Not for the first time, Craig Levein is pondering what it takes to win the Premier League title. Thirty years after Hearts fell so cruelly at the final hurdle, he desperately hopes Leicester City can get over the line this season, in England’s top tier.
“For football people, it would be brilliant,” he says. “It would be like us [Hearts] or Aberdeen winning the league with both Old Firm teams in it. It would be a similar level of achievement.”
It isn’t a random observation. He was of course disappointed when Hearts could not gain the point required at Dens Park in 1986 after a season when they attracted such widespread acclaim, as Leicester are currently doing.
As a stylish centre-half who spent the majority of his career at Hearts, Levein had deep emotional investment in the outcome 30 years ago, though illness prevented him playing on the final day of the league season. And he is certainly no neutral now as he examines the progress of surprise leaders Leicester City, who host Norwich City today.
Easy though it is easy to forget given the changes the club have since gone though, Levein is one of current miracle worker Claudio Ranieri’s predecessors, eight managers – and many caretaker managers – ago.
Levein admits he finds it hard to consider things “outwith the Hearts bubble”. However, he agrees that the turnaround in fortunes at his old club is a subject on which it is worth breaking the silence that is more his style these days.
“I get caught up in my own little world most of the time,” says the Hearts director of football. “I am at the academy most nights. But if there is a Leicester game on I will probably watch it – if there was another game I probably wouldn’t. If Leicester was on I would make a point of watching it.”
Perhaps underlining how he tries to avoid living in the past, he cannot recall whether he has been back to watch a game since the day he was sacked – ten years ago last month, following a defeat by Plymouth Argyle. He wonders whether he returned during his days as Scotland manager. “I don’t think I did,” he says. “I was at Derby, Nottingham Forest, but I am not sure I was at Leicester.”
There are, though, a number of people still there from his time. The kit man remains, as does the physio. So, too, is the goalkeeper coach Mike Stowell who Levein himself recruited. Stowell was handed the reins on a temporary basis after Levein departed, taking assistants Peter Houston and Kenny Black with him. Leicester were in third bottom place in the Championship at the time. When he arrived just over two years earlier, they were in mid-table in the same league. Levein has regrets but no complaints.
It has been said that Ranieri, appointed last summer, arrived at the club at exactly the right time. Spirits were high after last season’s remarkable escape from relegation under the idiosyncratic Nigel Pearson and investment was forthcoming from the club’s Thai owners. But it’s fair to say Levein arrived at one of the worst times. Even after his departure Leicester had still to reach a new depth, with relegation to English football’s third tier.
One of the criticisms of Levein during his Scotland tenure was that he was too unyielding and unprepared to admit he was wrong. In fact, in looks and style, he seems quite similar to Pearson, only without the psychotic edge. “What, you mean him or me?” chuckles Levein, who can clearly laugh at himself.
Despite a perceived stubbornness, Levein is unflinching when it comes to self-criticism when assessing his own Leicester tenure. So was it just a matter of right place – Leicester City fitted the profile of the English club Levein had long desired to work at – wrong time?
“If I felt I had done a really good job I could probably answer that and say yes,” he says. “But I don’t feel I did a good enough job there.
“I went down there and I did not have enough knowledge to be successful in that league,” he adds. “It is quite a unique league. I can see it easily in hindsight – it just took me too long to work out what was important.”
He fell into perhaps the most obvious trap of them all. He turned to players he knew, such as Joe Hamill and Stephen Hughes. These players, several of whom were products of the Scottish league system, needed time to adapt to an alien environment, as did Levein. It was time no one had.
“No disrespect to anyone I signed, but I brought a lot of players down from Scotland immediately, thinking these guys will do me. They did all right, don’t get me wrong. I am not criticising them. Mark de Vries here was a fantastic player for Hearts because he was strong and powerful. But down in the Championship they were all strong and powerful.”
Leicester had been attracted by the sterling work Levein did at Hearts as manager. “When I last played in ’95 the top salary at Tynecastle was about £1000 a week. Myself and Dave McPherson were the highest earners for a while, and I was on a £1000 a week at the time. When I came back as manager in 2000 we had four players on £10,000 a week. The wage bill was out of control.
“The job was to get the wage bill down and be as successful as possible,” he adds. At Leicester he got the wage bill down, helping ensure the club’s survival. But success eluded him.
“People like Matt Elliott, Keith Gillespie and Dion Dublin were still there, Premiership players who had come down with Leicester and still had Premiership contracts. My remit was to do what I had done at Hearts – work with youth players, develop young players, bring in bargains and get the wage bill down.”
That might have been the idea. It proved very much harder in practice. The club was caught between prudence and panic at the thought of missing out on Premiership millions.
Like at Dundee United, where “The Levein Lounge” has now been re-named “The Hegarty Suite”, something he expresses relief about, there might be little left to mark his time at Leicester. But Levein undoubtedly played a part in the club’s thrilling renewal.