Craig Levein has hailed a golden age of managers in Scottish football as the season reaches a potentially telling stage.
Hearts face forthcoming league games against Hibs, Rangers, Celtic and Kilmarnock and this series of clashes could go a long way to determining the extent of their title ambitions. But first up come bottom-of-the-table Dundee tonight at Dens Park in a meeting that will test Hearts’ ability to prevail when the pressure is on and they are expected to win. A victory would lift them six points clear of Celtic at the top.
Levein is relishing going up against his talented, invariably younger adversaries – the Hearts manager, who turned 54 yesterday, is the third most senior boss in the Scottish top flight after Kilmarnock’s Steve Clarke and Tommy Wright of St Johnstone.
He received an early birthday present on Saturday when getting one over on Derek McInnes as Hearts emerged 2-1 victors over Aberdeen after a dramatic contest that underlined the health of the game in the Premiership just now.
“The games are exciting,” said Levein. “There is an intensity about the football in Scotland just now that is interesting.
“I also think it has some brilliant managers. I would think that this is as good a group of managers that we’ve had in the Premier League for as long as I can remember.
“There are some really, really good people in charge of the clubs and I think that makes it interesting. Steven Gerrard is doing his first job in management, which brings a whole lot of interest. [Assistant] Gary McAllister as well, a big name in Scottish football. Brendan [Rodgers]. Stevie Clarke. Lenny [Neil Lennon]. Derek McInnes.
“The point I’m trying to make is that the quality of manager is really good,” he added. “I feel it’s a good time for Scottish football because in any games that I watch, there is an intensity to the football that endears our game to our supporters. Our supporters like their football, but they like intensity.
“They like people playing as if it’s their last game in every match. That’s what it’s like just now.”
New Dundee manager Jim McIntyre has not worked for over a year but he did win the League Cup with Ross County and will be waiting to welcome Levein to Dens Park. McIntyre had just left Dundee United when Levein arrived as manager in October 2006 but their paths crossed before and since.
“I know Jim quite well,” said Levein. “I thought he did a fantastic job with Ross County. He’s just a really, solid decent fella. I’m delighted he is back in the game.” As regards predecessor Neil McCann’s fate, “nothing surprises me any more”.
Levein was not including himself in the above assessment about the quality of managers in the Scottish top flight but he is a godfather compared to some of the other, younger guns trying to knock him and his high-flying side off their perch. He is a wise, old owl, experienced enough to know strength in depth is key to maintaining a title challenge.
The days of winning championships with squads consisting of a core of 15 or 16 players are over. It’s one reason why Levein went on such an extensive recruitment spree in the summer. Some questioned the high turnover as well as the size of squad it left him with. However, Levein has been proved right with Hearts able to overcome the loss of such influential members of the side as skipper Christophe Berra and John Souttar, who have both suffered long-term injuries in the opening months of the campaign.
“There’s the quality of your players and your strength in depth,” said Levein, when considering the main factors involved in a team becoming champions. “It will be about the team that has the best players and if they lose players they can bring in players who are equal in quality or there’s not a big drop.
“That’s been Celtic in the last few seasons because they have the best players and then good players to come in as back up. They still have that. But we are in a better place than we have been in for a while.
“We are a better team this year,” he added. “We were lacking in certain areas last season. We did not have that strength in depth, that competition that keeps people on their toes.
“This year we have that and even though we have lost some important players we have still got competition for places. Young Harry [Cochrane] and Anthony [McDonald] played a lot of games last season and they’ve hardly been involved this year. They’ve been on the bench.
“We’ve had [Oliver] Bozanic patiently waiting to get into the team and he got in on Saturday. We are a better team because we have better players and we have more competition for places.”
Levein is wary of the vastly different circumstances in which his side will operate this evening. Following high-octane clashes with Rangers and Aberdeen, they must raise their game against a struggling side at a stadium likely to be less than half full.
“What’s really important for us is that we maintain the same level of focus, energy and all these things that are important and have helped us since the start of the season,” said Levein.
“And the fact it’s Jim McIntyre’s first home game after coming in and losing his first match away from home are added difficulties. We have to be wary, even being just five per cent less focused will be an issue for us.
“My message would definitely be we need to treat this exactly the same as the Aberdeen game. We just want to keep the momentum going.”