Craig Levein claims he is being forced to field Hearts’ young stars two years too early and reveals he “winces” each time they contest a 50-50 challenge. Teenagers Harry Cochrane, Lewis Moore and Anthony McDonald could all feature at some point against Celtic tomorrow.
It’s the first time Levein has led a side against Celtic since inspiring Dundee United to a 2-1 win over the visitors at Tannadice in November 2009, shortly before being named Scotland manager.
But Hearts’ hopes of ending Celtic’s 69-game unbeaten run have been hit by injuries to several significant players. Levein disclosed that midfielder Arnaud Djoum will definitely miss out after hurting his Achilles against Dundee on Tuesday night. Jamie Walker is absent as he continues to nurse a hamstring strain while Aaron Hughes will miss another game having had an injection to alleviate a calf complaint.
Levein said it was “unlikely” Djoum, who was already struggling with a knee problem, will be seen until after the winter break. Adding to Hearts’ problems is the suspension John Souttar will serve tomorrow, with Krystian Nowak, a potential deputy at centre-half, having been injured in training last week. Prince Buaben might be required to drop back to centre-half to leave a vacancy in midfield.
It means Levein might have to abandon his preference to be selective with the games in which he plays the likes of Cochrane, Moore and the newest of the young bloods McDonald, who made such an impact on his debut in the 2-0 win over Dundee. Ewan Henderson, Daniel Baur and Jamie Brandon, 17, 18 and 19 respectively, have also featured in the first-team in recent weeks.
“In an ideal world I wouldn’t [throw the youngsters in] but with the problems that I have got I will have to consider it,” said Levein.
The identity of Hearts’ opponents tomorrow is cause for extra pause for thought. They aren’t up against just anyone. Facing Hearts at Tyncastle are the formidable foes of Celtic, who are programmed to fight for everything as they seek to extend their unbeaten record to 70 domestic games.
At the heart of the machine is Scott Brown, whose competitive spirit won’t be dulled by knowledge he could be up against such tender-aged, if talented, novices. Neither would Levein expect that to be the case.
“Listen, I had Scott Brown when he was 14 at Cowdenbeath,” he said. “I know Scott really, really well. He was a kid at one time as well. Everybody has to start somewhere. If the situation arises where Harry or Ant play against Celtic, it’s another bit of experience that won’t go amiss, as long as they don’t get hurt. That’s the way I view it.”
But it doesn’t mean Levein will be completely comfortable adopting this approach. “I worry,” he admitted. “When they go in for a tackle I wince. Harry got injured up at Ross County earlier in the season going in for a tackle that an experienced player wouldn’t go in for. They are just naive. Harry is very competitive and he will go in for tackles and you’re like ‘woah’. [But] I would rather have him that way.”
Levein explained he wouldn’t risk putting them in harm’s way had he not been seen evidence of their ability to cope in training. However, he admitted he would prefer to have the luxury of introducing them far more slowly, and selectively, to this physically demanding, high-pressure environment.
“They are playing too early in my opinion because of their physicality,” said Levein. “I would wait another couple of years, but they are so good on the ball and they are fearless. If they are fearless, then I feel it is wrong of me not to be the same and give them an opportunity.
“If they hadn’t been training with the first team, I don’t know if I would have played them,” he added. “But having them train with the first team has given me the confidence. Also, it has given the other players confidence to pass the ball to them. They see them every day and they understand that they know what they’re doing.”
Hearts have now played five times at home since returning to Tynecastle. However, tomorrow’s clash will be the first in front of what looks set to be a sell-out crowd. Levein hopes the players will respond to the noise from the stands, the new main stand in particular.
If forced to play one, two, perhaps even three, teenagers then he knows they can count on the backing of the majority of the fans inside the stadium. It’s on an afternoon like this when fans really can play a part.
“We’ve had glimpses in the last couple of weeks of supporter activity, which has been great for the players,” said Levein.
“Us winning and playing well coincides with the supporters doing their thing so I am hoping we can play well on Sunday. I’m hoping we can get everyone right behind us in a positive sense and see if we can try and win the game, and if we can attempt to do that then [have] the backing of everybody.
“The stand without doubt is an improvement, even in the last couple of games the noise has been really incredible, and Celtic will have a whole stand as well. If we’d have been flying and winning games right, left and centre the place would be bouncing [already].”