Confidence and ambition isn’t in short supply with Dundee United’s hottest prospect Lewis Neilson.
The young defender stands tall, quite literally at 6ft 3in, above his teenage peers and, going by what he’s shown in the Tangerines’ first team so far, he has the talent to match the lofty mark he sets.
The 17-year-old Dundonian grew up in Piperdam, just outside the city, and lived next door to none other than Stuart Armstrong.
It was kickabouts in the backies with the former Terrors star, who has gone on to turn out for Celtic, Southampton and Scotland, that got Neilson started in the game and turned his gaze from dark blue to tangerine.
The Tannadice kid says it’s his dream to follow in Armstrong’s footsteps.
“My dad is a Dundee fan, funnily enough, but I support United because I grew up living next door to Stuart Armstrong,” he said.
“He made his breakthrough at Dundee United and ever since then I’ve been a big United fan.
“Our families are still really close and when we lived in Piperdam it was all summer kicking about in the backies.
“He has a brother the same age as me so we used to play football all the time and he’d come out and have a chat – he’s a really good guy.
“We talk now and again but, obviously, he’s down in Southampton now doing what he does so it’s just a wee text message here or there.
“Although he wasn’t massive back then, it was my next door neighbour going into the United first team so it was a big thing for me.
“He was a big influence on me and I’ve always wanted to follow his path, take advice off him and become a top-level footballer like he has.
“That was always my dream.”
Terrors kid has Premier League and Red Devils ambitions – and his dream could be closer than he thinks
Another United, of the Manchester variety, were Neilson’s other childhood heroes – and he has his sights set on bettering old pal Armstrong by starring for the Red Devils one day.
He continued: “I was a Man United fan growing up so I was used to watching Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I used to be a midfielder back in the day as well so watching that team was good.
“I never thought about defence until recently, so I wasn’t growing up watching defenders thinking ‘I want to be like them’.
“I was just watching football like any kid does, seeing Rooney and Ronaldo bang goals in for fun every week.
“That made me fall in love with football.
“I’ve always compared myself to Stuart and I want to take his path.
“He’s sitting high up in the Premier League and that’s a lofty ambition but I’ve always just wanted to do better.
“I want to be in the Premier League, play for Man United and Scotland – my ambition is endless.
“I just want to keep going and pushing myself to the next step every time.”
His dream could be closer to becoming a reality than even he thinks, with many top level clubs down south watching and being credited with an interest in centre-half Neilson.
Since making his debut against St Johnstone on the opening day of the Premiership season, the likes of Everton, Leicester City, Southampton and Leeds United have watched Neilson and been impressed with what they’ve seen.
However, he takes it all with a pinch of salt and only has eyes on making his mark in the Terrors first team, for now.
Neilson added: “I don’t really take too much interest in it.
“I don’t want to listen to a lot of stuff – there’s false rumours out there but some stuff will be true.
“I just want to focus on each game at a time, training hard every day with United and see where it goes.
“I’m at United now and that’s where I’m enjoying my football.
“My ambition is to break in and play every week for United. That’s my main focus just now and I don’t think that’s going to change for the foreseeable future.
“It’s a great confidence boost to hear big teams are after you and only adds to the belief I can break into the first team here, nothing else.”
Boss Mellon ‘is enthusiastic about the young boys and happy to give them the chance’
Neilson has made seven appearances for Micky Mellon’s top team this term, displaying all his promising attributes against the likes of Celtic, Rangers and Hibs.
Composed, powerful and fleet of foot, the United kid has proved a versatile and dependable option across the backline.
Tied down until the summer of 2022, Neilson is hoping to build on a good year for club and country after making his Scotland U/17 debut back in February.
“It’s been a good year for me, definitely,” he said.
“Coming into pre-season I never thought I’d be given the chance I did to start the first game against St Johnstone.
“That’s credit to the manager coming in. He’s enthusiastic about the young boys and happy to give them the chance.
“Injuries to Mark Connolly, Ryan Edwards and Liam Smith opened the door for me and I ended up at right-back a couple times.
“So it was lucky because a couple of things broke my way and to be given the chance by Micky Mellon was an honour, to be honest.
“I was happy to take that.
“The contract was a surprise as well – I didn’t think I’d get one so soon but credit to Tony (Asghar) and the board for showing faith.
“Going away with Scotland in February to play against Sweden was a great experience as well. It’s a really talented age group and very competitive, especially with the centre-backs.
“You’ve got Liam Morrison at Bayern Munich and Leon King who’s sitting on the bench for Rangers most weeks so to play on that team was a great experience.”
He’s had to make an adjustment from playing academy football to starring on the biggest stage.
However, for Neilson, seemingly a kid who takes everything in his stride, it’s been a seamless transition.
He continued: “It was difficult but, in my head, I thought it was going to be wildly, incredibly hard but I think the main thing was composure.
“After five minutes in the game, you realise it’s just a game of football and you get on with it.
“You have to be switched on the whole time, whereas in academy games you can get away with switching off for five minutes here and there, just potting about.
“You’ve got to be 100% all the time and it’s taxing physically.
“I always feel like I have to prove myself, even in 18s games. I might seem like one of the best players on the park but I’ll always feel I’ve got to show that.
“I’ll always feel, no matter where I go, that I’ll have to earn it. That’s just the way I am.
“I don’t feel I deserve anything until I work hard for it but I feel part of the group.
“Although I didn’t play last term, I was in training with the first team for most of the season.
“It’s a great squad to be in just now, there’s a lot of ambition around this team and we’re doing well. I’m glad to be a part of it.
“I’d like to be playing more games, like I was at the start of the season, but we’re keeping clean sheets so I can’t complain.
“I’m only 17 so I’ll have to take my chances when they come. I just need to keep working hard in training.
“Doing that in the first team compared with the youth teams is only going to improve me more. I can see that in myself.”
Neilson hailed Mellon for giving opportunities to him and fellow-youngsters Logan Chalmers and Kai Fotheringham, revealing just how invested the United gaffer is in his defence.
He said: “Not just for me, I think for the whole squad he’s been brilliant.
“He’s got his set principles that he wants to get into the team and I think everyone’s on board with him.
“I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a defender but the way he’s work with the defence has been great. You can see that in recent games with the clean sheets.
“He gets the defenders in his office and we run through videos for ages and out on the pitch as well he’s great.
“He’s not afraid to play young boys, age isn’t a factor for him. If you’re good enough to play, you will, and that’s a massive motivation for the youngsters right now to train hard.”
Switch from midfield to defence came naturally to Neilson
Tannadice youth chief Andy Goldie also came in for praise for converting Neilson from a midfielder into a centre-half.
His engine-room upbringing is clear in the imposing defender’s style of play – confidently able to carry the ball out from the back and starts attacks.
Neilson explained: “Throughout pretty much my whole youth career I’d been a midfielder until late last year when Andy Goldie took over with the academy.
“He came to an U/18s game and said he’d like to see me play at the back. I did against Queen’s Park and did well.
“I’d always been against playing in defence before that but I thought I’d give it go and I loved it.
“It just felt more like cruise control than midfield and ever since then that’s where I’ve been.
“Micky sees me as a centre-back and if the first-team manager sees me as a defender I’m not going to complain, I’ll be a defender!
“It definitely helps being a midfielder playing at the back. I think that’s my biggest attribute, being able to get on the ball, dribbling out from defence and passing.
“That’s credit to the way I’ve learned the position for the past 10 years.”
An impressive young man, Neilson was top of the class on and off the pitch at St John’s High before leaving the SFA Performance School over the summer.
He hopes to make a good living from the game but admits having the fall back of university bodes well for his future – plus it got his mum off his back!
Neilson explained: “My first year in full time I was balancing football with school on the side. I only went to school on a Wednesday because that’s the day we got off from United.
“I would pick up all my notes from my classes and just had to study at home all week.
“That was a tough year but I managed to get four Highers with straight As.
“I was very happy with that because my mum wasn’t letting me go full-time if I wasn’t sticking in at school!
“The dream would be to make enough money in football that I don’t need to work after.
“If football doesn’t work out it’s just a fall back to be able to go to uni, study something and get a decent job after that.”
Neilson is every inch a star in the making
Off the pitch, like most teenage boys, Neilson does a lot of sleeping and reckons he’s still growing.
As the interview wraps up, he offers: “I get knackered at training and come home to sleep most of the time, to be honest!
“I hope I’m not still growing – all my mates are about half my height!
“There could be another inch in me, or so
“I wouldn’t mind – it would help for centre-half anyway!”
In terms of stature, he is already head and shoulders above most of the United squad.
However, you get the feeling Lewis Neilson is every inch a star in the making, too.