Return of derby master Craig Levein offers hope to Hearts

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Craig Levein would be first to accept that his return as Hearts manager was not met with 
universal approval among supporters.

However, even those who described themselves as underwhelmed were soothed by the belief he would surely rectify a derby record that had gone seriously awry. In their last seven matches, under Robbie Neilson and then Ian Cathro, Hearts have failed to register a win against Hibernian.

Craig Levein  has some selection dilemmas, especially in midfield. Picture: SNS.

Craig Levein has some selection dilemmas, especially in midfield. Picture: SNS.

In the field of putting one over Hearts’ fiercest rivals, Levein is a past master. Even his detractors can have few complaints about his success rate. As both a player and manager, he has lost just six of the 52 he has been involved in. Last week he wondered out loud whether he’d really lost as many as six.

This reputation as something of a derby expert, sent to deliver Hearts from a period of faltering derby form, could place some unwanted extra pressure on Levein, who has more than steadied the ship since replacing Cathro. If Hearts can win this evening at Easter Road they will move into the top three.

“I was not even aware of that,” said Levein, when this was pointed out to him yesterday. “Thank you for that. I haven’t even thought about it. There is enough at stake just in the game itself. The consequences of it, one way or another, will be what it will be. I am not bothered about that just now.”

On his past derby success, he added: “I don’t feel extra pressure. The game itself brings pressure which is greater than some other matches. It’s the whole occasion – it is a joy to be involved in. I thought that as a player and as a manager last time, probably because, as you said, we had notable success. Hopefully that can happen again.

“We had a really good side back then [his last spell as manager]. But I would argue we are a stronger team now than in any point in the last couple of years. We have big characters in the team now, which we did not have. That will help us.

“We are weak in midfield right now, I accept that. But that’s just the circumstances at the moment.”

Of course, some maintain Levein has culpability for the recent poor sequence of derby results given he was director of football at the time. How much influence he wielded when it came to team matters is still a matter of debate.

But there’s no doubting who bears the burden of responsibility ahead of tonight’s meeting at Easter Road.

Levein has plenty to think about, something compounded by the quick turnaround required by the scheduling of such a high-octane fixture so soon after the weekend’s games.

“It is quite difficult to prepare in a short period of time,” he said. “If it was the whole week I would feel more prepared, but then that’s just normal.”

Even another 24 hours’ rest would not have helped Arnaud Djoum and Don Cowie. Their loss through injury presents Levein’s greatest headache. The midfield battle could prove pivotal and Hibs are strongest there. Hearts, as Levein pointed out, are probably at their most vulnerable in that area.

The Hearts manager is still deliberating about his team selection. One of his chief dilemmas is whether to pitch 17-year-old Harry Cochrane into the fray. The teenager replaced the struggling Prince Buaben at half-time in the 1-0 win over St Johnstone on Saturday and performed the holding midfielder role to greater effect.

But whether such a potentially frenetic evening at a sold-out Easter Road is the place for a teenager, even one as impressive as Cochrane, remains to be seen. Levein was still pondering this yesterday.

“I don’t have any options other than think about the young players. They’ve all done really well for us – [Jamie] Brandon, [Euan] Henderson, Cochrane, [Lewis] Moore. We will see. I’ve been doing some research on Hibs and trying to second guess what’s going to happen in the match. Then I will make a decision on whether some of these young guys start.”

“We will cobble something together,” he added. “I’ve still got some work to do and I will have an idea of the team around 7.30pm on Tuesday night.”

Such are his quandaries, it is not a case of simply turning up and expecting Hearts to re-connect with their derby convictions of old. But Levein is back in a routine he knows well. Hearts fans should at least feel reassurance.