Craig Levein: Hearts matches at Murrayfield are ‘away games’

Hearts players line up for the clubs first game at Murrayfield, against Braga. To date, its the only time Craig Levein has managed at the ground.  Photographs: SNS
Hearts players line up for the clubs first game at Murrayfield, against Braga. To date, its the only time Craig Levein has managed at the ground. Photographs: SNS
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As Ann Budge sat in front of the cameras, explaining why she thought handing the Hearts manager’s job to a fledgling coach was something of a poisoned chalice, there was a wry smile on Craig Levein’s face.

As the club’s director of football, he is well aware of the difficulties that assail the club at this time. And as the man who has ultimately been handed that toxic goblet, he also knows that he is the one expected to find an antidote.

With no home games until at least November due to over-running construction works on the new main stand, he has to find a way to stay in contact with the other teams vying for a European spot at the top end of the table. He faces another five away games in that time, while Murrayfield will be the temporary residence as the club host Aberdeen, St Johnstone and Rangers.

“We played Braga at Murrayfield in the Uefa Cup before, that was my one game there as manager,” said Levein. “But I’m still thinking about it as an away venue for us. We’ll need to play a certain type of football to get us to a point where we’re playing at Tynecastle again.

“I’ve been pleased with the way Jon [Daly, the interim manager] has had the team playing, they’ve been cohesive and difficult to beat. I make no apologies for that, we’ll need to be difficult to beat before we get back to Tynecastle.

“Ann was clear early on that she felt it would be extremely difficult for another young coach like Jon to come in and deal with all of these different things. It was logical and I couldn’t disagree with it, hence the process we’ve gone through.

“Jon was brilliant. When I explained the situation, he asked if he’d have beat Motherwell would he have got the job. But Ann was categorical and the answer was no. The circumstances are too great. It’s a hard job for a first job. If you had a situation where you lost two or three games, it would be difficult. As a man Jon would have dealt with it but it would have been tough.”

While it is not exactly a home from home, the fact Levein has managed Hearts at the rugby ground before means that he at least knows what to expect. That wasn’t the overriding reason for his appointment but it did count as another ‘tick’ according to chairwoman Budge, who, despite the difficulties, has refused to downgrade her objectives for the season.

“We know it’s tough, and we know it’s slightly tougher than it was when we set our plans but we need to see progress. Obviously, we still want to finish in the top three or four. We believe that’s where we should be,” said Budge.

“Crucial to that will be, ‘Can we hang on in there until November?’ because we’ve then got a run of nine home games. But if we can do that, then we could almost be back on an even keel again.”

But key to that is finding a way to cling to the coattails of those who will seek to benefit from Hearts’ nomadic start to the campaign.

Already they have had four Premiership games, with one win, one draw and two defeats. It leaves them on four points, already eight behind their next opponents Aberdeen, six behind St Johnstone, who beat them to a European slot last term, and three behind both Rangers and derby rivals Hibernian.

Which has heightened the demand for the team to start picking up points on a regular basis, starting with Aberdeen, in the first Murrayfield match, this week.

“Aberdeen are the benchmark,” said Levein. “I’m a great admirer of Del [Aberdeen boss Derek 
McInnes], I like him, he’s a good guy. He was one of the first ones to text me and say it was good to see me back.”

But, welcome though those sentiments were, Levein doesn’t crave texts. He recognises that getting some early points on the board would be the best way to ease back into the managerial chair and steady things at a club that has been rocked by on and off-field mistakes.

“Hearts need stability. Aberdeen have that. We’ll get there. We’ve spent a lot of money and time building up the academy to try and get into a situation where we can feed three or four players a season into the first-team. That would be a brilliant place to be. That’s the bigger picture.”

In the interim, there has been further transfer activity, with Levein making two additions on the final day of the window. Ross Callachan and Manuel Milinkovic, he hopes, are the two missing pieces of a jigsaw that desperately required more width, pace and drive.

Last season ambitions crumbled but, bit by bit, he hopes to piece everything back together and get the players showing their quality rather than shirking responsibility as the pressure built up and confidence waned.

Levein, as a player and a manager, understands those demands as well as anyone, which is another reason Budge wanted him at the helm.

“I just love this football club. It’s a hard place to play at times when things aren’t going well but it’s a character test. You have to go out there and demand the ball under pressure. As a coach you have to stand there with everything going on – and come up with solutions to problems. I do miss that feeling of excitement and dread, although I don’t know in which order!”