Craig Levein's instant impact as Hearts rise to occasion
The fact the 17,000 home supporters in a 24,248 crowd – who, with the help of 7,000 noisy Aberdeen fans, provided a good spectator spread in the cavernous surrounds of the 67,000-capacity rugby arena – were generous with their applause at full-time told its own story.
Hearts may now only have one win from five Premiership games. Equally, two more lodgings at their makeshift home of Murrayfield notwithstanding, they still have a full two months of league fixtures away from Tynecastle before going back to their own place and its swanky new main stand.
Yet, in outplaying an Aberdeen side that came to Edinburgh with a 100 per cent record during a second half in which goalkeeper Joe Lewis’s brilliance was all that kept them at bay, there was a powerful sense that the Levein influence was already having a regenerative effect. And that, if nothing else, from deposed predecessor Ian Cathro he has inherited a group of players that can make Hearts a team involved in the hunt for European places.
The switch to a three-man central defence was just one tweak that meant a smart use of the available resources. Aaron Hughes, Christophe Berra and John Souttar aren’t the quickest. A weakness that can be masked if you don’t play them in a flat back four.
Hughes, indeed, made his first league appearance since having a torrid time of it in the 4-1 opening day defeat by Celtic a month earlier. The Northern Irishman cut a far more assured figure at Murrayfield, and afterwards spoke of the “subtle differences” that Levein had made, the “little things here and there” in the two days the whole squad had trained together following the international break.
Indeed, the fact that the Hearts manager could cut such a downbeat figure after being the first team to halt what had seemed an Aberdeen juggernaut was certainly a break with the Cathro way of often attempting to apply lipstick to a pig.
There were technical considerations Hughes cited as having been given greater emphasis by Levein. “Getting that feeling of being hard to beat, making sure that at all times – from a defender’s point of view – when we’re attacking we need to be on the front foot and make that first contact so it keeps us on the front foot and stops them from counter-attacking,” was how he explained the change.
More than that, Hughes acknowledged a psychological shift within the Hearts dressing room through being led by a man who is a successful, battle-hardened manager with a temper that smoulders and sometimes blazes.
“Just his presence around the place [has been obvious],” said the defender. “He hasn’t come in and screamed and shouted and pulled the roof down. He has just come in and been very clear and concise and to the point. It’s only been a couple of days but that’s how it has been so far.
“He definitely has a presence with his experience and what he has done. But I think with him being around the club anyway and seeing him day to day, it’s just he is more hands on now than he was before. So far so good.” It is only one game, Hughes stressed. A decent start for Levein, nevertheless, though the 37-year-old centre-back didn’t much care for the suggestion a third clean sheet in five games belied the struggles of his club this season.
“There has never been a sense of us struggling, certainly not within the group, added Hughes. “We have set a standard now we have to hit every week. There’s no point doing that in a one-off game and not doing it again for another five games.
“I think that’s the most important thing for us, to take all the positives from that. There are still little things I am sure we can get better at but with the amount of positives that came out of that game, if we take those forward, it will hopefully be a good season for us.”
The same applies to Aberdeen, even as they suffered a first blemish to their Premiership record to drop behind Celtic on goal difference. The fact Lewis produced one of those performances more akin to a Victor comic, where the man with the gloves has some sort of ‘cat’ moniker, was chief among the reasons to be satisfied with the point earned. Not least when you consider that Aberdeen lost ten league games last year. That sort of form from Lewis could spare them a few defeats along the way this campaign, as club captain Graeme Shinnie would readily accept in rating him “one of the best” keepers in the country.
“We had Danny Ward the year that I came in who was brilliant and it was disappointing when we lost him,” said Shinnie.
“As soon as Joe came in it was like back to normality with a goalkeeper there [we could rely on] .
“Since he came to the club he has been brilliant, the way he conducts himself off the pitch, on the pitch, in training, in amongst it at the stadium, he is a great lad and one of the best. I think, by the way, the fact that the fans have taken to him as well definitely shows what he’s been about.
“It was a game of two halves. We didn’t play well second but still got a point and Joe pulled off some brilliant saves.”