Craig Levein's return to Hearts brings back talk of pressure as Steven Naismith prepares to welcome old boss
Still fairly new to the job, Hearts manager Steven Naismith has already had to withstand periods of pressure, but he says he was able to draw on the experience of former gaffer Craig Levein as he weathered the rumblings in the stands.
“When you look back and think about what he was like as a coach, that was one thing,” said Naismith. “When he was under all the different pressures, he never showed it. As a player, you watched and he never at any moment made a knee-jerk reaction to anything and appeared very calm and calculated in his decision making. That had a positive impact on the squad, I felt. He is somebody who is now seen as an old school manager and he has that fear factor but I think it's his honesty and his willingness to allow you to speak and have your point made that were big positives for me when I was a player.”
Back in football management for the first time since he was sacked by the Gorgie club four years ago, Levein will bring his St Johnstone team to Tynecastle on Saturday. If he gets the result he is hoping for and is able to build on the one draw and one win picked up in his first two games, it could make life uncomfortable for the man he recruited during his most recent spell at Hearts – a club he has had a near-25 year association with as player, manager and director of football.
But Hearts, who defeated the Perth men 2-0 in their meeting earlier this season, are looking to build some momentum of their own. In their last eight league games there have been defeats to the three teams currently above them in the table but they are unbeaten in the five other outings – four wins and a derby draw – and have moved up to within two points of third spot. They also have most of their long-term injured players back in training and closing in on a match day return.
“It means that competition is fierce,” explained Naismith. “It’s about consistency for us. There’s been good moments and frustrating moments but we are slowly building consistency in terms of results and performances. It’s about having a bit more control, not seeing loads of turnovers, being less end-to-end.
“We are now in a period where we’ve got a routine. In the early part of the season it’s a bit more disruptive [due to a mix of European football, cup fixtures, and international obligations]. But coming up we have the most consistent run of fixtures and it’s an opportunity for us to build.”
Which is why, while he will extend a warm welcome to his former Scotland and Hearts boss, and expects that the fans will do the same, when the whistle signals the start of the latest Premiership action, he is hoping that the players ensure Levein exits the stadium empty-handed.
“I think he’ll get a decent reception,” said Naismith. “When people leave clubs there’s sometimes anger, frustration, joy, or whatever. But after a period of time people start to look at the bigger picture. There’s no doubt he’s had a good impact at Hearts, whether as a player or as a coach. I first had a relationship with him with the national team and over the course I found him really open, honest and welcoming. He was happy having a conversation with you and you were comfortable asking him questions.
“The move to Hearts for me came from him having the creativity to get the deal done. I was at Norwich on a Premier League salary and I wasn’t expecting Hearts to be interested or being able to do it. But when I was here he gave me good responsibility on the pitch and he allowed me to make decisions on the pitch. He trusted me to do that and that was great for me. I’ve picked up a lot from his coaching and leadership.”
And, while he had a front-row seat as things crumpled towards the end of his tenure, he is not surprised that Levein has returned to the technical area. “No, probably not, because of the character he is,” said Naismith. “He likes a challenge and he always seemed to like this environment. At no time, even when there was the most pressure on him, did he show that he was under that pressure. He still looked like he was enjoying the environment and I think the way it finished at Hearts maybe made him want to go back in and to finish on a better note when he does finish for good. And, having Kirky [Andy Kirk, the Saints assistant manager] with him, I understand that. Kirky was here as a coach when I was a player and he is a good coach and they seem to have a good relationship.”
Between them Levein and Kirk are working on building confidence, fitness and a style of play that can keep the McDiarmid Park side moving up the table. “The first game we played Motherwell, we were 2-0 up and then wobbled, which was understandable given the position we were in,” said Levein. “But the really pleasing thing was that once it got back to 2-2 we managed to settle ourselves down and in the final 15 minutes of the game, the players were determined not to lose and that was encouraging.
“The second game against Ross County [which St Johnstone won 1-0], they came after us but we stood up to everything. There is a fighting spirit in there for sure and we have seen that already. We do some tests in training and already they have upped the standards. The test challenges their character and I wasn’t really happy with the results a couple of weeks ago but we did it again this week and there was significant progress.”