Craig Levein's Hearts succession plan is now looking flawed

It is said that life is but an endless series of experiments. Some succeed. Some blow up in your face.

Hearts' director of football Craig Levein with Ian Cathro. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

In the wake of Ian Cathro’s sacking, Hearts have been left to clear up the debris, as their successful debut campaign back in the Premiership was allowed to mutate into the disappointment of missing out on a European place last term, and then a stunted League Cup run to herald the start of the new season.

The lists of names have already been reeled out, with bookies and punters all drawing up their file of favourites to replace the man who survived just under eight months in the job. But the best man for the position will be the guy who is willing and best suited, not just to deal with the demands of managing at a club like Hearts, but also the structure and need to work under a director of football, putting the much talked-about succession plan now firmly under the microscope.

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Back in December, when Robbie Neilson messed with the formula and the projected timeline and left the club searching for his replacement, the director of football, Craig Levein, said the desire was to “have some sort of continuity”.

As well as looking for a young, developing coach, the aim, he said, had always been to have a conveyor belt of coaching talent coming through at the club, allowing them to promote from within. But back then he felt the opportunity had come too soon for those already on the books.

“We have three very good young coaches in Jon Daly and Andy Kirk and Liam Fox. I just don’t feel they are ready just now, but I’m sure next time they will be,” he said.

But, just eight months later, are they? Cathro had been on a three-and-a-half-year deal so Levein was obviously not anticipating replacing him this soon and while Daly and Kirk are expected to reprise the interim role they assumed ahead of Cathro’s arrival, with the help of Austin MacPhee, the longer-term solution may not come from within.

Off the field the club continue to move forward with positivity but matters on the field this year have been disrupted by disappointment. All the while, Aberdeen have continued to prosper, Rangers have gained ground, St Johnstone and Partick Thistle made a mockery of their lesser budgets and Hibernian have been promoted. Most of them have tapped into the experience of managers used to the requirements of the Scottish Premiership, while Hearts’ fledgling front man struggled. Which is why it will be interesting to see how Levein responds now.

“Way back when I was discussing with Ann [Budge] what she wanted the club to look like, that was the model – developing players and developing coaches,” he said prior to unveiling the man who ultimately conjured up just eight wins in 30 competitive games. “Robbie was a huge success and it will be a tall order for whoever comes in after him to get up to that level. But I’m confident the clubs is heading in the right direction.”

Few appointments have ever stirred up Scottish football like Cathro’s, though. Most accepted it was a gamble but were happy to see things shaken up a bit and, impressed by a coaching resume that included stints at top clubs abroad and down south, the majority of Hearts supporters deemed it a risk worth taking.

Among the dissenting voices were those who questioned his lack of playing and management history, insisting he lacked the man-management skills and authority needed to hold sway at a top professional club. With those fears being borne out, there are concerns that the club may not have learned any lessons.

The fans want someone with experience and, according to insiders, the board may have added that to their wish list as well, but the question is how experienced is experienced enough and will anyone who has that insight and longevity in the game be willing to work under a director of football? A role still eyed suspiciously by many in a country where it remains relatively uncommon, finding someone experienced and happy to work within such a set-up may not be so easy, something Levein alluded to when he spoke in December.

Reaffirming the club’s desire to stick with youth, he explained the thinking behind it, “How to put this? The salary is not astronomical and, just like signing players, sometimes you need to see potential in people and develop them with room to improve. A lot of experienced managers can be set in their ways and have expectation levels of salary and suchlike. Some of the really serious ones, if we were to go after them, we wouldn’t be able to afford them. It is about finding someone who is value for money, who maybe doesn’t have the ceilings in their thought processes that everyone else in Scotland has.”

There was no limit to Cathro’s ambitions and right up to the end, he remained steadfast in his affirmation that he would eventually deliver but time is a luxury few are treated to in football management. Which is why Levein and the rest of the Hearts board are under such pressure to make sure the next experiment pays off. Regardless the run of away games lined up ahead of them, the fixtures in Kilmarnock and Motherwell will be viewed as ones they should be winning while the early tussles with Rangers and Aberdeen will set the tone in the battle for European places. Which is why they need to quickly find someone they know can deliver rather than gamble on someone they simply believe is capable.

If that means binning the experimental recruitment of young potential and taking time to guide them through the pitfalls of managing a club like Hearts, then they may need to accept that. Mistakes have been made, and, with patience limits drained, now is not the time to ask fans to countenance more.