CRAIG Levein always had an uneasy feeling that Vladimir Romanov’s Hearts project was not going to end well. He remembers being at the match when the Tynecastle side secured a place in the Champions League qualifiers by finishing runners-up in the Scottish Premier League in 2006.
He saw Romanov at the front of the directors’ box, lapping up the applause and the cheers of the supporters who crammed into the ground against Aberdeen. What struck him was the “euphoria” which was the over-riding emotion on that night. “And rightly so. The amount of money, the amount of quality players that were here, it was exciting to watch,” he said. “It was a dream come true. But the dream slowly turned into a nightmare.”
Levein always suspected that it might. “I felt even then it was unsustainable,” he said. “I didn’t know how much money Mr Romanov had. But, having left and knowing everyone at the club and hearing the salaries that were being paid, I knew it was madness – unless it was a bottomless pit.”
Unfortunately, as we now know, it was far from a bottomless pit. To get from there to here, from the brink of the Champions League to the weekly pleas being issued for supporters to set up direct debit contributions in order to save the club, there has been a lot of trauma.
However, Levein believes that some good can come from the scenario. He contends that if Gary Locke’s inexperienced side can claw back the 15-point deduction and somehow avoid relegation, then not only will it eclipse almost qualifying for the Champions League, but it will also outdo the Levein-era team that came so agonisingly close to collecting a double in 1985-86.
“What I think is encouraging is that they are getting back to what I think Hearts should be about,” he said yesterday, as the former Scotland manager nailed his colours to the mast at a Foundation of Hearts organised event at Tynecastle.
On top of supporter ownership, something he yesterday endorsed, Levein believes the player embargo-hit club can benefit from the current need to play so many youngsters in the team. Although there will undoubtedly come a time when they will struggle to cope with the demands, the inexperienced team, led by an equally inexperienced manager in Locke, have so far excelled, taking seven points from a possible 12 after four league games and reaching the third round of the League Cup following Tuesday’s victory over Raith Rovers on penalties.
“It would be a massive achievement [to avoid relegation],” Levein said. “The thing about the team I was part of is that we still had experienced players in key positions.”
The situation is slightly more desperate now. However, there is a bond between the fans and the players and the management that is growing stronger every day. In some ways, it reminds Levein of when he was breaking into the Hearts team in the early 1980s. Even then, things did not look very stable on the financial front at Tynecastle. Alex MacDonald, who was also still learning the ropes as player-manager, was fortunate in that he had a promising crop of youngsters at the club who he could meld with the more experienced pros, such as himself and his assistant, Sandy Jardine. “I am sitting looking at the club now and what is happening on the field now is something that I felt was happening when I played in 1983, ’84 and ’85. It is more difficult now because some of the young players are being forced into playing when maybe they are not ready. But there is a common purpose. Everyone has to work hard and fight hard because they are up against it. Okay, in my time we didn’t have quite the same pressing financial problems,” he added. “When I joined there was a group of players like myself, John Robertson, Davie Bowman, Gary Mackay, John Colquhoun, Kenny Black and Neil Berry – there were loads of players around the same age with loads of energy and who were allowed to develop as a team over a period of time.
“And there were sometimes 29,000 – 30,000 people in here. I hesitate to suggest perhaps even more were there, because perhaps extra tickets were being printed, I don’t know…”
Wallace Mercer, the then colourful owner, was a shrewd, wily operator, and while he could divide opinion, Levein recalls the strong bond that existed at the club at the time, “between the supporters and the players – and the management of the club, as well as the directors.”
Within time, Levein would be named skipper, and he yesterday praised Danny Wilson’s contribution in this role so far. He backed the defender to recover the ground that Levein feels he lost when joining Liverpool from Rangers at what was a crucial time in his development. Levein says that, before being sacked, he was set to build a Scotland defence around a centre-half pairing of Wilson and Grant Hanley.
“Who can blame him for going down to England?” he asked. “But when you are 19 and 20, you’ve got to be playing first-team football.
“For me, his career has stalled because he hasn’t been playing. Now he is back to playing, I think you will see him kick on. He’ll handle the responsibility of being captain no problem. He is a very sensible and level-headed guy.”
But, more than anything, Levein believes that praise should go to the supporters, who continue to rally around a stricken club. Over 7,000 have signed up to make direct debits to the Foundation of Hearts, with this Monday being the first draw-down date for payments. “I’ve asked a lot of searching questions over the last few months of the Foundation’s team,” he said. “And I am impressed by the answers.
“I was watching how much money the supporters were putting in and just hoping someone would look after them. I am certain I’m backing the right horse here and that these people will run the club properly.”