And, faced with the man who had publicly backed every one of them and eventually paid the price for their inability to earn the wins needed to extend his tenure as manager, there was a lot of contrition, according to Austin MacPhee.
Less than 24 hours after he was relieved of his position, Levein took the opportunity to address the players and coaching staff when they reported for training yesterday and although it was an emotional farewell, the sacked boss remained calm and thanked the players for their efforts.
“He also thanked the ones who came to Hearts when they had options to go elsewhere and he spoke to the staff as well,” said MacPhee. “Everyone has to feel a bit of guilt about it, but we have to channel that into the reaction we want on Sunday.”
Asked why he thought form had been so bad this term, the coach said the players had to shoulder their share of the blame.
“There are many factors. One of them is the players didn’t want the ball at some points and some of them will be the first to say that. That came out of conversations that I’ve had.
“Everybody wants an excuse in life when things aren’t going well. That’s human nature. If people were critical of Craig and players were feeling the pressure of that, they had to be able to cope with that pressure to be a Hearts player. Some haven’t, let’s be honest, and that’s led to us being in the situation that we’re in.”
The guilt of those failings manifested itself in heartfelt apologies from some. “Yeah, from me for a start,” admitted MacPhee, who has been asked to take charge of the team for tomorrow’s Betfred Cup semi-final against Rangers at Hampden. “I said to Craig, I don’t think I’ve been much good to him for anything other than getting him Snow Patrol tickets!
“I’ve had a very frank relationship with Craig those last two years, and we had some dialogue. Craig’s attitude made it very easy for me. He was hugely supportive towards me, and I felt like I was speaking to a Hearts supporter.
“There are a lot of people here who remember Hearts when they were about to not be Hearts anymore. And one of the key people in setting up everything that Hearts now have was Craig. They saw the tireless work that he put in to do that.”
MacPhee, who joined the club as assistant manager to Ian Cathro almost three years ago, said he had consulted Levein on Thursday before accepting the role of interim boss but said that despite being permitted to see out his contract, overseeing the development of backroom and youth operations, the former manager and director of football would not have a hands-on role when it came to first-team matters.
“He explained that he wouldn’t be coming to the game, because people would write that he was picking the team, and that he wouldn’t be coming to training, because people would write that he was in charge of that. If Craig came to my house they’d probably say that he was cooking the tea!”
MacPhee’s second spell as interim manager, he says the difference is that in his previous stint he was merely keeping the seat warm for Levein, who remained in contact while recuperating from his heart attack. This time Levein has urged him to “be your own person, make your own decisions”.
With injuries limiting his options in terms of personnel, he has decided on what he believes is the best way to approach tomorrow’s semi, which should include a return to action from Steven Naismith, pictured inset. “The last time I was interim manager Steven scored a hat-trick in half an hour – so we will try to get 30 minutes out of him!”
His own man, making his own decisions, MacPhee has enlisted the help of the vastly experienced SFA coach and former Hearts midfielder Donald Park, who will assist him while Hearts chairwoman Ann Budge weighs up options and decides who she wants to take the team forward on a full-time basis. MacPhee will also take time to decide if he would like to be considered.
“For better or worse, Sunday will tell me a lot about me,” he said. “I need to stand at the side of the pitch with nobody bar me responsible for that team, that 90 minutes and those decisions.
“I feel comfortable about that just now. Let’s see if I feel comfortable about it at 5pm or 5.30pm on Sunday.”