CRAIG Levein remains a strong favourite to be manager of Hearts next season, but a couple of obvious, very big steps still need to be taken before he is reinstalled in the post he left for Leicester in late 2004.
First, he has yet to be offered the job. And second, he has yet to accept. As things stand, neither step will be taken any time soon.
With every passing week, the need for new input at Hearts becomes more obvious and more urgent. On the pitch, a demoralised team is set to be relegated within a handful of games. In the boardroom, administrators BDO have only enough money left to keep the business going for a couple of months.
If and when prospective owner Ann Budge takes control with the backing of the Foundation of Hearts, the cashflow problem can be addressed almost immediately, and a start can be made just as quickly on revamping the football division at Tynecastle. But the precise timing of that is outwith the control of anyone in Scotland, and will instead be determined by a Lithuanian court ruling about a creditors’ meeting of Hearts’ former parent company Ubig.
It is now legally impossible for Hearts to come out of administration this month. That court must accept as valid a list of creditors presented to it by Ubig, who then have to give 30 days’ notice of a creditors’ meeting at which the proposed sale of the company’s shares in Hearts can be voted on.
In a few years, we may well look back on Hearts’ problems in 2014 and feel that it was always just a matter of when, not if, they were sorted out. The club should be back in the Premiership by then. The finances should be on a stable footing and the supporters, through the Foundation, should be the collective owners.
But right now, given that the initial prognosis was for Hearts to come out of administration around the turn of the year, there is mounting concern about the time that Levein or any other manager – including the incumbent Gary Locke – will have to plan for next season. And, clearly, the tighter the timing, the harder it will be start well in the Championship. Budge’s attitude, understandably, is that, until she takes control at Tynecastle, she cannot start making decisions. She may formulate a plan of action, but the more precise that plan is, the more it risks being overtaken by events. And any provisional plan will not be made public until her title of executive chairwoman “designate” is cut from three words to two.
If there are still a couple of months to go before she becomes the owner, for example, someone who is her favoured candidate now may well give up waiting. That goes for Locke as well. The more probable it becomes that he is not to be offered a new contract when his current deal expires in three months, the greater the urge for him to seek job security elsewhere.
Further, the present plight of the club only highlights the need to make the right appointment. It will be Budge’s first public decision in her post, and it may well define her time in charge. With stability being the key, she will aim to appoint a manager who can both oversee the regeneration of the first-team squad and play a positive part in the financial life of the club.
This, above all, is where Levein’s status as favourite is obvious. Not just an experienced manager with a track record for improving players and operating within a modest budget, he also understands the business of football, from individual contracts to the overall position of a club within the wider market.
At Dundee United his role expanded from manager to director of football, and he was also made a director of the club. If appointed at Hearts, he would have a similarly wide-ranging role. On and off the field, Levein thinks more strategically, and more intelligently, than the vast majority of his peer group in this country.
Locke has qualities that Levein lacks. In this most difficult of seasons for a Hearts manager, he has conducted himself in public with unfailing good humour and humility, not to mention the selfless loyalty he has shown to the club. But loyalty, though prized, is not always rewarded. And, more significantly, a very different situation next season, presuming Budge’s takeover is completed, will call for very different qualities.
Budge’s social links with Levein have been overstated. They have spoken rarely, and he is not her football consultant, paid or unpaid.
Even so, it appears she has correctly identified him as the best person to head the football division under her leadership of Hearts. Indeed, Levein is not just the best person, he is probably the only person who combines his range of skills with the familiarity with the club that would enable him to hit the ground running should he be offered the job and choose to accept it.
Size of Butcher’s task is growing by the game
WHEN Terry Butcher took over as Hibernian manager in November, there were two opposing schools of thought. One was that the appointment, like so many others at Easter Road, would end in tears. That there is a deep-rooted malaise at Hibs which no manager can eradicate, one that would do for Butcher as it had done for Pat Fenlon, Colin Calderwood, John Hughes and others.
The other was that, this time, there would be a difference, and that Butcher and his assistant Maurice Malpas would transform the fortunes of a club which has underachieved for too long. Even if chairman Rod Petrie was part of the problem, as many insisted, this time it was clearly in his interests for everything to work out. Asked to assess the new manager’s chances of success, this reporter plumped for 90 per cent. As good as guaranteed.
Less than four months on, it is hard to be anything like as confident. It should remain obvious that Butcher and Malpas are more able than their predecessors, and Petrie is every bit as eager for them to succeed as he was when he made the appointment. But the size of the task faced by the management team is ominously large, and looks greater by the game. The 3-1 defeat by Dundee United on Friday night provided overwhelming evidence of that. Let’s take nothing away from Jackie McNamara’s team, who were terrific to watch and could easily have scored a few more. But Hibs were awful.
Sam Stanton did his best to take the game to United, and Tom Taiwo, sent off 20 minutes from time, was singled out for praise by his manager. But their team-mates were shambolic – above all, and most worryingly for Butcher, in defence.
At Inverness and Motherwell, the former England captain’s teams were invariably well organised and tough to break down. They were competitive, they kept their shape, and they rarely knew when they were beaten – qualities which are conspicuous by their absence from the present Hibs side.
Butcher has always expected the transformation of his new club to take some time, and he has given most of his squad ample opportunity to prove that there should be a place for them in his plans for the next few seasons. It is hard to think of more than a couple who have taken that opportunity. The rest will have no grounds for complaint if they are told over the coming weeks that there is no place for them at the club.