HIS name may not conjure up memories of Scottish football catastrophe in the same way Frank Haffey’s does.
Nevertheless, Craig Levein briefly considered taking the same extreme measures as the hapless former Scotland goalkeeper in a bid to escape the brickbats following an undistinguished spell in charge of the national team.
It is a measure of the personal toll taken by a post he vacated on Guy Fawkes’ night in 2012, after just 12 competitive games in charge, that Levein contemplated moving to Australia. This is where Haffey famously fled following his part in Scotland’s 9-3 loss to England in 1961.
Levein had to think very carefully about where to turn next. He was seriously tempted by interest from a club in Australia. The United States was another possibility. “My missus was not 100 per cent sure about going, so that didn’t help,” he revealed yesterday. There was even a job offer from the Sri Lanka national team. Recalling that particular option, he added: “I was like: ‘nope, not for me’.”
As with parables which illustrate how the seeker often finds the answer lying nearer to home than they imagine, Levein did not, in the end, have to travel far to earn redemption. Indeed, following an 18-month spell out of the game, he found what he was looking for in a place he knows as well as anywhere. It was at the club where he made more than 400 appearances, and where he also managed for four years. It was just across the water from his home in Fife.
It was perhaps not altogether surprising that Hearts should be the ones to provide shelter from the storm, even if he did originally discount Tynecastle as a possible destination. One drawback seemed to be that it wasn’t far enough way. In any case, he had been there, done that.
I had my sights set on managing abroad, which was definitely in the pipelineCraig Levein
“I was looking at it and wondering, where am I going to work after the Scotland job?” he recalled yesterday. “Scotland? Well, I have been at Hearts and I have been at Dundee United. Maybe go down to England? Well, I have been at Leicester and that did not work out. It was more about where can I get a decent job?”
Then he met someone with a vision. “I had my sights set on managing abroad, which was definitely in the pipeline,” he said. This was before Ann Budge contacted him, seeking some advice about her proposed takeover at Tynecastle. She also asked Levein if he wanted to work for the club. “I thought she was talking about the manager’s job – I had been here before and I am not convinced coming back as a manager for a second time is the right thing to do.
“We had another meeting and she asked me what a football club looks like as she had no idea,” he added.
In the style of Blue Peter,
Levein already had something he’d prepared earlier. “A mate of mine was going to buy Dundee United and he asked me what a football club should look like,” he explained. “Luckily, he didn’t buy it because it was around the time Setanta went bust. But I had put something together for him so I effectively tidied it up a bit for Ann.”
Budge mentioned needing someone to run the football department. A director of football, in other words. Levein was never much interested in that side of things, despite, during his spell at Dundee United, accepting then owner Eddie Thompson’s offer of a role that involved more comprehensive responsibilities than those of simply manager.
For some reason, his ears pricked up when Budge mentioned a position where he could affect all the goings-on at the club. “I felt that was a bit different,” he said. “I started looking at the football side of things. Before anything, you have to establish what you want to do as a club before anything to do with details like coaches or staff. You have to work out what type of club you need to be.
“That was the biggest challenge at the beginning: what is it we want to do?”
For Levein, the priority was developing young players. It was convenient in a sense that Hearts, due to their financial struggles, were forced to rely on young players. There were, then, a number of promising talents already at the new director of football’s disposal. But he also needed a head coach. He quickly identified Robbie Neilson, someone he first got to know as a callow 16-year-old full-back, as the man to fill this vacancy.
How successful this project has been to date is illustrated by the handsome presence of the Championship trophy sitting on a table over Levein’s shoulder. This is the reward for a season when the plan not only came together, but has left others trailing in their wake. Levein revealed other Scottish clubs are now contacting him, looking for help in implementing a structure on the same lines as the one at Tynecastle. It was pleasing to see Levein back in an old routine yesterday.
Over the last ten or months or so, he has made a very deliberate decision to avoid situations in which he is seated in front of a group of reporters, the way he often was during his Scotland days.
Sadly, those briefings soon began to adopt the tone of inquests. No wonder a previously helpful individual became more cautious, more paranoid even.
“It’s not about me, it’s about Robbie,” was his mantra, on those occasions when a journalist would come to his door, seeking insight into these new ways at Tynecastle. “Maybe at the end of the season.”
True to his word, Levein invited reporters to Tynecastle yesterday. It was the first time in a long time he had been in such a situation. Did this director of football guise, which helps shield him from the day-to-day glare of the media, provide someone who readily admits to being wounded by the Scotland experience with the ideal path back?
“I don’t know if there was a ‘perfect’ way to come back…” he said. “There is no doubt the Scotland thing, in the end, was bruising. And, when you’ve got a thin skin, well, it doesn’t help.”
It was quite an admission. But he seems happier now, even if many wonder just how long Levein can resist the thrill of the touchline. “I don’t get the same buzz I got as a manager,” he acknowledged. “I’m on the training ground but I never say anything. I never interfere or say anything. Which was hard at first but now I’m actually enjoying it.”
How long this will last, not even Levein can be sure. “I’m not ruling anything in or out,” he said. But a sign he has fully recovered from such a gruelling stint in charge of Scotland is that he will gladly watch the national team play again. And he is back talking to reporters – for now at least.
“See you next year,” he smiled, while rising with a rediscovered sense of purpose from his seat.