Craig Levein: Performance School talent can lift our game

Addressing the fallout from the recent defeat to Kazakhstan, Hearts manager Craig Levein insists that this is not as bad as things get. Instead, he says the nation hit footballing rock bottom several years ago and he maintains that things are actually on the up.

Harry Cochrane has graduated from an SFA Performance School. Picture: SNS
Hearts' Harry Cochrane has graduated from an SFA Performance School. Picture: SNS

But he warned that the Tartan Army will need to show forbearance as the merits of the work going on behind the scenes will not be fully evident for another few years.

He cites the Scottish FA’s seven Performance Schools as a reason for optimism. Operating since 2012, their aim is to hothouse the development of our best young talent.

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“I look back to when the Performance Schools started, [Hearts midfielder] Harry Cochrane was in one of the first intakes and what is Harry now, 17? So you have to start the process and wait to see what comes out of it.

“Celtic and Rangers have their own Performance Schools, we have our own one now at Hearts and that’s a huge step in the right direction. But these things don’t happen just because we want them to happen. And there is a level of frustration just now that I find quite staggering.

“You don’t hit the bottom when things start to go wrong – it’s a long time after that that you hit the bottom. And I do think we hit the bottom two or three years ago and that the whole thing is now on its way back up again.

“We’re talking about developing players, we’re talking about guys who went into the system at 12 years of age and who are now 17 or 18. Ryan Christie was 21 or 22 when he made the step up [to the national side]. So I think it will be another three or four years before we start to see the benefits of what is happening.”

Along with Cochrane, Hearts colleague Anthony McDonald graduated from the SFA performance schools and the teenage midfielders have already made an impact at Tynecastle, showing a lot of promise as they were thrown in to patch up holes last term.

They aren’t the only ones, with Ethan Ross breaking into the Aberdeen team, Stephen Kelly earning a taste of first team action at Rangers, and Ethan Erhahon impressing in his regular outings for St Mirren this term.

“We’re going to have to be patient. I can put a player in our team at 16 years of age but that doesn’t mean he’s going to play for the national team. You’re looking at how long did Ryan Christie wait to get in to the national team? He went on loan a couple of times [to Aberdeen].

“You need to get to a point where they’re not just dealing with playing in the Premier League in Scotland, but dealing with players from the rest of the world and we don’t tend to produce overly well-developed youngsters. The ones we do produce are a lot more slight and take a lot more time to put weight on.”

But he agreed there needs to be a greater glut of talent coming through.

“As a nation we need to get two or three really top, top players, at Andy Robertson’s level, and we particularly need that at the top end of the field. Because in the games we have watched recently, teams have been so well organised.

“I wouldn’t say the other teams’ players are getting better than ours, I just think the coaches are much more aware of how to sit in and how to frustrate teams and how to win games 1-0 or get a 0-0. And to break those teams down you need exceptional talent and I think that’s the one thing we lack. We have a lot of good players but I don’t know if we have any exceptional talent at this moment in time. I think we can have, it just takes time.”

And he said that he is keen to progress as many young Scots as he can.

“It’s as simple as this, if we have Scottish international players in our team we will be better. We want to develop players to be the best they can possibly be, and if that means going and playing in England and the Premier League eventually then great, that’s fantastic. But we just have to show a little bit of patience, which seems to be extremely difficult. We don’t have the God-given right to beat Kazakhstan away from home. We need to get our best players available, and we need to, in the future, produce even better players to be able to compete. But being hyper-critical on a continual basis just seems to drag everybody down.”