When Hearts succumbed to a second bruising blow in 1986, losing the Scottish Cup final seven days after being pipped to the post in the league, the players were devastated.
Still only 21, that season’s Young Player of the Year Craig Levein did not believe it would set the tone for a career that has thus far been bereft of a major silverware, though.
“I struggle to remember what I was thinking,” the Hearts manager recalls now. “It was all a bit of a whirlwind. But you just think that’s what happens… You go to Hearts, play in Europe and then challenge for the league. Little did I know!”
The face of Scottish football changed the following year, with the arrival at Rangers of Graeme Souness and a seemingly limitless transfer fund. Hearts finished league runners up again in 1988 and 1992 but while Levein and his team-mates were able to progress to the quarter-finals of the 1988-89 Uefa Cup, domestic silverware remained elusive.
The winner’s medal may have come eventually had it not been for serious injuries which forced his retirement a year before the club finally triumphed in the 1998 Scottish Cup final. Even as a manager there have been near misses but still no truly special moment that sets men down in the history books among the other cup-winning legends.
“It’s a huge thing. You play football and you become involved in the game afterwards in order to have moments like this,” said Levein as he looked forward to tomorrow’s Scottish Cup final against Celtic. “I’ve come close a few times in the past but this is another great opportunity. It’s kept the season going for us. I’m excited and I can sense that the players are as well.”
This season’s opening salvos promised such memorable showcases. Flying high in the league, they only surrendered their place at the top of the table in November. Since then injuries have been cruel and they have had a chequered campaign, being forced to settle for sixth place and denied a shot at the League Cup final by tomorrow’s opponents.
It has led to some disquiet in the stands, which could have overshadowed this weekend’s match, had the former Scotland manager allowed it.
“However, I don’t feel under pressure in this situation,” Levein said. “I have felt pressure before at Hampden but this is different. It’s big for me but also for most of the players who haven’t won silverware and who are coming up against a team which is used to collecting trophies.
“ seems like such a long time ago, almost like a different person and different lifetime. It’s slightly different in a managerial sense. You carry a lot of weight for everybody to take pressure off the players. You’re doing your best for people in the boardroom who have high expectations and the supporters. Our supporters will be expecting to win. It’s my job to try to get that expectation over the line.”
He came exceedingly close to doing that for Dundee United in the 2008 League Cup final but as a manager was powerless to prevent an individual error by Mark Kerr in the 86th minute when United led Rangers. It ultimately cost them the match. “That was unfortunate. I don’t have any problem saying things will need to go our way in this game to give us the best chance of winning. That will mean we have to make few mistakes or no mistakes, that would be excellent. You can’t control everything, though, and as much as we need to play really well, I think we will need other things to go in our favour.”
They didn’t that day but, once again, he thought more chances would follow. Instead he has had to wait until now for his next stab at a final.
“Just as I did as a player I thought that we would be regularly involved in big occasions but the better our team becomes the more often we will get ourselves into these positions and the important thing is to enjoy the occasion and feel relaxed about being involved in it and not feel worried or stressed about it.
“To consistently do what we need to do as a club, which is be involved in big occasions and play in Europe, you need to get a level of consistency within the team. That’s not easy, particularly nowadays when there is this constant churn of players. That’s why I admire Derek [McInnes] at Aberdeen. He has consistently kept his team fighting for European places and cup finals. That’s where we want to get to on a regular basis.”
But to end this campaign on a high his men have to make a better fist of things than when they faced Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic in the League Cup semi-final earlier this year. They got off to a terrible start and never recovered, losing 3-0.
Celtic are a slightly different proposition under interim manager Neil Lennon, who spent the past couple of seasons pitting his wits against Levein as Hibs head coach. Like Levein, he has to win over a section of his own support as he seeks to secure the Celtic job on a long-term basis. His former capital counterpart would like to see that happen but does not want to hand him the result that would serve as a leg-up.
He understands the lure, though, as both men are steeped in the clubs they serve.
“Absolutely. It’s in your blood. I don’t think you can help it. That’s a fact. I get on well with him, he’s a decent fella. We’re all striving for the same thing so there’s an element within us that we have some empathy. It’s not easy to bear the weight of expectation for the fanbase, players, directors, everybody. I admire anybody who has the bottle to do it.”