Craig Levein needed persuasion to dust down his Hearts tracksuit

Have you seen those new skinny tracksuits they wear now?!' Craig Levein's answer from last year when asked if he might consider a return to the dugout was designed to shut the debate down once and for all.

Craig Levein's model of promoting and guiding young coaches has now been ripped up. Picture: SNS.
Craig Levein's model of promoting and guiding young coaches has now been ripped up. Picture: SNS.

No, he wasn’t interested in returning. Time, as well as experience, had taken its toll. The evidence, he was suggesting, was plain to see. The model of a football manager, indeed head coach, had moved on and into something a little more slim fit in style.

Remarkably, it is now nine years since a trimmer Levein left Dundee United for a bruising spell with Scotland.

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The Tannadice job remained his last in club management until a statement by Hearts chairwoman Ann Budge yesterday confirmed fierce speculation: Levein had agreed to take on the role of “first-team manager”. He was returning to the frontline. He was going back to the future – even the job title seems a little retro.

Levein knows he will face fierce scrutiny for more than just his dress sense, whatever he decides to wear on the touchline.

His first match in a second spell in charge will be a clash with Aberdeen a week on Saturday at BT Murrayfield. He is at least familiar with such a task. In his first spell he was tasked with handling the flit to the rugby stadium for European games due to Tynecastle being considered inadequate for such fixtures at the time. He earned Hearts a 3-1 win over Braga there before moving to Leicester City several weeks later, following a midweek draw at Dundee United.

Thirteen years on he is back. Leicester have been relegated to the third tier and won the Premier League title in the meantime. Levein’s own adventures have been up and down as well.

The phrasing of Budge’s statement is revealing. Levein, at the request of the board, had “agreed” to take the role. It’s clear it was not something he was initially keen to do – in fact it is understood Levein was first asked to seriously consider taking over first-team affairs at the start of last week.

But Levein wanted to give interim head coach Jon Daly one more game to try to clinch the win against Motherwell that might have meant the Irishman’s own claim for the permanent post was too convincing to ignore.

But two goals in four minutes at the end of the first half could have altered the course of Hearts history.

Levein seemed to relish the role of bespectacled, serious tactician. He was the man with a plan, overseeing his young coaches from his Riccarton eyrie. But this structure has been ripped up for now. He has been forced into the role of fire-fighter, a reluctant would-be saviour.

Rest assured, Levein wanted to unveil someone else trusted to implement his vision in the Gorgie Suite today; Steve McClaren, perhaps, or Dougie Freedman. Since being included on the Hearts short-list of candidates to replace Ian Cathro both have taken up other posts; at Maccabi Tel Aviv and Crystal Palace respectively.

Steven Pressley, Paul Hartley and Billy Davies, other names linked to the Tynecastle club, might – or might not – be to whom Budge was referring when describing the “first-class” interviewees. For whatever reason – offers of alternative employment elsewhere, a baffling need to torpedo their own chances in the case of the pugnacious Davies – they have been rendered unsuitable or unavailable.

At 52, it is not as if Levein is over the hill. He is seven years younger than Peter Houston, his one-time assistant at Hearts and Dundee United. Tommy Wright is four years older. Levein should be in his prime as a manager.

Of course, he will never win a popularity contest. Even at Hearts, where he was a revered player and then a successful young manager the judgment often seems surprisingly cool.

But if he can replicate the success of this first spell – twice finishing fifth, then successive third-place finishes, as well as qualification for the Uefa Cup group stage – then his re-appointment will have been justified. The fears of the Hearts fans not in favour will have been quashed.

But how Hearts have got to the point where they are appointing someone who has so publicly stated he did not want to return to the dugout is bordering on shambolic.

It is the first time Levein has occupied the role of “manager” at Hearts – he was “head coach” last time, one of then chairman Chris Robinson’s conceits. But it is not the first time he has performed the twin duties of director of football and manager, as he will do so at Hearts. Levein was handed such a dual role at Dundee United by chairman Eddie Thompson. Little fuss was made of it then.

In few other places is there such scrutiny over job titles than at Hearts. When Cathro was appointed “head coach” late last year Levein retained his title of director of football, a lord of all he surveyed. He seemed satisfied by what he saw from his vantage point at the back of the room as Cathro and Austin MacPhee were introduced by Budge at a fascinating, well-attended press conference in December.

Levein relished the task of supporting these young coaches through the next stage of their development. The framework was now in place to support his vision of promoting from within. All seemed progressive and pleasing in the Court of Gorgie.

But no matter how well-intentioned these plans were they could not survive the ill wind of poor results.

Budge notes in her statement yesterday that now is the time to call on experience. In retrospect, so was nine months ago when, just weeks before the wrecking ball was due to swing towards the old main stand, the club chose to compound the upheaval by gambling on a young, inexperienced head coach.

Cathro’s task was thankless in the extreme: he needed to hit the ground running in mid-season.

The then 30-year-old had the added difficulty of replacing Robbie Neilson, who’d just led Hearts to a memorable 2-0 win over Rangers and into second place.

Levein will be asked to reflect upon this appointment when he steps back in front of reporters and photographers at lunchtime today. Another fascinating angle is the requirement for Levein to conduct regular press conferences again – something he’s avoided since his days with Scotland.

It’s not an obligation Levein will relish. Since returning to Hearts as director of football three years ago he has, on the whole, restricted himself to end-of-season reviews.

At the last one he said he was “excited about the possibilities”. He laughed off the notion Cathro was under pressure. But things change quickly; circumstances have placed Levein back in the hot seat, charged with picking the team – as Budge wryly notes. At least Hearts have no need to keep on denying it now.