Craig Levein defends Neilson appointment

CRAIG LEVEIN admitted some of his early decisions as Hearts director of football were unfair but defended his emotion-free approach as he stated his desire to restore the club’s status as one of Scotland’s top teams.

New Hearts Director of Football Craig Levein lets the press know about his future plans for the club. Picture: SNS
New Hearts Director of Football Craig Levein lets the press know about his future plans for the club. Picture: SNS

Levein was installed on Monday in a dramatic first day in office for new owner Ann Budge, which saw manager Gary Locke and several players told their contracts would not be renewed.

But the former Scotland boss, who previously spent 18 years at Tynecastle as player and then manager, admitted his appointment and his decision to promote Robbie Neilson as first-team coach had been made a long time ago.

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Former Hearts player Neilson, who returned in August to take charge of the youth academy, will have ultimate responsibility for team selection while Levein explained his role was to implement a strategy to develop young players and coaches.

And he claimed Neilson was better suited to that role than Locke, who could not overturn a 15-point deduction to save Hearts’ Scottish Premiership status, but led them to more points than Hibernian despite transfer bans and a dearth of experienced players.

Speaking at a media conference, Levein said: “Trust me, yesterday was a hugely difficult day. I have got a lot of respect for Gary Locke and a lot of time for him as a person. The last thing I wanted to do was tell Gary Locke there wasn’t a role for him in this new structure. But ultimately that is the fact.”

Levein, who first met Budge when he was asked to endorse the Foundation of Hearts takeover campaign in August, plans to develop a long-term coaching structure that will replace the “never-ending circle of changing managers”.

“The strategy is that we will develop coaches just as well as we develop players,” he said.

“Gary Locke, in my estimations, his strengths are in management. I think his management skills improved enormously last season. And if I was Gary Locke, and I said this to him yesterday, I would be looking to get right back into management.

“The way he handled the media, the way he handled the fans, the way he handled himself, he showed great dignity. And his players played for him as well.

“But in this structure we are putting together, this is about coaching. Robbie Neilson will also be responsible for implementing a coach education programme, which is completely different to what other clubs do.

“The idea is to educate coaches so that, in three years’ time when Robbie Neilson moves on, we don’t have to go out to market place and find a manager who takes time to settle in and doesn’t understand how the system works.

“Robbie is in because he has particular strengths. Robbie is very strong in coaching.”

Levein added: “I haven’t just plucked Robbie out the air, it has taken a long time to decide that he is the man who can do exactly what we are looking for.

“The decision in my mind was made a while ago but Robbie Neilson found out yesterday.

“It is unfair to Gary. He has had a terribly difficult job to do. But this couldn’t be an emotional decision. It had to be a practical decision.

“If it’s going to become a popularity or a personality contest between myself and Gary, I would even vote for Gary. This is about what I believe and the directors believe is right for the football club.”

Locke was joined out the exit door by assistant Billy Brown and goalkeeping coach Alan Combe, along with Ryan Stevenson, Jamie Hamill, Mark Ridgers, Dylan McGowan, Callum Tapping and Jamie MacDonald, who was the club’s player of the year for two years running.

Stevenson, Hamill and MacDonald accepted a wage cut when the club went into administration last June and many fans feel their loyalty should have been rewarded.

Levein said: “It’s not fair. Again it’s not an emotional decision. It’s a decision based upon, can we improve on the players we have let go? The belief is that we can, and like everything else, the proof will be in time, won’t it?

“I’ve got huge admiration for what Jamie did and I understand how some people will question the decision. But these decisions aren’t made without great thought.

“Our aim is to provide Hearts supporters with what they deserve - a top-three team in Scotland.”

Neilson revealed a goalkeeper and centre-half were on his shopping list along with midfielders and attackers, although the club is still under a transfer embargo.

Neilson added: “At the start of the season we will be stronger. We have people that we are targeting now and I believe they can take us in the right direction.”

Budge has put up £2.5million to save the club but she will eventually be repaid by fans through the Foundation of Hearts.

Responding to criticism that her start was somewhat ruthless, she said: “We don’t have a lot of time, quite frankly. We are now sitting in May and the players are all going off on holiday.

“We have been expecting the transaction to go through for months. It has gone on and on and on and we just don’t have any time to play with. We have got to start making changes now.”