Craig Levein sacked: A tough call to make but one Hearts couldn’t avoid

Craig Levein looks on during his final game in charge at St Johnstone on Wednesday night. Picture: Roddy Scott/SNS
Craig Levein looks on during his final game in charge at St Johnstone on Wednesday night. Picture: Roddy Scott/SNS
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It was a decision the Hearts board members hoped they would never have to make.

When Ann Budge was weighing up her next move as she prepared to lay out the cash needed to help the Gorgie club stave off liquidation, she aligned herself to Craig Levein, a man who had a decades-long association with the club and possessed the kind of football knowledge the businesswomen with a background in IT lacked.

Brought in as director of football in 2014, he worked to rebuild the football department and the ravaged youth academy from the ground up. He was then the man the board turned to when first-team matters faltered.

In August 2017, he was convinced to swap his shirt and tie for a tracksuit and head back out onto the training ground. Hearts were playing ‘home’ games at Murrayfield and the players were at a low ebb, having been booted out of the League Cup at the group stage. The board felt they needed an experienced man at the helm following Ian Cathro’s tenure.

But when the latest crisis showed little sign of abating quickly enough to appease angry fans, they turned to Levein once more, only this time it was to thank him for his contribution and then tell him there was no longer a place for him at the table. The decision to finally sack him, was a tough one, albeit one they felt they could no longer avoid and saw them relieve themselves of a manager, a director of football and a fellow board member in one difficult conversation.

Levein is no idiot, though, and although he had spoken of turning a corner and was anticipating an upturn in fortunes with the return of key personnel from injury, he has been in the game long enough to know that ultimately results determine everything in football and, simply put, Hearts’ had not been good enough.

From the highs of a 13-game unbeaten run at the start of last season, which saw them progress to a League Cup semi-final and lead the Premiership, the team began to struggle.

A catalogue of injuries to key players stripped the side of their main assets and their belief and while there was some ebb and flow they finished the season on a run of one win in nine and lucky to have sneaked into the top half of the table.

The old adage is that it is better to be lucky than good and, as he licks his wounds, which will be painful given how much he has poured into the club, 
Levein is entitled to curse his ill-fortune.

Recently describing this spell as the toughest he has endured as a manager, few of his counterparts will ever have had to deal with the number of concurrent injuries to talismanic players. Few will have seen so many of them manifest themselves as freak, undetectable and prolonged injuries to men who could have saved his job or certainly bought him more time.

He was denied the cup win he so desperately wanted with the club he did not grow up supporting but quickly fell for hook, line and sinker, all those years ago. His men performed well against Celtic in the Scottish Cup finale at Hampden in May but a poor decision from his goalkeeper cost him his dream. Again luck was against him.

This season there was more misfortune as one by one players picked up long-term injuries but there was also misjudgment. Burned by last season, he had recruited heavily in the summer to ensure there would be a Plan B this term but too many of the men he has had to rely on have let him down and as the pressure built and he stood firm in a storm of flak and vitriol, too many of his players shrunk. Tynecastle was no longer a fortress – goals were being leaked and far, far too few were being scored – and no one in the stands could countenance that.

It made life tougher and tougher for him and while the Scottish Cup run and final display swatted away some of the detractors, this season, a League Cup semi-final could not pull off the same sleight of hand. And so, the fateful trip to McDiarmid Park on Wednesday to face the team propping up the rest of the Premiership. Levein had thought he was turning a corner but there was nothing but the same old poor performance and more bad luck as his captain hammered the final nail in his coffin with an own goal that cost them the game.

The reaction from the fans forced a decision from the board. It was one they had always planned to put off until the side had been given the opportunity to face every other team in the league. But, with supporters protesting and the shoots of recovery still too stunted to see, it was one they ultimately felt they had to take.