“Bigger crowd than Easter Road.” One Hearts fan noted the turnout shuffling into the Gorgie Suite for the club’s 110th annual general meeting.
Most were there to observe and applaud the work of the Tynecastle hierarchy in 2016. Some came with hard-hitting questions, mainly for director of football Craig Levein.
Owner Ann Budge, chief operating officer Scot Gardiner, head of finance Jacqui Duncan and Levein all addressed shareholders during a meeting lasting one hour 40 minutes. After the board were re-elected and accounts approved, the first question from the floor was aimed at Levein.
“I keep getting this in pubs and clubs,” queried an anonymous gentleman. “You appointed Ian Cathro as manager/coach, call him what you want. Who picks the team?”
Levein stood up. “Firstly, stay out the pubs and clubs if I were you,” he said, to much chortling from the audience. “The team will always be, and always has been, picked by the head coach. I’ve said this previously. We’re trying to develop young coaches and they have to be allowed to make their own decisions.
“I’d be as well being the manager if I wanted to pick the team. I don’t. I want to help develop Robbie Neilson, I want to help develop Ian Cathro, I want to help develop young players to come and play for Hearts. I don’t want to pick the team. If I wanted to pick the team, I’d have picked the team up at Ross County. I don’t want to do it. I want to see if we can develop coaches who can take us to the highest level possible. Ian will pick the team but I’ve got this funny feeling this might not be the last time I have to explain it.
“I can assure you there’s nothing sinister in Robbie leaving. He texted me on the Monday morning and said he had something he wanted to speak to me about. I went to see him and he said he had an interest from MK Dons. We discussed it but it was very apparent to me that he’d made up his mind.
“Robbie is a very logical guy. He felt that, to get a top job in England, he has to do a good job at a club in England. Whether I agree or disagree, that was his decision. It happened rather quickly because he wanted to leave rather quickly. Myself and Ann and everybody have nothing but great admiration for Robbie and he has nothing but great admiration for the club. You’ll have seen that by the comments he made when he left.”
Another shareholder asked about quality control in player recruitment and whether certain ones could be moved on, citing Juwon Oshaniwa and Conor Sammon as those which “spring to mind”.
“I don’t feel it is appropriate to talk about individual players but I am happy to talk about recruitment,” said Levein. “We made a conscious decision to take some risks and try to get players who were probably better than what we could afford.
In some cases it has worked extremely well for us. I would even argue that some of the less risky signings are the ones that haven’t worked. It is difficult to say for absolutely sure unless you are buying a player from Scotland who has played in this league for a number of years. You cut out risk by doing that. “Even then, this is not an easy place to play. You can do as many checks as you like, and look at their character, but when the pressure is on, maybe they can’t handle it. It is very difficult to know that unless they are here and actually playing.
“There are a number of ways of recruiting and most of them are very expensive, involving feet on the ground in Europe. And that can cost hundreds of thousands. Even then, a lot of teams don’t get it right. The model we have is risky – I agree with that – but we will take some disappointments along the way and hopefully the ones that work make up for the ones that don’t.
“As for moving players on, it’s a game of ‘who blinks first’. If you give someone a contract then discover six months later that the manager doesn’t fancy them, then they will sit tight and ask for all their money and, essentially, you are writing off a chunk of money. We try not to do that, and to get them to get a move of their own accord or ask their agent to get them something.”
Levein spoke extensively about the Riccarton youth academy and its purpose in producing first-team players.
“When we get to the point where we’re bringing four or five players into the first team from the academy, then the money we can spend on players increases. Then, all of a sudden, you’re looking at a different animal altogether,” he stated. “With income from the new stand as well, it allows us to have three categories of players: Ones who come through the academy, there’s your solid pros, and then there’s the special players. We need guys who can actually make a difference. You can look out there and pick the players they like and the players they don’t think, but I assure you everyone who is signed is signed in an attempt to make the team better.”
Delving further into academy matters, Levein admitted replenishing stocks in different age groups has been essential of late. “For the last two and a half years, we’ve effectively been filling gaps and trying to find players to fill the under-20 squad,” he explained.
“Last summer, we only took two academy players in full-time. That’s an incredibly low number but it reflected the lack of investment towards the end of the previous regime. Money was withdrawn from scouting and coaching and the academy was starved of money.
“We’ve been finding players from elsewhere to join our under-20s and, as a consequence, we probably won’t get as many coming through to our first team as we did previously. Next summer, we’re confident we’ll bring six or seven kids from our under-17 team in full-time. This will be the first group that I confidently feel will become first-team players.
“The age-group below that is strong and the one below that is strong as well. I think you’ll all be really happy with what’s coming through.
“We have five development centres, funded by the Hearts Youth Development Committee. Kids from these centres aged seven and eight feed into us at nine and ten and train with us twice a week. The idea is that we get our first group of kids from them at under-11.
“Alongside the development centres, we have introduced the Box Soccer programme for ages nine to 13. I absolutely believe this will be the difference between our club and the rest. I think it’s the most innovative tool for educating young players that I’ve ever seen.
“We’ve employed Scott Crabbe to run this programme. Box Soccer is owned by John Colquhoun, who many of you will know, and Darren Murray is the head honcho for Box Soccer. After the go through development centres and Box Soccer, they come into our principles of play.
“We have also introduced an online portal where the kids can watch themselves play and then mark themselves on tasks they’ve been set in matches.
“It’s important to mention our players recognised at international level. Callum Paterson has played for the Scotland national team, Jack Hamilton has been in the squad, Faycal Rherras and Arnaud Djoum have played for their national teams. We also had four players in Scotland’s Victory Shield squad for the first time.”