Recalling the day Ann Budge sacked him as Hearts manager, Craig Levein revealed he does not blame the club owner and understands why she felt the need for change at Tynecastle Park.
Hearts had slipped to bottom of the Premiership when Budge called Levein into her office on Halloween last year. The night before, his team had suffered their latest horror show in a 1-0 defeat by St Johnstone.
They had won just one of their first 11 league matches and supporters were vociferously demanding the removal of a man who held both manager and director of football titles.
“The results weren’t good enough. I don’t make any claims that they were,” Levein told BBC Scotland. “But I do believe the unprecedented run of injury problems was the problem.
“I believe that, if I’d still been in charge and we got some of these key players back on the field, things would have kicked on again.
“I’m not sitting here blaming Ann or the board. It’s just human nature. In the last game at St Johnstone we didn’t play very well and lost the match. We had the [Betfred Cup] semi-final coming up against Rangers at Hampden.
“The day after the St Johnstone game, Ann called me into the office and just said, ‘look, I think time’s up’. I wasn't going to argue with her. I could understand the decision. I didn’t agree with it, but I could understand it.
“I had enough faith in my ability that once we got Steven Naismith, Peter Haring, John Souttar and Uche [Ikpeazu] back on the field, we would have a good chance of catching the teams above us.”
Levein was criticised for not severing ties with Hearts altogether at that stage. Bizarrely, he stayed on in an advisory role and even played a part in the recruitment of his successor, Daniel Stendel.
“Ann asked me to stay on. I had a lot of things to do as director of football which were getting stacked up to one side. Ann asked if I would stay on and do some of those things,” explained Levein.
“There wasn’t any confusion at all because I restricted my time at the training ground to afternoons and evenings.
“I wasn’t there when Daniel was coaching or when the players were milling about on the training ground. There wasn’t any chance of any conflict there.”
Assistant coach Austin MacPhee took temporary charge of the Hearts first team while Budge sought Levein’s permanent successor. She asked the former Scotland manager for his opinion on Stendel.
“Ann did phone and asked me what I thought,” explained Levein. “She said she was looking for somebody different so I made a few phonecalls. I got some good reports back about the start of his tenure at Barnsley and I just relayed that back to Ann.”
Hearts’ results did not improve under the German and, with many key players still injured, Levein felt the lack of on-field experience he identified whilst in charge would also hinder Stendel.
“The problem was that the team still weren’t winning. Players don’t like to accept responsibility. That’s a fact. They will always look for an excuse, where it was my fault or the new coach’s fault,” said Levein.
“Very rarely do they say: ‘This is my responsibility. We need to dig ourselves out of this.’ I felt there wasn’t enough character in the team to do that, and a lot of that was to do with the players who weren’t involved.
“I don’t feel the players I was relying on let me down, I just don’t think they were capable of handling the pressure. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s part of a team.
“You can’t have 11 players in a team who are experienced internationalists who can handle anything thrown at them. We had a wage cap.
“I like to try and introduce younger players into a team when there is a solid foundation around them. It was great that young Aaron Hickey came into the side when it was struggling and actually managed to play as well as anybody, or better than most.
“That’s a credit to him. He did have that character, strength of will and determination, that allowed him to play well when the pressure was on. Again, part of that might have been that it was all new to him and fresh.”
Criticism from some supporters became personal towards Levein during the final weeks of his time in the dugout, although he insisted he was not fazed.
“I was the Scotland manager and at that time, not only was a getting criticism, but I wasn’t actually enjoying myself. The stuff at Hearts doesn’t bother me. I get criticism, you have to be able to take that on the chin,” he said.
“After doing the Scotland job and feeling helpless in that role, because it’s completely different to managing a club, then I can handle just about anything.
“I feel desperately sorry for the Hearts supporters that we are in the position we are in, but I know I did everything I could to try and make the team as successful as possible.”
He added that it is only natural for fans to turn on a manager when results are not up to the standard expected of their club.
“Hearts are a team expected to be in the top four so I have no problem with people inside the stadium voicing their anger. A lot of people use football as a release from the pressures of their day-to-day life or work.
“They come along and they get annoyed if the team is not playing well. That’s what football is about. I’m not going to complain about anything any Hearts supporter has said to me.
“I’ve had hundreds of goodwill messages from Hearts supporters as well. I’m extremely disappointed at the way things worked out in the end, but I look back over the five or six years at Hearts this time and feel I couldn’t have worked any harder.
“I feel extremely proud about the way the club is set up, the youth structure and the amount of good players we have in the system who will help Hearts going forward. It’s that overriding feeling of disappointment that I couldn’t get the club into the position I wanted to get it before I left.”
Levein signed 31 players in total during his two-year spell as Hearts manager. He oversaw the arrival of more than 80 in six years since being appointed director of football by Budge in 2014.
He assembled a huge squad but left Hearts in a relegation fight which they were not able to battle out of before coronavirus forced football into shutdown. They then suffered enforced relegation when the 2019/20 campaign was ended prematurely via a controversial vote by clubs.
Asked where it went wrong last season, Levein pinpointed injuries to key players as the critical factor.
“At the start of the season, everybody said it was the best squad Hearts had had for a long time,” he said. “There is a feeling within a team that, when things are going well, everything seems very easy.
“When things are going against you, it just seems like a complete struggle. Once it starts rolling and things are going well, then things come very easily. But the opposite can happen and that’s what happened.
“Last summer, we extended the contracts of five players. Four of them were injured for the vast majority of the season. They were important players.
“There are people within teams who can carry a load. There are others who are good team-mates but they tend to be what I call ‘the sheep’. They follow.
“You need your key players to be playing and on form, then they make other players look very good. We had a situation where a lot of the time the pressure was falling on the shoulders of players who didn’t have that experience or character at that minute in time to be able to deal with the pressure.
“Playing for Hearts is a high-pressure job. Sometimes players don’t understand that.
“When results start going against you and the fans obviously get anxious, that does transmit itself onto the field. Some players deal with that pressure better than others.
“We got to a stage that playing at home against – not being disrespectful – but what you would consider lesser teams than Hearts, that was when the pressure told most.
“Actually, when it came to playing against Hibs or the Old Firm or Aberdeen – the so-called better teams – then the pressure was off.
“I think the same thing was quite apparent under Daniel. In the bigger matches, the pressure was off and the players were able to perform. It was the games where Hearts would have most of the ball, those ones were the problem.”
The experience of Naismith, Haring, Souttar and others was badly missed.
“You have to understand that the toughness comes through experience. If you don’t give players experience then they can’t learn to deal with the players. They need time on the field, they need people to believe in them,” stressed Levein.
“If they make a mistake in a game, the coach has to put them back on the field in the next game and give them a chance to feel good about themselves. The biggest thing for me is that you need to be playing alongside people who can help you on the field.
“I go back to my Hearts debut in 1983. I was fortunate enough to play alongside Sandy Jardine, but round about me there was Roddy MacDonald, there was Walter Kidd, Alex MacDonald, Willie Johnston, Jimmy Bone Sandy Clark
“So you were going into a team where people could carry the burden and it wasn’t placed upon my shoulders at a young age.
“Having the ball at Tynecastle in front of 19,000 people, and being expected to be brave and take chances, isn’t easy for a team feeling anxious. That’s what I believe and that’s what we suffered from.”
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