Craig Levein: Hearts’ signing policy risky but paying off

Hearts players met 12-year-old Denver Caven, centre, during their visit to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
Hearts players met 12-year-old Denver Caven, centre, during their visit to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
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Recruiting players who can cope with the demands of playing at Hearts is not always easy, with the club admitting to one or two disappointing signings but insisting that the good outweigh the bad.

Addressing more than 400 shareholders at the club’s AGM yesterday, director of football Craig Levein responded to criticisms of certain acquisitions, including Juwon Oshaniwa and the latest target for the Tynecastle boo boys, Conor Sammon, saying that the signing policy was risky but simple – to get the best value for money possible and hopefully unearth unpolished gems.

Saying it was inappropriate to talk about individual players and insisting no player in their price range comes with a guarantee, he said: “Fans can pick the players they like and the players they don’t, but every one signed is done so in a bid to make the team stronger.

“There are a number of ways of recruiting and most of them are very expensive, involving feet on the ground in Europe. Even then a lot of teams don’t get it right. The model we have is risky – I agree with that – but we will take some disappointments along the way and hopefully the ones that work make up for the ones that don’t.

“We made a conscious decision to take some risks and try to get players we thought were probably better than we could afford – and in some cases it has worked extremely well. But it is difficult to say for absolutely sure. You can do as many checks as you like, and look at their character, but when the pressure is on, maybe they can’t handle it. It is very difficult to know that unless they are here and actually playing.”

Detailing three types of players he said were part of the club’s long-term strategy, Levein, who once again had to assure the shareholders that he did not interfere in the picking of the team and was simply there as a sounding board and mentor for the head coach, said there was a need for solid, hard-working professionals, a good influx of graduates from the academy and a sprinkling of special players.

The youth system is key to that, freeing up the cash needed to finance big buys, but Liam Smith, who is one of the current squad to have progressed through the youth ranks, says there are other advantages to promoting from within.

The 20-year-old full-back, who has been earmarked as the natural successor to Callum Paterson, was with his team-mates at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children yesterday, handing out gifts to patients. But, on Saturday, the players had been booed off the pitch following their 1-1 draw with Partick Thistle by supporters infuriated at their inability to beat their bottom-of- the-table opponents.

“You try to block it out but when there are 17,000 people then you hear everything that is going on around about you,” said Smith. “In fairness, they had a right to be annoyed with that second-half performance but it is up to us to handle it in a way where we can push forward and then turn the atmosphere around so that it is for us rather than against us.”

But he admitted that it is hard to prepare new arrivals for the lofty expectations and the wrath of a hostile Tynecastle crowd.

“You don’t get anything like it at many places in Scotland. Obviously, we have one of the top attendances in the country and when that happens, it’s not something you prepare for but you get experience and learn to deal with the pressure.”

Coming through the ranks, like Paterson, Jack Hamilton, Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson, Smith says they were possibly better prepared for the atmosphere than some of their experienced colleagues, who were less educated on the expectancy levels at the club.

“I think it is part of the club’s philosophy that they want to produce kids who have come through the youth academy and that has been done over the past few years, myself being one of them, and I think all the boys are there at the games, seeing it and getting a feel for the atmosphere,” he said. “If you can prepare like that before you come into the first team then it can only stand you in good stead.”

For those who haven’t adapted or failed to make the grade, Levein told the shareholders to expect comings and goings during the January transfer window. There is money in the budget for new manager Ian Cathro to bring in his own players but more could be freed up by moving others out.

“As for moving players on, it’s a game of ‘who blinks first’,” said Levein. “If you give someone a contract then discover six months later that the manager doesn’t fancy them, then they will sit tight and essentially, you are writing off a chunk of money. We try not to do that, and to get them to get a move of their own accord or ask their agent to get something.

“The nature of football is that we don’t have a level of budget that we can guarantee they will all be successes. What we are hoping is that we will get more right than wrong. In this period, as we wait for our own young players coming through, we will continue to take risks and get some right and get some wrong.”