The curiosities yesterday were supposed to be provided by the Murrayfield setting and the presence of Craig Levein in the Hearts technical area. As intriguing as both proved, the most curious aspect of all was that an engrossing encounter between the Tynecastle club and an Aberdeen side looking to regain Premiership top spot somehow finished goalless.
The Pittodrie side’s keeper Joe Lewis had everything to do with that. He had the proverbial string of saves, which often covers stops that a man in his position would be expected to make. However, on three occasions, he seemed to develop elastic limbs to produce blocks that were of the premium how-did-he-get-a-hand-to-that level.
It all seemed too much for Levein in his first game as a manager since his Scotland side lost a World Cup qualifier in Belgium back in October 2012; his first game in charge of Hearts for 13 years, and the Gorgie club’s first experience of decanting to the Home of Rugby in 10 years. There was a lot to digest in these elements. Plenty to reflect on too from the fact that his Hearts side overcame a first half hour when they struggled to come up for air against a driving Dons side to dominate their opponents completely. Across that hour, Hearts looked every inch a team good enough to be in the mix for next-best to Celtic in the top flight.
Another curiosity, then, was engendered by the fact that when sitting down in the press room for his post-match media conference, Levein sported the haunted look of a man who had just buried his faithful old mutt. The Hearts director of football as much as admitted he was still coming to terms with the emotionally draining aspects of stewarding a football club again.
“Not as clear-headed as I wanted to be but that’s just because of everything,” Levein offered, when asked how it was to be conducting operations from the touchline again. “But another two or three games and a bit more training and I’ll be feeling more like it. It’s a little bit like a player getting back into it, and I felt that way in training as well. My bad knee is playing up as well.”
Setting his team up in a 3-6-1 formation, he handed a debut to recent recruit Ross Callachan while giving a first appearance to goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin, brought in over the summer. After the home team’s general shakiness, both played important roles in giving an impetus to Hearts’ efforts in front of a 24,248 crowd – 7,000 of them Aberdeen supporters – with an appearance from the bench for another new player Manuel David Milinkovic.
“Jon was calm and did what he had to do. Made some good decisions and took up some good starting positions,” said Levein. “David gave us a little bit different and Ross Callachan played like a lifelong Hearts supporter getting his debut. He was fantastic.”
The angst felt by the Hearts manager at failing to post a first game win, clouded the sense of encouragement he could derive from a commendable display that would have been all the better had the crossbar not come to Aberdeen’s rescue when Esmael Goncalves got the better of the seemingly-unbeatable Lewis on the hour mark.
“There was a lot of good stuff today and the guys who worked really well all week in training have taken that performance in the training ground on to the pitch,” he said.
“I want to get a chance to have a look at it and when I sort through everything that is going on in my head I won’t be as disappointed as I am now.”
There was only a sense of satisfaction over the performance of Jamie Walker, after the window closed without the expected move to Rangers going through.
“He’s been in a difficult situation and he’s a young lad who is a football player at the end of the day and he wants to play football,” said Levein. “He trained brilliantly this week, his numbers were really good. I can only give everybody the same opportunity, and he’s had the same opportunity as everyone else to impress this week, and he’s been fantastic. He did himself proud out there on the field and as you saw from the reaction of the Hearts supporters when he came off, they were fully appreciative of the efforts he put in. I think that could go for every single one of them.”