Craig Levein believes the outrage following recent incidents of lone fans intruding on the pitch and in some cases attacking players underlines how far the game has progressed in the last 40 years.
According to the Hearts manager, while once supporter misbehaviour was a common sight at matches, the fact so many headlines have been generated by the troubling events in stadiums around the country reflects the rarity of such occurrences.
Levein dates back to days of real aggression on the terraces and cites the time a Hibs fan ran on to the pitch to confront striker John Robertson during a particularly highly-strung Edinburgh derby in September 1990 only weeks after Hearts owner Wallace Mercer had tried to buy Hibs and merge the teams. There was also an incident, he recalled, involving Gordon Strachan, who was attacked by a fan while playing for Aberdeen in a game against Celtic at Parkhead in November 1980.
“You should only need to worry about being hurt by your opponent,” said Levein, below. “And they’re trained to deal with that. They’re not trained to deal with other things.”
“I’ve seen a lot of things happen over the years. And a lot of things recurring,” he added. “I think one of the good things, I suppose, is that there used to be a lot of violence around in football in the ’70s and ’80s. Now, the fact that something happens, there is a little spate of things happening – and it becomes a massive thing. So it has moved a long way because I remember the running battles that used to take place outside stadiums, things like that. And it’s great where we’re now in a position where one, two or three incidents become massive talking points. So we’re in a much, much better place than we were. But we still need to do much more.
“Yes, it’s shocking,” he added. “And it’s not a new thing. I remember in the past, it happened to wee Robbo, someone ran on trying to get him, so it’s not a new thing. Our tolerance for these things is now almost zero – and that’s a brilliant thing. In the past, at times it was just tolerated that some fans are just idiots, they would tarnish the club’s name. The feeling was: ‘What can we do about it?’ Now we’re much more proactive in these things – and with a lot of things in football.”
Levein made it clear he was wearing his manager’s hat yesterday rather than his director of football one – he was previewing, ostensibly at least, tonight’s Scottish Cup quarter-final replay between Hearts and Partick Thistle. So while tempted, he was ultimately unwilling to begin trying to cure football’s wider ills. “You’ve just got me right to the edge,” he said.
He knows he has other problems to occupy him, particularly with this evening’s game having been so undesired. Hearts’ failure to build on a 1-0 half-time lead at Firhill last Monday evening means they have booked themselves an unwanted extra midweek fixture and their Scottish Cup hopes remain in the balance. If knowing they can reach Hampden with a win is not incentive enough, the knowledge it is a Championship side they will face there in Inverness Caledonian Thistle has increased expectation levels certainly among the supporters. Not surprisingly, Levein would not be drawn on the possibility of meeting his old friend John Robertson’s side at Hampden. But he is aware the fans will not be slow to display their feelings should Hearts take longer than they deem necessary to impose themselves on their lower division opponents.
Levein is comfortable with this. Indeed, he regards it as par for the course for Hearts at Tynecastle, whoever they are playing. Fans expect them to win every domestic fixture at their atmospheric home ground, where they have beaten Celtic already this season. They came close to holding the same side while only having ten men less than a fortnight ago.
Levein stressed it is up to the players to rise to the challenge and give the supporters something to cheer about, rather than the onus being on fans to gee up their side on a night when there will be more empty seats than is normal at Tynecastle. “For us here at home, we’re expected to beat the Old Firm by the supporters, so we’re expected to beat everybody,” he said. “That doesn’t change. It’s the same for every match. The last game we were here was the Celtic game and it was a fabulous atmosphere. They were right behind us and we did everything we possibly could to go and win that match and they were brilliant. I say to the players, the responsibility is not with the supporters, it’s with us. We have to do well.”
“We can’t even worry about that,” he added with reference to the opportunity that now awaits the winners given they have avoided Celtic and Rangers or Aberdeen in the last four. “It’s no coincidence that everybody says to concentrate on the next match. Partick were well organised when we played them last week and I’d expect them to be pretty much the same again. We’ll need to play as well as we did first half but score more goals.
“They’ve got good players and I think they’re in a false position really considering the quality of player that they’ve got. We just need to be reminded by looking at the team sheet that they’ve got players who’ve done pretty good things in football. They’ll try to frustrate us and hit on the break which they managed to do through there.”