Aidan Smith: Craig Levein put a lot of himself into Hearts, almost too much
For what seemed like 100 years but had in fact been one long and gruelling twelvemonth, the pundit had come on like a classic American TV crimebuster who, once the bad guy had been banged up, would take the floor to explain his or her sleuthery, tie up all the remaining loose ends and reveal how the dark deed had been committed. The culprit, of course, was always Craig Levein.
Yet another dire performance by Hearts. Ugly football done badly. Look, they’re not even throttling the game properly. No closing down. What is the point of Sean Clare? Who here is putting his foot on the ball? That’s rhetorical, by the way. Long diagonals, nothing but long diagonals. When will it end? The answer is never. The manager has the safest job in world football.
Well, it has ended. When Hearts take the field at Hampden today, this huge figure from their recent history – first as an imperious defender, then as an ambitious young manager, then as a grouchy older manager who developed the best stand-up comedy routine in the Scottish game though the way his team played induced smiles only rarely – won’t be self-consciously hunched in one of the vast technical areas. The Led Zeppelin song When the Levee Breaks could be reworked as When the Levein Breaks. “Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,” warbled singer Robert Plant. Levein latterly made the Gorgie faithful weep sometimes and he definitely made them moan. A lot. Now the Levein reign is broken, or at least it will be come next summer when he finally goes, having completed his last remaining duties which Hearts say will involve him “working closely with the executive management team”.
This delayed departure has been heavily criticised but really it fits with the Levein narrative. The man’s long reign. Stewart’s long excoriations of him. All those long balls. Maybe Levein is going to be working on some big, showstopping gags with which he can exit stage left with a little wave and barely a backwards glance, cheeks flushed, maroon naturally. Seriously, though, it had to end. Even though I don’t think Levein would have got the Jambos relegated – as opposed to Paul Heckingbottom who can definitely take Hibernian down – just one sclaffy goal off the bottom of the Premiership come November isn’t where a club of Hearts’ stature should be. We hear a lot about stature. The size of the club, the size of the support, the size of the budget, the size of the squad. It’s a good squad, isn’t it? Everyone trots out this line. It’s certainly big, if not quite the Cecil B. DeMille-inspired cast-of-thousands who clogged all the roads to Riccarton during the Vladimir Romanov era, but shorn of some key men through injury it has not looked all that great this season.
The impression remains that the club have a semi-official function, for which they’ve been given charitable status, as a holding bay for holding midfielders from eastern Europe and others who turn up a bit gnarled and a bit lost to display the scarf, tell a hairy tale about football in the homeland, only to disappear quickly into the Gorgie mist. This is not a problem unique to Hearts. Hibs have two or three players competing to be the master illusionist of Easter Road and appear virtually invisible, to hide and avoid the risk of mucking up and having the restless natives on their backs. This is standard behaviour when clubs are in trouble. It has seemed like a race to the bottom between Edinburgh’s finest these past few weeks. Hearts have pulled the trigger first but Heckingbottom is still in danger.
Inextricably linked, the dear rivals have been dancing a dire tango together, Hibs losing their flair, Hearts misplacing the Tynie fear factor, both shedding character and personality. Remember Harry Cochrane? This skinny, cocky, fearless, talented kid, pictured, once threatened to imbue Hearts with loads of personality. He won his team the derby which brought a passionate embrace from his manager who gushed about the lad’s good looks before uttering the notorious quip about “natural order”. Then Scott Brown roughed him up a bit, then Motherwell. All part of football, of course, but his boss decided to take him out of the firing line.
It would be Uche Ikpeazu who would become emblematic of Levein’s Hearts; if teams wanted to throw their weight around then the Gorgie boys would throw more. The human battering-ram was effective for a while, the opposition girning about Hearts being over-physical. Then when the high ball to the big man began to fail, the faithful girned about the team’s lack of style. This isn’t normally how they roll – Hearts fans I know put winning football before pretty football – but the grumbles wouldn’t go away and only got louder.
A solid Hearts man Levein was and remains. He put a lot of himself into the club, almost too much. The official statement confirming his departure acknowledged his tireless efforts “despite the many challenges with which he has been faced”. It wouldn’t have been insensitive to remind everyone that he suffered a heart attack, eventually returning to work to crack a few more jokes. Reading his obituaries – just as a manager, thankfully – there isn’t much sympathy out there. He is portrayed as having been power-mad, tango-ing with himself as manager/director of football. Four-six-zero has been dredged up yet again. This is the harsh and unforgiving world he now vacates, possibly for good. Stewart was right in those damning critiques: Hearts were often murder. If nothing else, though, I’m going to miss Levein’s quippery. Flitting between learned and loony, he was his own man, demonstrating the character and personality his team have sorely lacked. They owe it to themselves and the grand old name of Heart of Midlothian to show some of both today.