intense, passionate and relentless. Even just chatting over the phone those qualities were evident.

The 46-year-old spoke warmly of Hearts, of his time at Tynecastle Park, from 2002 to 2006, and of the impact and influence of Craig Levein. But it was when conversation moved onto coaching that the tone shifted.

"When you first go onto the grass as a coach you are teaching yourself, learning off the coaches you've been working with and continuing to work with, looking for all the wee things to improve you," he said. "That’s what I am like, I’m pretty relentless to keep getting better.

"It has been 10 years of really, really good experiences, unbelievable experiences, experiences that you can’t get unless you are involved in them. Having to deal with so many different scenarios, whether it is in Britain or in Cyprus, and then going into this project and continuously looking to make the players better and myself better.

"I just want to keep getting better and maybe there will come a point where there is a new chapter but currently it has been really, really good."

READ MORE: What Hearts can expect from James Penrice: Technique, drive, bags of potential

MacFarlane's career trajectory in football is an interesting one when viewed on the surface level. It becomes all the more intriguing when you delve a bit deeper.

Now part of an English Premier League club that achieved a mixture of both notoriety and praise for its decision to remove its academy in 2016 to focus on just two teams (the first team and MacFarlane's B team), as a player he didn't emerge through the traditional way of working his way up the age groups of an academy. 

He was spotted playing for Glasgow Amateurs Under-21s by Queen's Park. It was a grounding he wouldn't swap. He had to fight for expenses but it was a "great starting point" and "a period of time that was so valuable" which included a Scottish Third Division title with the Spiders before a move to Kilmarnock and then onto Airdrieonians.

"In this project at Brentford we’ve got the B team and the first team so the pathway is there for all the young players, which is the most important thing," he said. "The biggest thing at any football club is recruitment. We will look and pluck boys from academies who have been let go and need to find the missing link or a bit like the pathway I had myself where we’ve found players over the last two to three years playing in the non-league and grassroots because the recruitment is so good at our club and they’ve gone on to really flourish and get through to the first team and go that way.

"There are many, many different paths. It is being open-minded on these things and when you get the opportunity to coach these boys you want to prepare them for first-team football."

MacFarlane is the ideal coach for players who have had setbacks early in their careers. A great inspiration that just because something bad or unfortunate happens doesn't mean it is the end. In fact, it could be just the beginning.

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Under Ian McCall at Airdrieonians, MacFarlane was a key player as the Diamonds finished second in the second tier behind Partick Thistle, while also winning the Challenge Cup. But there was so much more to that season. It culminated in insolvency. On a personal level, the midfielder's season was cut short due to a cruciate ligament tear. Such an incident rarely leads to the country's third-biggest club picking up the phone.

"At the end of the season I received a phone call from Craig Levein, who had been watching me closely throughout the season at Airdrie," he explained. "He invited me in on a non-contract basis to reestablish my fitness and give me the facilities to do that on the basis that they liked what they saw in me as a player and if I could get back to fitness they would negotiate the contract to stay longer. That’s exactly what materialised.

"Craig was brilliant for me that way, he gave me an opportunity and at such a huge club. I worked so hard every single minute of every single day to get myself fit. I think mid-October of that first season when I got a reserve game against Dundee and then started to build my way into the first team, renegotiated my contract and ended up there for four and a bit years.

"The rest is history in that sense. We had an amazing Scottish-based team, did so well in Europe and competed well against Rangers and Celtic, who were so strong at the time."

READ MORE: Ricardo Fuller: The story of a Hearts cult hero - 'He was just different'

He added: "I was very privileged to get that opportunity and wanted to grasp it with all of my might. I wanted to work hard every single day. For any player who is injured, it is a very frustrating period when you can’t get out on the grass and help the team. I knew the circumstances, I knew where I was at at that point. My biggest goal was to recover from the knee injury. It was also good that Craig had been through that particular injury as well so he was a great sounding board. He and the staff were terrific at that point pushing me and I pushed myself to make sure I gave everything. That was my career. I gave my all to make myself better."

Under Levein Hearts achieved back-to-back third-place finishes in the top flight. It was the first time since 1958-1960. It has not happened since. And it was all done while the wage budget had to be slashed due to financial issues. In turn, a Scottish-based core was built, supplemented with a smattering of key players from England and abroad, such as Phil Stamp, Mark de Vries and Jean Louis Valois. That led to a strong dressing room and a notable team spirit. Levein, according to MacFarlane, was a "hugely demanding, very intense coach and had a massive passion for Hearts". That "rubbed off on the players".

It led to "incredible" European nights, even if some were played at Murrayfield. 

"You've seen over the years how many great sides Braga have defeated in Europe," MacFarlane said. "Just some brilliant, brilliant memories.

"Hearts have had really, really good teams. I just know that team was so close together. Terrific characters in the dressing room. I went on to work with Steven [Pressley] in a coaching aspect. As a captain he was fantastic.

"There have been Hearts teams that have won the Scottish Cup that need to be recognised but this team did a lot of good things and probably put a lot of building blocks in place for the years after."

Things, as every Hearts fan will be well aware, began to change during the 2004/05 season. Levein left, Vladimir Romanov arrived on the scene, Tynecastle Park was saved from being sold. And MacFarlane even scored his first and only goal for the club in a win over Partick Thistle in the Scottish Cup, a tap-in from about 4cm, - "good movement in the box". But he could "smell the change coming".

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"It came to a point where we had so many players in the squad and it was changing all the time," he said. "Probably the best way to sum it up is the bits I mentioned about us being a very Scottish-based team, Steven [Pressley], Webby [Andrew Webster], [Paul] Hartley, Craig Gordon, Robbie Neilson, it became a lot more mixed, an increased foreign element.

"We were spending much more money on players and it gave Hearts the platform to finish second and win the Scottish Cup. Every era at a football club is different."

MacFarlane started as the Romanov era got underway with a 4-2 win at Kilmarnock. It was one of four appearances under George Burley and Graham Rix. He was close to joining Dundee United before the close of the transfer window but, unsurprisingly, it wasn't so straightforward with Hearts and the move was pulled late on. He would go on to join Aberdeen in January instead.

"Gordon Chisholm wanted to take me to Dundee United," he said. "I felt like I had such brilliant times [at Hearts] but it was probably the time to look in a different direction. It didn’t materialise, I was brought back at the last hour and then the following point went onto Aberdeen in the January transfer window for six months."

He added: "It wasn’t an easy period because I loved the club, loved being there. Loved everything about it. I will always cherish those moments with Hearts."

READ MORE: Tynecastle Park Hotel: Hearts income boost, Romanov, Donald Ford, Taylor Swift

MacFarlane's coaching ambition began to take hold two years on from his time with Hearts. It was at Queen of the South, who he helped guide to the Scottish Cup final in 2008 as a player, where the transition into the next phase of his career in football started to develop.

"Turning towards the 30 mark I had always enjoyed local coaching," he remembered. "I always really studied games intensely. I always had a real passion for making individuals and teams better. I wanted to go that way."

He would make his first real inroads at Falkirk as an under-18s coach before stepping into the assistant manager role when Lee Bullen left for Sheffield Wednesday. It would begin a partnership with former Hearts captain Steven Pressley that would take in the Bairns then Coventry City, Fleetwood Town and Cypriot side Pafos.

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At Coventry, not only did he have a hand in the development of Callum Wilson, the Newcastle United and England striker, but he encountered the other side of football with several off-field issues impacting the Sky Blues.

He'd swap one former Hearts colleague with another when he became part of Robbie Neilson's coaching staff at MK Dons.

Then it was time to go out on his own. There was a short spell with Kidderminster Harries prior to his move to Brentford B where he has held an intriguing position at a forward-thinking club that has, over the last decade, grown from a League One outfit to a middling Championship side to the Premier League club it is now.

"I had been working as an assistant for a number of years and then really wanted the opportunity to try something different, try a new project" MacFarlane explained. "What they do at Brentford is they interview you four times, it is a really rigorous process. At that point in time, the co-director of football was Rasmus Ankersen along with Phil [Giles] and Thomas [Frank]. We met one, two, three, four times. We shared the same beliefs, the same principles and fundamentals of how we wanted the game to be played, it married up really well, kept meeting and they offered me the job.

READ MORE: Eviction to extinction threat: Why staying at Tynecastle Park was crucial to Hearts

"It’s been an incredible job for me, I’ve loved every single second of it. It’s an amazing football club with stability. That is hugely important, stability is massive and secondly, recruitment is huge at any football club. They have terrific recruitment.

"When you are in the building it is the people in the building, not the building. The people we have in the building are good at their job and that rigorous process we go through is the reason why they are there with longevity and good at their roles and why the club has been successful. And it has been brilliant for me, developing a new project, developing players for the first team and seeing our club win promotion from the Championship to the Premier League and becoming a stable team in the Premier League, it has been an incredible time for us in that respect.

"Underneath, the support mechanism. I am so close with Thomas up top and we are constantly driving the football club to where we want to go. The B team as well. It takes time to build anything but last year we won the Premier League Cup, we got players through to the first team and six or seven have gone out on permanent deals or loans. That’s why we do it, that’s why I get up every day with passion and desire. How you do it is by pushing the players relentlessly every day."

Brentford decided in 2016 to run with just two teams, closing its academy, citing London being a "competitive area" and the difficulty of keeping "hold of player". It also meant 20 players would be battling for a pathway into the first team rather than 60-70 players doing so. Since earning promotion to the Premier League the club has reopened its academy with an eye on European qualification. UEFA rules state that clubs who want to participate have to operate an academy.

MacFarlane talks up the club's recruitment and the "tons of work" that goes into sourcing players. As well as the current squad of English, Scottish and Irish players, there are individuals from France, Nigeria, Albania, South Korea and Uzbekistan. They arrive as talented teenagers, like Ethan Laidlaw, the forward signed from Hibs, or having been released from another academy or as a player who has dropped down the leagues.

No matter what there is a common goal, a mantra of MacFarlane's, get better every day.

"I go back to the alignment and the interview of sharing common goals and knowing exactly the way we wanted to go with these projects," he said. "Now it is about not standing still and wanting to improve. That’s the same with me as a coach, as a manager, I want to keep getting better each and every day. That’s the same with Thomas and the club, you have got to keep evolving. If we keep evolving hopefully we become a really stable Premier League club over the next few years.

"When I first entered the B team it was just starting out. We’ve been recruiting better and better players every single year and as the project grows the performances of individuals and the team get better."

READ MORE: Hearts beware: Craig Levein makes Tynecastle dugout return for first time in 4 years

The development comes through a games programme rather than competing in a regular league. It has brought about games against a variety of opponents from a variety of levels. MacFarlane plays a key role in ensuring that the team approaches these games with a competitive mindset.

"When I met Rasmus, Phil and Thomas, they could see from the work I showed them the tactical side, what I did to improve players and also the passion and a real intense football coach," he explained. 

"When you don’t have a league system, in my opinion, you need a really intense coach someone who drives it every single day so no game is ever played like a friendly. And it’s been like that I’ve felt. You want to win but you also want to see the players perform and marry both as part of their development.

"The fixture programme over the years has got continuously better and better. We played in the Premier League Cup last year but the fixture programmes are so testing. Last year we played Ukraine’s national team then Monaco’s first team. We were playing so many top, top fixtures which tests the boys in different directions. We also played non-league teams, we dipped into playing academy teams.

"We’ve got an amazing variety of fixtures and that has evolved massively over the four years I've been here. It was so good last year and it will continue to be from now on because of the brand and name we have got."

For years, MacFarlane played an understated and underrated role in the Hearts midfield. He's now doing the same as a coach in the Brentford system. And will continue to do so until the next chapter requires to be written.