Hearts manager Craig Levein has told his Celtic counterpart Brendan Rodgers to stop his “bleating” and ridiculed suggestions that the length of the grass on the Tynecastle pitch is stunting the development of young Scottish players.
Despite winning the match on Sunday, the Parkhead manager, who is hoping to guide his team to a historic double treble, was highly critical of the host club and their decision not to trim and water the playing surface.
“I thought the win was outstanding but I’m a little bit embarrassed because of the pitch,” said Rodgers. “You talk about standards and this is a great club, Hearts, a really passionate club. But I felt for both sets of players.
“This is about the product of Scottish football – not just about Celtic. I’m talking about youngsters and gifted players in their team who can’t dribble or pass it because of the grass. If that’s what you want to do then fine but – it’s not football. Of course it’s gamesmanship but that’s 30 years ago, Christ. [Scotland] haven’t qualified for [a major tournament] in 20-odd years and we’re trying to develop players and a product here to move the game on.”
But, Levein hit back at the giants of the Scottish game. “I never knew it was as simple as that,” said Levein. “So if we cut all the grass short, then we’ll go to the finals. Brilliant. Why did nobody think of that? That’s unbelievable. I make no excuses for trying to win the game. It’s just a nonsense. They actually won the game as well. What would have happened if they had lost?
“The development of players for me is about giving them the opportunity to play – much, much more than the length of the grass. It’s a serious thing. Some clubs in this country have got fantastic players at 18, 19, 20 and never play them. They go and get loan players from elsewhere, who are the same age, and don’t play their own kids. That hampers Scotland’s development.”
Continuing his rebuttal, he claimed that the Celtic boss had spent 20 minutes in his company in the wake of Sunday’s tussle and never mentioned any of his gripes. He also stated it would take more than cutting the grass to make things completely even.
“I wish I could be in a position where that’s the only thing I had to worry about,” Levein added. “If you want to talk about evening up the playing field, then maybe if he brought a team that earned the same money as our players do then that would be fair.”
Until that day, he said he would use all his experience to eke out an advantage, saying his priority was trying to win games, not pleasing opposition managers. “As long as we stay within the rules, then I don’t know what he’s bleating about.”
The irony is that Rodgers seemed far more magnanimous in defeat, when Hearts ended the champions’ 69-game unbeaten run in domestic fixtures, in December, on a pitch that was in a far poorer state than Sunday’s surface. The Gorgie club acknowledged at that time that the pitch was in vital need of attention and spent money hiring in turf lights to encourage fresh growth. They will also instal a new £1 million hybrid pitch during the close season.
Disappointed with Rodgers’ post-match comments about the pitch, he is also unhappy at the thought of any retrospective punishment for Steven Naismith, following the on-loan striker’s tackle on Scott Brown.
After the game, his Celtic counterpart claimed the challenge had been“very late” and described it as “shocking”, adding that it would be “interesting to see what the authorities make of that”.
Compliance officer Tony McGlennan is examining the incident but when asked if he thought there was an issue with the on-field clash, Levein offered a firm negative and insisted that the club would appeal any potential ban.