Robbie Neilson might have taken a long route for a short cut.

He’s now finally right back where he feels he belongs – as a Premiership gaffer.

The Dundee United boss certainly didn’t plan his journey this way. When he left the Hearts job in December 2016, England was every young coach’s preferred destination.

Instead, a move to MK Dons saw him veer off track.

But, despite a bump in the road, it also provided him with a clear road map for whenever he got back in the driving seat.

With United, he firmly believes his career is heading in the right direction again.

Neilson is convinced he’s better equipped as a manager now than he has ever been.

He has learned from his mistakes and accepts he was too keen to leave Scotland last time around.

But now? You get the impression it would take something extraordinary to drag him away from Tannadice.

He’s about to test himself against the best in Scotland after the Terrors’ promotion to the top flight.

Now he’s ready to use every shred of experience picked up – both good and bad – to drive Dundee United into the Premiership’s top six.

The Covid-19 lockdown meant neither Neilson nor his players could properly celebrate their
runaway success in the Championship.

But it has given him time to reflect on the job he’s got, just how content he is – and why
he would not make the same mistakes again.

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In an exclusive interview with MailSport, the United boss said: “You live and learn.

“I’m a better manager now having had the experience down in England. The contacts I made, the highs and lows at MK Dons, allowed me to come back to United to implement a lot of it.

“Hopefully now we can take the same trajectory we were on at Hearts before I left.

“I’m not sure if Hearts could have done any more to keep me.

“At the time, I felt it was the right time to go but looking back maybe it wasn’t.

“An opportunity came up and I took it but it probably wasn’t the right time or place.

Neilson looking happy with his lot before kick-off in his farewell match against Rangers

“It doesn’t nag at me. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We could all sit here and say: ‘I should have done this or that.’

“If things had worked out in England it might have been a different story. But they didn’t.

“Just like at MK, when I arrived at United I had expectations. To get promoted then do well in the top flight. But whether it’s going to work out that way or not is a different thing altogether.

“I didn’t have any doubt that I’d get back in and get back to this level again.

“I had opportunities to stay in England but I wanted to come back to Scotland and I felt United were a great club to come back to.

“It was a chance for me to build something and get them into a position where we could
eventually reach the top six of the Premiership.

“I’ve always had belief in myself. Of course, MK was a difficult period in my career.

“A two-month tough spell down there means you’re out.

MK Dons manager Robbie Neilson

“That’s just the nature of the beast, you find that out. That’s why it was a learning curve.

“Scotland is a great place to play, coach or manage. Sometimes you forget that.

“Looking back on it, would I go again? Probably not. I’m enjoying what I do at United. It’s a good club and there’s that pressure there.

“We have a fanbase who are hungry and desperate for success.

“I didn’t get too down after MK. Until you get sacked, you’re not a manager. Until you get that feeling of being emptied, you don’t realise what it is to be a manager.

“When it happens you just have to get right back on the horse again.”

It might only be across the border but Neilson insists players can be a totally different breed in England.

That’s just one of the things he discovered during his ill-fated two years in Milton Keynes.

He says there’s an honesty and work ethic about a Scottish dressing-room that we probably take for granted.

Neilson said: “I feel much better about the job now, my knowledge of it and how to deal with players.

“It’s a different environment down south in that regard. It’s a different culture, a different type of people.

“Up here you get endeavour, work rate – a hunger to do better.

“Sometimes in England you can have boys who are just doing it for the sake of it. That’s just life. You learn how to deal with them. At times it can be difficult but you learn, that’s just their motivation.

“It’s up to you as a coach to try to get something out of them.

“I had a lot of good managers over the years as a player.

“Craig Levein is an obvious one but there was George Burley, Jim Jefferies, Nigel Pearson, Sven Goran Eriksson, Paulo Sousa and Walter Smith, who were all very good, very different.

Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson

“I had some bad ones as well, particularly at Hearts where we had a few in a row at one stage!

“But even then I took something out of it, in terms of: ‘Well, I wouldn’t do this or that.’”

Neilson is as ready as he has ever been to tackle the Premiership again. After getting Hearts back to the top flight at the first attempt as a rookie coach, he led them to third and a Europa League spot the following year.

He’d love to emulate that success on Tayside and give the Arabs something to cheer about after missing out on a promotion party. Neilson said: “I don’t want to say it felt flat – but obviously it wasn’t what we expected.

“Hopefully when we get back together we can sort something out. But even then, a few boys who were part of it won’t be here so it has been difficult in that sense.

“It’s not about personal satisfaction. Once you’ve done it, you move on to the next one. I was the same at Hearts.

“Even before we got over the line, Tony Asghar (sporting director) and I were talking and starting to plan for next season.

“That was the expectancy I put on myself coming into the job. The objective was to get up.

“It was just a case of making sure we got there this season. Now it’s about the next step.

“It will be brilliant to test myself at Premiership level again.

“One of the things we spoke to the players about throughout last season, when we were going to Palmerston or the Indodrill Stadium, was how we wanted to be at Ibrox, Celtic Park, Pittodrie and Easter Road instead.

“That was a big driver for us. Now it’s about the boys having the belief to go and do it.”