Hearts boss Craig Levein: last season was one of the hardest, now I'm loving it

Craig Levein has been to a jam-packed Murrayfield once before and says he left at half-time. But that was for a rugby match and he hopes that both he and his players have the staying power needed this afternoon when they face Celtic in the semi-final of the Betfred League Cup and that the 30,000 swell of maroon-clad punters have no reason to head for the exits before the final whistle.

“I have been to one rugby match and it wasn’t very good. It was a Scotland v England game and the pitch was terrible and we were getting hammered at half-time so I left. Hopefully I will want to stay for the full 90 mins this time!”

There have been other visits, of course, as Hearts, like Celtic, used the venue for European clashes and when the Gorgie club temporarily vacated Tynecastle at the start of last term while their new stand was under construction.

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“The pitch is really good and two of those games were the Rangers game with 30,000 people there and the Aberdeen game and the atmosphere was really good that day, too. I am quite excited because I felt the atmosphere was good in those games and I can just imagine what it will be like on Sunday with an even bigger crowd.”

Craig Levein and Ollie Bozanic have belief in their ability to reach the Betfred Cup final. Photograph: Rob CaseyCraig Levein and Ollie Bozanic have belief in their ability to reach the Betfred Cup final. Photograph: Rob Casey
Craig Levein and Ollie Bozanic have belief in their ability to reach the Betfred Cup final. Photograph: Rob Casey

There is a twinkle in his eye as he looks ahead to the contest for a place in December’s final and it is the kind of occasion he missed in his role of director of football, when he was restricted to a less hands-on role and a seat in the stand on match days.

“From the moment I made the decision to come back in, it just took me a bit of time to get back into the swing of things because I had spent three or four years trying to separate myself from the players and the decision making. It took a while to get back and last season was the toughest I have ever been involved in throughout my career with everything we had to deal with.

“If it had been my first job, I would have been struggling. But the fact I had been at the club and knew the league, that made it a wee bit easier. But it was my toughest year in management and I have had some bad ones! This year has been better. We have got a lot of work done since January and this has been better but we are still early in the season.”

Early season but it has been a strong start. With only one defeat and victories over the likes of Aberdeen and Celtic, they are top of the table, six points ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ men and five above second-placed Kilmarnock. They are also one match away from a place in the first major domestic final of the season.

But to secure a place in that Hampden showcase, the Tynecastle side will have to find a way to beat Celtic for the second time this season.

Asked if the 1-0 triumph, in their second league game of the season, back in August, would place any doubt in the double treble winners’ minds, Levein was cautious. “I don’t know, you’d need to ask them that. What it does do is give us the belief that we’re in with a chance of winning the game.

“We might not, but I feel we are. And if we can do all the things I mentioned earlier on and Celtic miss a couple of the opportunities they get we could win the game again.”

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But he said there was no secret that had been decoded by the likes of himself and Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke, the only two manager’s who had managed to plot a win over them in the league this season.

“I don’t think it’s as easy as that. Certain things have to happen to beat teams who, people would say, have better players than you, One is you need to take the opportunities that come your way, to help with the belief in the team. That’s critical. You can’t miss opportunities because you don’t get very many. And also your goalkeeper and back three or four have to be good.

“Pressing at the right times to put them under pressure is vital. We’ve done that, even in the games we’ve lost against them recently. We’ve had moments in the match where we should have scored and maybe changed who was in the ascendancy.

“The games we won, we scored when we had opportunities. Kyle’s goal in the game earlier in the season was the difference between the teams but we had to work extremely hard to get in a position to win the game. And we’ll have to do that again on Sunday.

”Celtic have improved, I’m sure everyone would recognise that – certainly their last couple of results have been much better, and they seem to have hit their stride. We’re not in any way, shape or form thinking that just because we won our last match against Celtic that automatically we can do the same thing again.”

But there is a belief in the team, with Ollie Bozanic showing no hesitation when asked if there was any kind of inferiority complex when the Hearts players consider Celtic’s grip on the silverware in Scotland over the past couple of seasons and the vastly superior finances.

“Not at all. This is a great club, a massive club. There is a great set up here and the way we are going now we hope we can lift trophies this year. We want to continue how we are going and progress every game.

“It is not so much about derailing them, it is about focusing on us and what we need to do to win the game and try to reach a final.”

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The midfielder was rewarded for his patience and attitude in training, being plucked from the bench to start the past two games in the absence of Peter Haring, who has been struggling with a hernia related muscle strain, and, while the Austrian has made this squad, the Australian, who netted his first goal for the club at Dens Park midweek, is expected to still to play a part at some stage of the 90 minutes as Levein asks every one of his players to dig deep.

“I know the boys are feeling pretty good just now,” said the manager. “I just don’t know if that is enough to sustain us through 90 minutes. We need to play well, we need to defend properly, we need to work harder than we have done in every other match this season, I’m sure. But the thing that makes me feel good is the fact I think we can win the game.”