Craig Levein: Former Hearts and Scotland boss opens up on Brechin City role, going for jobs in UAE and India and excitement for Euro 2020
The country is gripped by Euro 2020 fever and Craig Levein is discussing ways of re-planting a hedge. When the hedge involved is Brechin City’s famous foliage, it does deserve to be considered a matter of national importance.
But it’s not what he might have expected to be talking about on the eve of Scotland’s return to the top table of international football. A nation’s hopes now rest with Steve Clarke, but there was a time when Levein held them in his hands.
Ten years ago this summer Scotland's next competitive fixture also happened to be against Czech Republic. Two dropped points at home on account of a very debatable penalty decision meant the Scots were already all but ruled out of the following summer’s finals in Poland and Ukraine. That was how it went back then.
Levein lasted until two games into the next campaign. He subsequently returned from a period of exile for an eventful third, and ultimately unhappy, stint at Hearts.
Another spell away from direct involvement with the game – during which we have been reminded of his radio punditry skills – has come to an end with the surprising announcement that he has become full-time advisor to the board at Highland League Brechin City, hence the hedge conundrum. One of the options being considered by the newly incorporated club is leaving Glebe Park. “We would need to take the hedge with us, it’s part of the history of the club," says Levein. "I will help them carry the hedge along the road!”
Meanwhile, with Steve Clarke now at the helm of the international men’s football team, the country is currently giddy at the thought of being 24 hours away from a first major finals appearance since 1998.
Levein can recognise why his and Clarke’s situations invite comparison. They are of similar age – Levein is still only 56, Clarke 57 – and similar personality. Both serious football men, you wouldn’t take liberties with either of them. And yet one is currently in charge of Scotland’s Euro 2020 ambitions amid ever increasing fervour and the other is plotting his way to Deveronvale.
We’re in uncharted territory
What’s it all about Craig? “We were not far away,” he reflects. “Things need to align. I don’t think there was enough aligning when I was there at Scotland. There was not a real edge or real competition for places. Now Steve will have a hard job deciding who he is going to start with.
“If someone is injured in training it is not a head-in-hands moment because there is evidence that he can respond by putting someone who has done just as well into the team. I don’t think I have ever seen a Scotland team with so many rapidly improving players.
“John McGinn has just been unbelievable," Levein adds. "Look at Scott McTominay and Kieran Tierney and even Lyndon Dykes, Che Adams is at the peak of his career and of course Andy Robertson. I think we have a chance for the first time of getting out of the group stages. I really do.”
It’s this beguiling thought that convinced Levein to leave Dundee United to take over as Scotland manager in December 2009. As much as his role at the Tannadice club suited him down to the ground, there was no decision to make when the SFA came calling. Perhaps, on reflection, we can view the opportunity as having come too soon. Levein was only 45. Clarke, by contrast, was still learning the ropes as an assistant at West Ham United and would not become a manager in his own right for another three years.
You can’t say no to Scotland
“I had this conversation with my wife Carol when I was happy at Dundee United,” Levein recalls. "But you pass that opportunity up and you know it might never come round again. One of main motivations was: could we quality from the group stage? Of course we had to get there first! Loads of people have tried before and not managed it.
“Listen, Steve has to take a lot of credit. If I am a club manager just now I would be loving my players going away with Scotland because they are all improving and Scotland has had some part to play in that.
“Scott McTominay getting the chance to play international football and at the same time as he is playing every week at Man United. That’s the perfect recipe.”
Another helpful ingredient is the emergence of up-and-coming young stars such as Billy Gilmour. Again, this was not something Levein was blessed with during his time as international manager. “I think the midfield was strong previously with Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean and Callum McGregor but for me it is a different animal if you put McTominay, McGinn and Gilmour in.”
He is enjoying the debate about whether Gilmour should start against Czech Republic tomorrow or not. “I think it is fascinating, I really do. The dynamic with Billy Gilmour has really given Steve something to think about. I have not seen the training sessions, maybe Steve sees something definitely that worries him and he will have to take account of that.
“But I do hope he plays Billy. I am not saying that from having any great knowledge. I am saying it from the point of view it would be really interesting to see the dynamics between those three players – Gilmour, McTominay and McGinn – and see how they complement each other. One thing is for certain, he three of them are really intelligent footballers.”
Why Brechin and not UAE
The Gilmour dilemma is not Levein's problem. When he spoke to the Scotland on Sunday last week, he was out walking his dogs near Kinross. What occupied his mind was finding training facilities for Brechin City, with the first competitive fixture, against Livingston in the Premier Sports Cup, now less than a month away. They then kick-off their Highland League commitments with two games against Turriff United and Keith before heading off on their travels to Deveronvale.
“The long-term plan is to build the club back up to a decent level,” says Levein. “We are not sure exactly what that level is. We are not going to play in the Premier League on a regular basis I don’t think, but we need to get the club re-engaged with the community and the supporters.
"It has been a tough time for them, slipping from the Championship all the way down, and to only survive not going out the league last season because of a vote. It has not been a great time for any Brechin supporters.”
Levein was flirting with heading abroad – he was on the brink of securing jobs in UAE and India – when his long time friend Kevin Mackie, the new Brechin City chairman, came calling. “I was down to the last two in interviews on Zoom calls and then my wife said: 'I do not want to move'. That threw a spanner in the works!”
Brechin City are the beneficiaries. Football’s crazily-paved path has struck again. If there’s any envy felt by Levein at Clarke making such a good fist of things with Scotland, he does a decent job of suppressing it. He sounds genuinely excited by the prospect of a new challenge at Glebe Park, a ground he very accurately describes as “quaint”.
Nevertheless, it’s a long way from Hampden Park where tomorrow’s attendance against Czech Republic, even though it is still limited to 12,500, will feel like 100,000 after so long when crowds in Scotland have been restricted to either hundreds or zero.
Hearts, meanwhile, have more season tickets holders than Brechin have Twitter followers. Levein does not need the profile any longer, he certainly doesn’t care for the hassle. He still believes he can manage “at the highest level” but he's not too proud to get his hands dirty.
Every training session
He will provide the recently installed manager Andy Kirk – recruited from the Hearts women's team – with the assistance he needs.
“I will go to every game and every training session,” confirms Levein. “I need to give Andy full support. It will end up being quite onerous. I am looking forward to it. That to me is the most important thing – that I am looking forward to it.”
His official role of full-time advisor invites the need for some clarification – is it the same as director of football, the title he was handed by Hearts owner Ann Budge at Tynecastle? “It depends on what you think a director of football is I suppose,” he says. “Kev is an awf'y lad, he has convinced me to do it for nothing. Well, I get my expenses!”
Mackie is the local car dealer Brechin are now counting on to lead the club into a new era. No longer a members’ club following a historic vote last month, Mackie is currently interim chairman and the man credited with Levein’s eye-catching recruitment to the cause. Former player and Dundee lawyer Grant Johnson is also on the interim management committee and will perform a valuable sounding board role for Levein, who is clearly relishing being back involved.
Love of the lower leagues
He is a genuine enthusiast for life in the lower leagues. “I loved my time at Cowdeneath, I really did. There is an authenticity about those clubs. It is a struggle. It was a struggle for me at Cowden and it was a struggle for Gordon McDougall as chairman to find money all the time to try and keep things going. What I found, and I found this throughout my career, is that some of the best welcomes you get in Scottish football are at the lower division clubs. They make you feel like they are actually genuinely happy to see you, whereas sometimes in the Premier League, it does not feel like we are on the same page at all. And that’s been proven in the last couple of years where people are just looking out for themselves.”
At the start of last week, Brechin had just five players under contract. “It puts us at a slight disadvantage,” says Levein, with wry understatement.
He likes wheeling and dealing when it comes to players – when he was director of football/manager in his last spell at Hearts, the club recruited almost 80 players. There will not be quite the same largesse at Brechin, though Levein’s powers of persuasion will be required more than ever. He's already had a ‘good luck’ message from John Souttar, his former defender at Hearts and Dundee United and, just as importantly, a firm Brechin City fan.
“There is going to be some young players in the team because we ned to use the loan system and we do have some younger players of our own who are still making their way in the game,” says Levein. “What we really need is half-a-dozen really good honest pros who have had good careers and want to put a bit back in and by helping a young kid off to a good start.”
No debate to be had
Brechin have recently relied on players drawn from the central belt but those based in the area might not be so willing to spend every second Saturday on long hikes to the Highlands, to turn out for a team who the opposition will be relishing bringing down. After all, the Angus club were involved in manoeuvres to try and enter the Lowland League instead.
There will be Highland League defenders sharpening their studs as we speak. “It is not even worth talking about,” says Levein with reference to the Highland League/Lowland League debate. “That can’t be a factor for us now. It is done.”
The way he describes it, what’s not to like? “These things are always what you make of it – I said that to my wife, we get to go and see some lovely places, meet some nice people, and watch some football. What could be better than that?”