When Craig Levein last managed a Hearts team, Allsports sponsored the strips and Patrick Kisnorbo was in the side. Plenty has changed in the intervening 13 years but there was a definite retro feel about the new manager sitting in Tynecastle’s Gorgie Suite yesterday.
Hearts have gone back to the future by appointing Levein, 52, for the second time on a three-year contract. He takes charge of a club transformed from that which he left in 2004. Much of the change he has implemented himself during the last three years as director of football, a role he will still perform alongside that of first-team manager. Yet there are curious similarities.
Christophe Berra was in the squad when Levein last took charge of Hearts – a 1-1 draw with Dundee United at Tannadice on October 27, 2004. The same Christophe Berra who captains the team Levein is inheriting. There is even a move to Murrayfield on the horizon to reinforce the nostalgia surrounding the Fifer’s return to the dugout.
However, this is not the same Craig Levein Hearts had in the early 2000s. It is the more mature, slightly mellowed version. Only slightly, mind. He intends to prove himself all over again five years since being sacked as Scotland manager. A timely joke that he “might play one striker, just in case” acknowledged he knows he is still being beaten with the same stick years after his infamous 4-6-0 formation with the national team in Prague.
There is, of course, much more to Levein than that. Anyone who spoke with him inside the Gorgie Stand yesterday would have noted a relaxed and jovial man with fresh appetite; a man grateful to be asked by Hearts owner Ann Budge to take charge of a team again five years since he last stood in a technical area with Scotland. “I’ve been around in that time. I’ve actually been in the dressing room once or twice,” he smiled.
“I don’t know yet how much I’ve changed. I really don’t know. I’m sometimes different out there than I am in here. I don’t know how that will manifest itself. But hopefully I don’t get too many fines.”
Another wry smile. He was now getting into his stride as a question came about the Hearts manager’s job being a poisoned chalice for him. Levein is aware not everyone has welcomed his return.
“Aye, I thought she [Budge] might have said that,” he joked. “‘He’s alright to take it.’ Like, ‘Ah, a poisoned chalice, I’ll have one of those!’
“It is a difficult job. There has been a lot of turmoil since Robbie Neilson left, but the rest of the football department is as good as it has ever been. Our academy is amazing. So those are the things I’ve spent a lot of time doing, and I feel really proud of. The club is going in the right direction. This is a job I’ll like, even though I know it will be tough.”
Under Budge, Hearts are properly financially secure for the first time since the 1980s and building a new £12million main stand. Levein is intrigued to manage the team under such stability. He compared taking the job this time with to last time. “The clubs are all in better places now,” he said. “In 2000, we had a huge wage bill. Bank of Scotland were lending all the money. I last played in 1995 and the top wage was £1000 a week. When I came back in 2000, there were four players earning £10,000 a week. In five years, the wage bill just went: ‘Boom.’
“That happened all over Scotland. The reason I got the Hearts job then was to try and get the wage bill back down again. The club was in a serious amount of debt and talking about moving to Murrayfield. There was a lot of turmoil about the place and every club found themselves in a similar spot.
“This time, I feel the place is calm and stable. We’ve got wage caps and we’re not spending a fortune on the playing squad just now. But, when I look outside and see that new stand going up, and there’s going to be an extra 3000 people with more hospitality, then we can start investing again in the first-team squad.
“We have been investing hugely in the academy, spending money which has significantly changed what we’re doing. We’ll see the benefits of it in three or four years’ time. Trust me, we will have the best young kids in Scotland in three or four years’ time.”
Budge spent four weeks deliberating over this decision after sacking Ian Cathro. Candidates including Steven Pressley, Paul Hartley and Billy Davies were interviewed before the club owner popped the question about Levein resuming his managerial career. He took 24 hours to think it through.
“My wife was like: ‘What?’ It’s just there [Levein points to his stomach]. It sometimes goes away for a while but it comes back. I want to improve myself. I just want to do that. I do think this minute is different from the last time. I don’t see any great connection.
“I just see an opportunity here to be, not completely different, but I have obviously thought long and hard about my time in football, including Dundee United and Scotland, the last two jobs I was in.
“With the Scotland job, I think it’s sometimes difficult to work out what you’ve learned from it. Other than the media stuff of course. That job is completely different from the day-to-day where there is a different set of circumstances with the players.
“I have thought about both jobs and where I am right now. I am excited and interested to see where it goes.”
Levein always felt he would manage again after leaving the SFA. “Absolutely. I had opportunities abroad which I turned down and when Ann approached me about coming back to Hearts, I was reluctant because I thought she was going to offer me the manager’s job. What intrigued me was this director of football role.”
A role which, according to Levein, too many don’t fully understand. His plan was to promote young coaches and oversee their development, but he was frequently accused of influencing both Neilson and Cathro.
“I spent three years trying not to do that,” he insisted. “There are many people who misunderstand the role of a DoF. The role of a DoF is a supporting role, it is not a question of me saying ‘do this, do that’.
“I’ve tried to explain this. If I was doing that, then I’d never find out if the coach is any good. If I’m telling him, ‘you’ve got to do this’ and ‘you’ve got to do that’ then you don’t find out. Nobody knows if he is going to be a good coach until he is in the position and making decisions.
“They have to make their own decisions. Yes, Robbie came to me loads of time and asked my advice, and so did Ian, but my role was never to tell anybody what to do. What would be the point? It doesn’t make sense.”
He accepted most of the criticism without responding. “It’s not my place to pick fights. I will do now but, for the last three years, I’ve done one press interview a year. That’s solely so that the head coach is the face and voice of the club. I even had Twitter for about three months and I thought, ‘stuff that’.”
Social media wasn’t for him. Given football management is in his blood, is it really a great surprise Craig Levein has returned to the front line?