Director of football Craig Levein, who spoke to the media yesterday, was unwilling to discuss individuals or confirm that a formal approach would be made to Newcastle United in the hope of luring their assistant coach Ian Cathro, below, back over the Border. But he did say that he was hopeful of having the new man in place ahead of next weekend’s trip to Ibrox.
He also insisted that while it was vital he and the head coach have a solid working relationship, the new man, like his predecessor, would have full autonomy in first-team matters.
“I had a fantastic relationship with Robbie. It was easy,” said Levein of the man who was formally confirmed as the new manager of MK Dons yesterday. “He was in charge of everything to do with the first team, I was looking after everything else. Sometimes he’d come to me and ask advice and sometimes he’d ignore it and sometimes he’d do something I suggested. The perception of this role is skewed. I’m here to help, not to tell people what to do.
“I just think that people don’t understand that and then, of course, some people don’t like me so they continue to say the same stuff even though it doesn’t make sense. The role was always to assist the head coach. If I’d been telling Robbie what to do, never is there a point when you find out how good he is. So, the head coach has to make his own decisions. If he doesn’t, I would be as well doing the job myself. But the academy has grown at such an enormously quick rate and there is so much stuff going on that needs attention.”
For now his focus is firmly fixed on finding the right man to reprise Neilson’s role and build on the good work done at the club over the past couple of seasons. Leaving coaches Jon Daly and Andy Kirk to handle team matters for this afternoon’s trip to Dingwall left him time to try to land the right successor.
“I told the players this morning that I’m doing my best to get the right person as quickly as possible,” Levein added. “It’ll be two people because Stevie [Crawford] has gone. The same as with Robbie and Stevie, [the incoming coach] will have the option to pick their own assistant. That role is about filling the jobs the head coach doesn’t want/doesn’t have the skill-set for. He needs to pick his own right-hand man so there’s harmony.”
There has been a slew of applications, he said, indicating just how attractive the job is. Neilson left the post with the club sitting in second, and a dressing room full of players receiving international recognition and attracting the attention of big clubs down south. Levein praised Neilson for the way the club and individuals have progressed throughout his tenure, from Championship to the higher echelons of the top flight, but said there had been little point in trying to convince him to stay, saying the headstrong manager wanted to make it in England and had declared himself ready to spread his wings.
The off-the-field stability is an enticing bonus, as is the sellout crowds and the promise of an increased capacity when the new main stand is completed this summer. But Levein said the club are looking for a very specific candidate, who could fit into the coaching framework established when Ann Budge took control of the Tynecastle club.
The plan had always been to construct a conveyor belt of playing and coaching talent, promoting from within when possible, but he said he did not feel any of the current coaches were ready to step up yet.
“The young coaches we’ve got are really good but the difficulty is getting the experience of the first-team environment,” he said. “I’m not going to put somebody in place who is not ready to step up. It has to be what’s right for the club.”
It does make it vital that the new appointment buys into the club’s philosophy and maintains the equilibrium.
“It won’t be exactly the same as bringing in somebody who’s already here but it’s about finding somebody who is like-minded, intelligent, a good communicator, enthusiastic and hungry for success,” said Levein. “A lot of other things are in place. There is a coach’s job and an assistant coach’s job, and everything else roundabout it is very solid and stable. The roles are clearly defined.”
The new recruit would have the power to make changes to the squad but Levein is hoping to bring in someone who can see the merits of those he inherits, while pinpointing key additions of his own.
“We have a group of players and we have this vision of developing young players so there is no point in me going out and getting a coach who has never worked with young players and who won’t promote young players. It is about getting the right type of person to fit what we are trying to do.”
That person will also need a thick skin, given the propensity amongst certain sections of the support to find negativity where little exists. Those were the fans who used a plane to have a dig at Neilson and who were happy to see one of the club’s most successful managers leave. “See this job, if you don’t have the ability to handle pressure, then it’s the wrong job. Because you get stick,” said Levein. “I say that to players as well. Sometimes players moan when they get booed. I say ‘well go and play at Cowdenbeath – if you want to play with Hearts deal with the situation’. And if you want to manage Hearts you need to deal with the situation.
“You have an element and nowadays that element can be more vocal because there are avenues to express it. But, listen, the biggest indicator of how well Robbie Neilson did was the season ticket sales and the attendances . That t ells you that the vast, vast majority of Hearts supporters were happy with the job he was doing.
“We have had far more experienced guys who were getting a hell of a lot more money who got nowhere near the level of consistency he did.”
That was what earned Neilson his move down south. It is also what has raised expectations and given the new guy a tough act to follow.