Brendan Rodgers says he has nothing but respect for Craig Levein
Whether it’s been the length of the grass on the Tynecastle pitch, the playing style of Scott Brown or the machinations behind recruitment during Ian Cathro’s tenure at Gorgie, the slugging has been sustained.
In Murrayfield’s theatre of rugby that today will become a grand footballing stage, the two men trackside won’t be panto figures to one another but characters who acknowledge each other as serious players.
The health and well-being of one of the clubs will be shaken by the outcome of the Betfred Cup semi-final. An occasion contested in truly unique circumstances and in front of a 60,000-plus crowd, the biggest live audience for a football fixture within these borders for almost three decades.
But for Rodgers, his concern for the health and well-being of Hearts counterpart Levein overrides the barbs the pair have exchanged these past 14 months.
The moment news emerged about the heart scare that forced Levein to take a fortnight away from the game in early September, Rodgers was immediately in touch. A few weeks earlier the two managers had a 25-minute natter in the aftermath of Hearts’ win over the champions that paved the way for the Tynecastle men to set the pace in the Premiership.
“I sent him a message straight away,” Rodgers said of his reaction to Levein being hospitalised. “You understand the pressures of the job when you’re a manager. I think it’s only when you are a manager, when you walk in their shoes, you know everything that you’re under. But the most important thing is your health. He got back to me virtually straight away.
“I have a huge respect for Craig. I’d never come across him till I was up here.
“You have your little bits and pieces about lawn mowers and the size of the grass. We all understand there’s a wee bit of gamesmanship and edge along the way. They make the pitch however they want.
“He wants every advantage they can and they have the right to do that. You can’t say it when you lose but you can say it when you win. That might seem a bit strange. It’s football. You look for every advantage you can get. But ultimately what you base everything on is respect. I have huge respect for him. He’s trying to do something there and build it the right way and use his experience to go and manage. He’s been a manager for a long time. He’s done a terrific job.”
Rodgers is in no doubt that, over a summer in which a truckload of players arrived at Hearts, the best job Levein performed was convincing Steven Naismith to hitch his wagon to the Edinburgh club again and agree a further loan deal with parent club Norwich City.
“I think the catalyst for it all [at Hearts] is Steven Naismith,” said Rodgers of the 31-year-old attacker who has also stormed back into the Scotland team this season.
“I was surprised when he left Everton because I thought he was one of their key players. But I’ve got no doubts – without knowing him – of his influence because of the level he’s played at. I’m sure along with the other players he’s definitely made them very strong. They’ve made a very good start to the season and they’ll be a tough opponent.
“I always recognised him [Naismith] as a very good player. I think he scored against me at Liverpool in one of the games [a 2-2 draw in October 2012] when [Luis] Suarez scored too. He was always a player I was impressed with wherever he played on the field. He had a good football brain, technically good with a good eye for goal. He works very hard and when I see him play he clearly looks after himself. He was a really good signing for Craig.”
The spirit of detente between the clubs could potentially be tested by likely headlines this morning that might give the impression Rodgers has been using his influence to determine the nature of the pitch at Murrayfield this lunchtime.
The Irishman, perhaps mischievously, made a point of relating that he had chatted to groundsman Jim Dawson and his team when Celtic trained at the stadium on Tuesday. In reality, the pitch dimensions will be precisely as those for the other Betfred Cup semi-final today.
“I spoke to the guys when they were working on the pitch when we were training there on Tuesday. It would be ignorant not to talk to them, right?” Rodgers said.
“I was just asking them what size they thought the pitch would be – and how long the grass would be... The pitch will be 105m and 68 wide. That’s the same size as Hampden. The grass will be down from 26cm to 24, which is Uefa guidelines size which just happens to be the exact same size as Celtic.
“So it’s a nice big pitch and it’s football. They have top groundstaff at Murrayfield, they’ve got standards as well, the pitch is superb and they want a showcase game too.”