Lewis Neilson found himself at something of a crossroads in his career during the summer. On the face of it, his first season at Heart of Midlothian looked like a fairly successful one. After joining as a promising squad player from Dundee United in June 2022, the versatile defender racked up 16 first-team appearances in total in his debut campaign in maroon. Not bad for a player who knew he wasn’t going to be a regular in the starting XI.

The problem, though, was to do with when those first-team appearances arrived. An injury crisis at the back meant that Robbie Neilson catapulted his namesake into the starting line-up, with the 20-year-old featuring regularly in the Premiership, Europa Conference League and Viaplay Cup. Domestic football was then placed on hiatus to accommodate the 2022 World Cup and by the time it all started up again, the injury crisis at Tynecastle had subsided. Neilson found himself slipping down the pecking order, and only played another two minutes of first-team football before the campaign concluded.

“When I first signed for Hearts I didn’t think I would be going straight into the first team,” Neilson told Hearts Standard. “I knew that I would be in the squad and on the bench, or building up minutes with the B team. But I was kind of thrown in at the deep end with the amount of injuries we had at the back last season.

“Obviously they were great experiences for me and I had a few good games, and I got to play in Europe as well. I went from that high of not expecting to play lots of games but then playing every week, to then getting absolutely nothing after the World Cup break. It was quite hard to take.

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“I’m the type of guy where I don’t moan and I don’t complain. I just keep my head down, keep training and make sure I’m ready for whenever I’m needed, which never really came in the second half of last season. That’s when I started thinking about going on loan. I spoke to my agent, my dad and eventually Naisy, and then I got the green light.”

By the time pre-season rolled around, Neilson had decided that a loan move elsewhere was required if he was to continue his development. The only question now was where.

“I wasn’t really told I was going out on loan,” Neilson recalled. “It was more – Naisy had pulled me into his office, and said he was saying, ‘look, we’re bringing in Frankie Kent and we have boys in your position, so I don’t think you’re going to be a starter for me. I know you’re a young boy and you will be wanting game time’.

“I had played in the first half of last season but then didn’t play much in the second half, so he said that I must be desperate to play again. I told him that was something that was on my mind. I wanted to be a regular starter, so that meant going out on loan and getting games. I didn’t want to just sit on the bench and there is only so much you can get from training. I needed to get experience, so it was more of a mutual agreement that a loan would be the best thing for me.

“Then it was just about picking the right team. The only factors Naisy wanted were that they were a team that looks to play football, and one that was still at a decent level. It had to be somewhere where I could make mistakes but still stay in the team.

“There were a few Championship teams and I spoke to John Rankin at Hamilton quite a bit. He was keen to get me in, but because I had been playing at Hearts I didn’t want to drop down two leagues to League One. I definitely wanted to be in the Championship – and hopefully towards the top half of the Championship. Ranks was great on the phone and I don’t think it would have been a terrible option because Hamilton is somewhere I could go in and make lots of mistakes but probably still stay in the team. It could have been good for my development in other ways but I really wanted to push myself in the Championship.

“It was down to me in the end and I chose Partick Thistle because I thought that they’re a side that should be challenging up the top end of the Championship, and it was still a good level. It’s turned out alright so far.”

Partick Thistle was always an attractive option to Neilson. Like many others, he was impressed with the swashbuckling manner in which Kris Doolan’s side lit up the Premiership promotion play-offs at the tail end of last season. Up until that remarkable implosion up in Dingwall, where the Jags blew a three-goal lead in the final 20 minutes of the play-off final before losing out on penalties, the Glasgow side had blown away each and every one of their opponents in thrilling fashion.

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They may have fallen short in their quest for promotion, but the team’s eye-catching style helped Neilson settle on a destination for his loan spell away from Tynecastle Park – as did an early indication of their interest.

“The way that Thistle play was a big factor, definitely,” Neilson explained. “I watched the play-off games at the end of last season and they were a really exciting team, and they were probably unlucky not to go up. But something else that attracted me was that I know the gaffer at Partick had been in touch with Naisy at the very start of pre-season asking about me.

“So it wasn’t a case of ‘he’s available on loan, let’s take him and use him as a squad player’. He wanted me from the start so I thought I’d have a good chance of playing there. I had a chat with Kris Doolan and he told me that he really liked me as a player, that he’d seen me in some [Scotland] Under-21s games and last season for Hearts, and that I would start for him. That was all I needed to persuade me.”

It has been a move that has worked out for all parties. Since first pitching up at Firhill in August, the youngster has steadily built on a series of promising early performances to the point where he is one of the first names on the team sheet in defence. His displays last month earned him the club’s player of the month award, voted for by supporters, as he continues to go from strength to strength.

Hearts Standard: Lewis Neilson was voted by Thistle fans as the club's McCrea Financial Services Player of the Month for OctoberLewis Neilson was voted by Thistle fans as the club's McCrea Financial Services Player of the Month for October (Image: Tommy Taylor/PTFC)

Playing as the left centre-half in a back four, Neilson’s primary task is to prevent chances from arising. But the Dundee United academy graduate is also the very definition of a modern centre-back, comfortable driving out from the back with the ball at his feet and getting attacks going with searching, diagonal passes from deep. It is a lot of responsibility to place on the shoulders of a defender, especially one so young, but it is a challenge that Neilson relishes.

“It’s been really good,” Neilson said of his ball-playing role at Thistle. “I think the gaffer has been really pleased with how I’m doing in terms of stepping out from the back. It maybe came as a wee bit of a surprise to some of the boys because they weren’t used to it, but it’s definitely encouraged by the gaffer and my other team-mates. They don’t want me to just hit the ball in the channels, they want me to do my thing. The gaffer says that’s what I was brought in to do so I’ve to keep doing it. Hopefully it keeps paying off.

“I pride myself on being good on the ball, being able to step out from the back, picking passes and starting attacks. Even though I’m at Thistle and I want the team to do well, I’m a Hearts player and I need to show Naisy and the coaches back at Hearts why I should be in their team. I’m not going to change the way I play because I want to get in the Hearts team eventually.”

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In order to achieve that goal, Neilson knows that he has to become a more well-rounded defender. He is calm and composed in possession, and confident in his ability on the ball, but feels he can improve when it comes to good old-fashioned centre-half play. Scotland’s second tier might lack the quality on offer in the top flight, he reasons, but provides plenty of opportunities to get better at the defensive side of the game. And quantity has a quality all of its own.

“There’s a difference in terms of quality but it’s almost a different type of football,” he explains. “There are a lot more long balls and there is a lot more defending to be done, which I feel is beneficial to me as I’ll get to improve that side of my game. I think I need that.

“It’s more physical and sometimes I feel you almost get less time on the ball. The pressing isn’t quite as structured. So there is a wee bit of a gulf in terms of quality but in some ways it’s more difficult as a defender because there is more to be done.

“Gordon Forrest texts me after pretty much every game. He phoned me the other day as well, so we regularly catch up. I managed to catch up with Naisy at Oriam the last time I was away with [Scotland] Under-21s, so I’m definitely getting enough contact. I wouldn’t want too much though – I want to be able to focus on myself and focus on Thistle this season. But I think there’s just the right amount where I know I’ve not been forgotten about and that keeps me motivated.

“I was learning one thing in pre-season with Naisy and then I’m getting told something different at Thistle, but that’s always going to be the case wherever you go. Managers have got different play styles. Kris Doolan just wants me to do my thing, which is stepping out, hitting diagonal balls and starting attacks. He doesn’t discourage it at all.”

Domestic football takes a back seat during the international break but Neilson be keeping busy. The defender is with the Scotland Under-21s side as they prepare for a crucial double-header in their bid to qualify for the European Championships. A trip to Belgium on Friday awaits before Scot Gemmill’s side face Hungary on Tuesday.

“The camps have been really good,” Neilson added. “I love going away and it is a great group of boys – and a really good standard. Ben Doak started for Liverpool in the Europa League last week, so it’s a really good calibre of player in the team.

“It’s a really good level of opposition too and I love being able to test myself against top talents in Europe and seeing how I match up against them. I love being a part of it and hopefully I will continue being in the squads.

“I think any games I’m getting at this stage in my career can only be beneficial. I just need to be playing games, gaining experience and challenging myself against as good an opposition as I’m able to. We got two good wins last month so hopefully we can carry that on and get points on the board in our next two games.”