Craig Levein could easily go into hiding at Riccarton. His office is tucked away at the back of Hearts’ training facility, through a myriad of corridors and stairways inside the Oriam performance centre. Finding him wouldn’t be easy.
To his credit, the club’s director of football voluntarily emerged yesterday to address some issues at the end of a disappointing campaign. He held an end-of-season address in 2015 after Hearts’ record-breaking Championship title win, and again last summer when the Edinburgh club qualified for Europe as a newly-promoted Premiership team.
Perhaps Levein felt obliged to speak again at the same juncture this year. This time, he did so against a considerably bleaker backdrop. Six wins since December is, by his own admission, unacceptable. He remains relaxed, confident and resolute in his belief that head coach Ian Cathro will bring success to Tynecastle.
There was much to say, including mixed news for supporters. The repeated message is that Cathro needs more time; he is still learning in his first managerial role at the age of 30; he retains full support of Levein and the Hearts owner, Ann Budge. Fourth place was this year’s minimum target – Hearts finished fifth – and remains so next year.
A new recruitment company have been enlisted to identify players in addition to a tried-and-trusted network of contacts. A Scottish, or at least British, spine must be reinstalled in Gorgie. Cathro has already enjoyed Christophe Berra’s return to the club which launched his career. That is tempered by the imminent departures of talented young Scots Callum Paterson, Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker.
Ultimately, whenever Cathro moves on, Levein will promote another young, inexperienced coach to the head coach’s role. That aspect won’t change. It is his steadfast belief that young managers can be moulded into wily figureheads amid the intense scrutiny which accompanies the job at Hearts.
He has never had any doubts regarding Cathro’s appointment to succeed Robbie Neilson. “I see it fairly simply: As much as he’s Scottish, he’s never been on the touchline in Scotland, other than at Hearts,” explained Levein. “Every league has its way of playing. Scottish football has this kind of unique way. If you look outside the Old Firm, every team plays the same way. Aberdeen are the best at it, but they all play the same way. They go forward quickly, it comes back into midfield, second balls, it goes wide, it goes in the box and then they recycle it.
“If you can’t deal with that constant bombardment and pressure, either from direct balls or crosses, then you lose goals. We’ve played some matches this season where I think we’ve been fantastic but we’ve been beaten. I think Ian’s philosophy at the start was: ‘We’ll be better than everyone else.’ He’s very quickly realised that, if we don’t deal with what other people can deal with, then we can’t impose ourselves in games.
“The things Ian needs to learn are much simpler than Robbie had to learn – Robbie knew all of that, having played here. For me, the attraction of Ian is, once we get beyond that and defending these situations, I get excited about the possibilities. I watch him in training, the players are buying into what he’s doing.
“It’s quite difficult to gain momentum if you lose matches. It’s a kick in the bollocks when you lose a game. It’s quite difficult to get players fully behind you if you’re not winning matches. So, once he gets this bit organised then the rest, I’m sure, will follow. Bizarrely, we had a number of supporters who thought Robbie was not doing a good job. That’s because this is a place where people expect us to win. “
What is expected of Cathro next season? “There is no point in forecasting. We just have to see how it goes but I have every faith in him and Ann has every faith in him. Finishing fifth for us is normal, although we are not happy with it. If you look through the years since the restructure of the leagues, we’ve finished fifth more than any other position. It’s not acceptable.
“This season we would have had the fourth biggest budget so we are not happy with being one place worse than that. This season, and Ian learning what he needed to learn, will be very valuable. If we start next season poorly, although I don’t want to speculate on that, then we’ll look at things again.”
Levein admitted taking a more considered approach with Cathro while the outside world appeared to round on the young Dundonian. “Sometimes when you are under pressure criticism is not what you need. It’s not. Sometimes it is right, but sometimes people are finding it difficult and need help. In a senior role, my job is to help him, not being the one who is pointing the finger. There are enough people doing that already.
“The facts are that Ian’s record since he arrived at the club is pretty much the same as mine [for the first six months] after I arrived. If we’re going to appoint a young coach, we need to give him time to learn. That was the same with Robbie. As long as he’s picking things up and learning, which I see every day, I’m happy with that. I came in here to begin with to develop players and coaches. That’s what we’re doing. As head of the football department, that stuff is my responsibility, of course.”
Cathro isn’t motivated to prove anyone wrong. “That’s not him. That’s not what drives him, saying: ‘I told you so.’ He’s hard-working, diligent and desperate to succeed. He’s had a tough time. When you have a tough time at your work the support of your colleagues is important.”
Levein went on to divulge details on Hearts’ recruitment process for signing players this summer. Nine new arrivals in January coincided with wretched form in the second half of the season, and six of those players have now been released. Steps are being taken to avoid the repeating those mistakes.
“Hearts is a tough place to play and we need players who can handle that,” said Levein. “Someone wants a player who has played at a good level – say Alex Tziolis, who has played 61 times for Greece. He comes here for our top salary, which looks to me like good value, and the coach wants him, then is it my position to say: ‘You are not getting him’? I’d be better picking the team if I was doing that. So these things need to be a shared responsibility and I won’t walk away from that.
“Ian will come to me and say: ‘I want to sign this player.’ I also need to be able to allow him to use his imagination and get his ideas across. Otherwise I’m having an influence on the players he is signing and I don’t want to do that. I just want it to be logical and, if he makes a good case, I’ll say: ‘I see that.’
“Recruitment is interesting because there are so many different ways of doing it. You can spend an absolute fortune on it. You can have scouts all over Europe, have little hubs here, there and everywhere. We have had six transfer windows [since coming out of administration] and they have all been the same – basically contacts, working through people you know, a network of people.
“It has worked fairly well in four of the windows and I would say in the summer we got one or two right. The last two haven’t been great. We will still continue to use contacts. What that has done has led us to look at another way of recruiting, which we are starting to implement. We have got access to a company who are finding players for us through stats. We are using the two things now.
“This window will be the first experiment as such and it looks promising. We are certainly getting names thrown up that we didn’t know about. Christophe came from the old way of doing it and we will still do that, but I think we are just widening our net a little bit. This sounds crazy because I am at the same time talking about signing British players.
“But as much as we are going to try and fix the middle part of the team and try and get a bit more of a Scottish or a British base, Hearts have traditionally done well with some foreign players. They bring something a bit different. I don’t want to discard that and become solely Scottish. I think we would lose a trick if we don’t have something a little bit different at times.”
Questions over Levein’s philosophy increased as last season descended into mediocrity. The appointment of Cathro as a novice coach was not befitting of Hearts’ demands and reputation, according to some. Levein stressed he will persist with the policy when the time comes to hire the next head coach.
“By the time Ian leaves, whether that’s two years down the line or whatever, I’m sure we will have someone ready to take the job who knows the club and the players. At that time we will also have a group of players coming through from the academy who will know that coach. It makes perfect sense to me. Having an inexperienced manager is not something that’s necessarily to the detriment of the club. We have had a lot of experienced managers who have not done any better.
“We are behind in our advancement of players but the club has spent money putting solid foundations in place. We are starting to see the fruits of that. We brought in eight players from the academy last summer. The previous summer it was two. And four of those eight were starting players for Scotland Under-16s in the Victory Shield, which is unheard of at Hearts. The stuff going on underneath if fantastic.”