GARY MCALLISTER has hailed the quiet revolution at Hearts under someone he remembers as “strong-minded”.
McAllister first got to know Craig Levein when they were Scotland team-mates and he was struck by someone who was always willing to accept responsibility, even as a young player.
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Although McAllister affectionately recalled Levein as “certainly having an opinion”, the Hearts director of football has been conspicuous by his low profile since returning to Tynecastle in the summer.
Even McAllister, in his role as BT Sport’s Scottish football expert, has been unable to convince Levein to face the cameras. Rather he has preferred to let his team, and head coach Robbie Neilson, do the talking.
A few loose words emerged from Tynecastle this week ahead of tonight’s clash between Rangers and Hearts, who are already 13 points clear of the second-placed Ibrox side. New striker Género Zeefuik voiced an opinion that, if Hearts can secure a win, they will have sewn up the title in mid-January.
“I can understand it, it’s positive talk from the new signing,” reasoned McAllister yesterday. “If they [Rangers] are going to catch them, then they have to win, don’t they?”
Unsurprisingly, Levein has not been so quick to make such grand claims. Indeed, he has made few public noises at all.
McAllister added: “We have been around Tynecastle on a few occasions this season for the big games and he has very much allowed Robbie [Neilson] to get on with things. He has not tried to nick the limelight. He is very much in the background.
“It must be comforting for a young coach to have someone like him.
“In other countries it has not really worked, has it?” said McAllister, of the director of football/head coach dynamic. “It’s not been accepted. It hasn’t worked at Tottenham, even Liverpool. But it is certainly working at Hearts. It must be reassuring for Robbie – if any little thing is on his mind, he knows he can go to someone who has managed right through different leagues and also internationally.
“I have spoken to Craig, but away from the cameras. He is delighted with the progress, delighted with the youngsters who are attracting attention.”
McAllister is very impressed with Hearts’ unbeaten league run, which they are looking to stretch to 21 games this evening.
Even a very good Leeds United side in which McAllister played, lost four games en route to winning the English league title in 1992.
“Every day becomes a pleasure,” said McAllister, when recalling his experience of such good runs. “People are in early, people are late leaving the training ground. The team picks itself – barring injuries.
“It’s a manager’s dream. Everyone is confident. Everyone is looking for the ball.
“The run is fantastic,” he added. “You keep thinking they are going to have a little downturn, or a bad patch. Buy maybe their bad patch was a couple of 1-0 and 2-0 wins amid 4-0 and 5-0s. It’s astonishing.
“We lost only four games in the season we won the league at Leeds. There were tranches of good results. But nothing like this. To go unbeaten for this length is very rare.
“You are looking at the great Nottingham Forest side and the great Arsenal one, who kept it going. Hearts are in a lower division but at whatever level it is an amazing achievement.”
No-one, according to McAllister, could have predicted quite how easily Hearts have been able to draw away from the chasing pack, but he agrees to some extent with Rangers player Fraser Aird’s assessment that the Ibrox side have the better players.
“Looking through the list they have slightly more Premier League experience,” he said. “But Hearts have Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben, who have been pivotal signings. They have been instrumental at this level. I don’t think anyone would have forecast the struggle for Kris Boyd to get goals. I thought he would have coped in this league but the Boyd-Miller partnership has not really clicked.”
In normal circumstances, a full house would be guaranteed for tonight’s top-of-thetable clash. While Hearts have sold out their allocation, it remains to be seen how many Rangers fans turn up following a call from the Union of Fans supporters’ group to boycott the fixture following further revelations about Mike Ashley’s dealings with the club.
McAllister can still barely believe what is happening at Rangers, who formed the opposition in a memorable Champions League qualifier when he was at Leeds 23 years ago.
“It is a bit like what’s happened at Leeds, although it’s not necessarily empty seats that are the problem at Elland Road because they still get great crowds,” he said. “But they [Leeds] are languishing towards the relegation zone in the Championship. You want to see the big clubs up there where they belong. They are special. They are unique. They are good for the game. But no one has a right to be there. You have to earn it.”
• BT Sport has live coverage of four SPFL games before the end of January, including Rangers v Hearts live tonight on BT Sport 1 from 7:30pm. Visit btsport.com for more information.
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