In any of his managerial incarnations, Craig Levein would never have been mistaken for a happy-go-lucky wisecracker. He is too intense about his endeavours for that, but that very intensity brought a certain tempestuousness. What he never was before is lugubrious in the manner he appears presently.
The 53-year-old may have a deep distrust of the media. That is understandable following his bruising experience as Scotland manager, and the meteor shower of brickbats that rained on him following the unravelling of the Ian Cathro experiment – firmly his baby as Hearts’ director of football and mentor to the young coach.
Yet it is not hostility Levein is exhibiting in media forums; far from it, as he is proving admirably candid and co-operative. Instead, it is his Eeyore-style delivery that is proving striking. That and his reserve on the touchline.
Maybe all this can be put down to the maturity that comes with middle age. Or maybe, having been thrust back into club management by Hearts owner Ann Budge almost eight years since he left Dundee United for the national team, Levein’s world-weariness can be explained by the fact he is a pressed man, not a volunteer.
To those who see him behind the scenes, Levein retains the edge he always possessed. An edge that has allowed Hearts to take on Celtic down Gorgie way this afternoon boasting a season-best seven-point haul from three games, all staged at their redeveloped stadium. The patchwork sides Levein has put together for the past week’s back-to-back wins – a smattering of pimply youths among them – have hardly been commanding. They have, though, possessed the trait associated with the best Levein teams in that they have grafted.
Hearts midfielder Prince Buaben is a player ideally placed to assess Levein then and now. It is now more than a decade since he embarked on his senior career under him at Tannadice. The Ghanaian believes the fundamentals that Levein operates by remain the same, and that these can draw more from the Tynecastle side.
“The gaffer has always been the same,” he said. “I played for him for two-and-a-half seasons at Dundee United and he wants you to work hard. If you work hard for the team you will always play. He gives his players confidence and the thing I really like about him is that he really doesn’t care if you give the ball away. He wants you to try, and if you give the ball away that’s OK. He wants you to work back but he is good for the players’ confidence.”
In terms of Levein’s temperament, Buaben seems unsure as to whether the former Scotland manager has mellowed for the moment, or on a more permanent basis.
“I’ve not tried to make him angry because I know there is an angry side to him,” he said.
“Every manager needs to have that so the players know where they stand. But he has been OK with the players so far so hopefully nobody makes him angry. I think he has been calmer but I know the wrong side of him so we need to keep it like this.”
Levein has perhaps been sombre about tasks because Hearts have appeared such a misshapen, lacking team: the absence of pace on the flanks and a reliable left-back are elements that need rectified in the transfer window, as the club’s manager has admitted.
The contributions of 16-year-olds in Harry Cochrane, who has appeared throughout the campaign, and Anthony McDonald, an impressive debutant in the midweek win over Dundee, have reflected well on Levein. Even though he said their exposure has come earlier than it should have. Levein said the same about Buaben when he brought the Netherlands-raised performer, then 19, into the team “earlier than expected”.
The now-29-year-old midfielder would have no fears in the unlikely event of McDonald and Cochrane being selected against Brendan Rodgers’ domestic unbeatables.
“They can handle it. They have to,” Buaben said. “If they want to become good players they have to prove they can do it against the best. If you don’t there is no point playing. Believe me the gaffer gives them a lot of confidence. Look at the way they played against Dundee, it was amazing.
“I was 19 when I started but I think football has changed. It’s more tactical and lads like Harry are really good at that side of it. In training I know how they are. They like the ball and so when I give them the ball I know that they can handle it. The gaffer knows what they are capable of. They need a chance otherwise how will they progress? I think they can go really far if they believe in themselves.”
They might even give Levein something to smile about.