Actions have very much spoken louder than words in Craig Levein’s reign as director of football at Hearts thus far.
Since officially being appointed to the post by Ann Budge last May, his public musings have generally been limited to a sporadic flow of Saturday-night tweets, usually savouring his team’s latest victory and picking out a player or two for praise. The name “Miguel” features regularly in his posts; as anyone who follows him on Twitter will know, midfielder Pallardo has clearly made a big impression on the former Scotland manager.
Hearts fans have feasted on these titbits since, aside from a couple of media gatherings early in his reign and a speech at Hearts’ annual general meeting in December in which he outlined the depth of work being undertaken by the club, they have had no other access to the thoughts of the man whose expertise has underpinned the remarkable recovery from the wreckage of administration.
Several media outlets – this one included – have tried and failed to be granted an interview. Even Gary McAllister, his former Scotland colleague, was snubbed when he asked him to talk to BT Sport earlier in the season. This is nothing personal; he has merely decided to let others, namely Budge, head coach Robbie Neilson and the players, front the club’s revival while he focuses on getting the foundations in place for Hearts to flourish in the long term.
He may not be keen to talk about it, but promotion back to the Premiership at the first time of asking has spoken volumes for Levein’s work so far. “I think it’s gone unnoticed how hard Craig works,” said Jack Ross, who was appointed by Levein as Under-20s development manager at the start of the season. “It’s been commented on often enough about how hard the likes of Robbie [Neilson], Stevie [Crawford] and myself work, but he works as hard as any of us. We spend so long in here [at Riccarton], almost cocooned at times, and Craig is here just as much as us overseeing the whole thing because he has a vested interest in making it all work.
“He’s had a vision for a football club and he’s now got this opportunity to carry it out at Hearts. He always knew that if he was able to put his plans in place and recruit the right people, it would have a good chance of working. It has done so far.”
When Levein placed his faith in the inexperienced coaching trio of Neilson, Crawford and Ross last summer, it was widely suggested that the former Scotland manager would be pulling the strings with regard to first-team affairs. However, Ross confirmed that such a scenario has never materialised and that he and his fellow coaches are merely privileged to have such a highly-regarded mentor to consult and learn from.
“As young coaches, Robbie, Stevie and I are grateful to be able to call on his knowledge,” said Ross. “He’s accessible to us virtually 24/7, so we’re spoiled in that regard. He’s a terrific sounding board for us on all matters, whether it’s games, training, or how to deal with players – to have that experience to hand on a daily basis is fantastic. I can’t speak highly enough of him in terms of his knowledge, his experience and his willingness to help us [the coaching staff].
“He doesn’t do coaching but he comes out almost on a daily basis and observes training, whether it’s senior players, young players or the whole group all in. He doesn’t interfere unless we go and ask him about things. Everything at the club is done by discussion. It’s never a case of him telling us what to do. We always discuss the best way forward.
“His observations on players are terrific. Because he’s the only one of us who had previous experience of management, he’s able to notice player behaviour and moods and things like that. He’s an extra pair of eyes for us and he’s able to steer us in the right direction at times. We might have an opinion on how a player is doing but because we’re working with them all the time, his opinion might differ slightly because he’s looking at them more objectively. It’s brilliant to have that. I’m friendly with managers at other clubs and I know they’d long to have someone like Craig as a sounding board.”
In addition to ensuring the first-team is in safe hands, a significant portion of Levein’s time has been devoted to rebuilding an academy which he felt had been neglected towards the end of Vladimir Romanov’s reign as owner. Ross has seen plenty progress in that regard, but explained that it will take some time before the work which has been undertaken at grass-roots level will manifest itself in a regular flow of homegrown players completing the journey into the first team.
“He spends a lot of time watching the kids and working with the coaches in the academy,” said Ross. “Imagine being a young coach taking the 12s and 13s and you’ve got an international manager there to turn for advice – that’s terrific.
“The academy will take a bit longer to reap the benefits of the changes Craig has overseen, though. There’s been a huge amount of work undertaken under Craig and as a coaching staff we’ve had an incredible number of lengthy meetings to get to the stage where can put in place what we want to do. In a year we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go with it. You hear people in football talking about three-to-five-year plans but rarely do they get the chance to implement it because of the nature of the game. Hopefully at this club it’s different. There is a genuine vision here.”
Ross detects a genuine sense of contentment from Levein in a role for which he looks perfectly made. “I think he enjoys the working relationship he’s got with myself, Robbie and Stevie and hopefully he’s content that he recruited the right people because that was a big decision for him,” he said. “It’s hard not to enjoy it here when things are going so well. Promotion is only the first step but I think the first season has gone better than any of us could have expected. Now we can start planning for the next step.”