Watching Craig Levein nestle back into a chair at Tynecastle is like going back in time.
Fittingly, he sat in the stadium’s Bobby Walker Suite with a plan to make history after returning to Hearts ten years since leaving for Leicester City.
This time he is director of football as opposed to manager, harbouring a clear vision for simultaneous player and coach development to help rebuild the club. With the permission of new owner Ann Budge, Levein is conducting a revolution no other Scottish club has tried.
He placed his leather folder and mobile phone on the table and, seated alongside Budge and new head coach Robbie Neilson, began outlining his new structure. It derives from the old Liverpool model of promoting from within; the “boot room” mentality of coaches progressing through the club in a continual cycle. The theory has attracted scepticism given it has already cost Gary Locke, Billy Brown and senior players their jobs, leaving Robbie Neilson as Hearts’ guinea pig under the new regime.
Neilson’s role is not only coaching first-team players. He is expected to live and breathe all aspects of football development at Riccarton, a sizeable task for a 33-year-old in his first managerial role. Other coaches will arrive to work beneath and eventually succeed him, all part of Levein’s idea to transform Hearts from top to bottom.
“My responsibility is overseeing everything in the football department. It’s much better that my thoughts, Robbie’s and the other coaches are aligned on how we see this working. I don’t want to pick the team and I don’t want to pick the players,” said Levein.
“Unless I let the coach make decisions, how is he going to improve? I can’t make those decisions because Robbie Neilson has to stand on his own two feet. I’m there to help. We’ll sit down on a Thursday, for Robbie’s benefit, and discuss tactics for the Saturday. We’ll discuss who he’s going to play, why he’s going to play that way and how he sees the game going.
“Once the game is finished, we’ll do a debrief on a Sunday. We’ll talk about what happened and what we can do next week that will help. I wish I’d had somebody doing the same thing with me.
“The structure can start at the top and work its way down. If there had been no administration it might have been more difficult, if a director of football had come in above Paulo Sergio or someone like that. It might have caused a stushie.
“I showed Ann a model of how the club should look. It wasn’t a thick document because I’m not that clever. It’s been an idea I’ve had for years. I hadn’t needed to put it down until Ann asked for details. It’s not meant to be complicated.”
Levein wants youth academy coaches embracing Hearts’ ethos, learning from a coach development programme and moving up the ladder. In time, the best ones could get a chance at senior level in the same way Liverpool promoted from within throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
“That’s the idea, but we’re not going to get the quality of people Liverpool had,” he continued. “We all know a lot about coaching footballers, but there’s no reason why you can’t coach a coach. The challenge for me, with John Murray as chief scout, is to provide Robbie with the best players.
“You have almost every club in Scotland recruiting managers the same way. You get a new manager, see how he does, hope you can pick a good one next time and the time after that. You get into this cycle of having to pay people off. Then you have the manager saying this is not my team.
“This system does away with all that because the next coach is in the system. He understands the philosophy and the way the team plays. Financially, this system must work better than the hap-hazard way of doing it. I’ve had this in my head for ten years at least.
“I looked at what club has been successful in producing successful managers. For me, only one club has done that, and that’s Liverpool. It was a long time ago. It was no coincidence they all came from inside and knew the culture, knew how things worked, knew the players, knew what success tasted like and knew how to replicate it.”
Feeling he needed to overhaul Hearts’ football department was what led Levein to dispense with Locke. He admitted the decision was unfair on the man who led with such dignity during the last 12 months, but felt he could not afford to let emotion cloud his judgment.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in football. If it was a popularity contest between me and Gary, hell, I’d even vote for Gary. If you say it’s about fairness, then I totally get the point that he deserves a chance. What he has done is more than enough to get himself another manager’s job. I’d suggest that’s the road that he goes down.
“Gary’s not going to write a coach education programme for me. That’s not what he does, but that’s what the job here is. There’s coaching first team and the tactical side, but also there’s this original idea of building something from the top to the bottom. I’ve tried to do that at every club I’ve been at. I think it’s possible to develop players and coaches at the same time.
“Because of Gary’s inexperience and the points deduction, I thought it would be very difficult to keep the team up this season. This isn’t a reflection of how Gary did his job, it’s just a completely different route we’re going down. The easiest thing to do would be to give him the job, but there’s no point having this idea then saying you have to find a place for somebody.”
There was a calm air of reflection about Levein as he delivered his hypothesis on how Hearts should move forward from a football perspective. The 49-year-old former Scotland manager conceded he made mistakes whilst in charge of the national team but claimed he has entered a new chapter in his career at Tynecastle and is using a new motto. “I wanted to do a better job with Scotland,” he smiled. “I really enjoyed the performance system stuff with Scotland, that was brilliant. Listen, I made a lot of mistakes. I got things wrong. Stay cool at all times – that’s my motto now.”
He is nothing if not clear on the kind of environment he wishes to create at Riccarton. From signing players right down to the colour of the toilet roll, Levein gives the impression he will be all over everything.
“John Murray is going back to scouting. He was my scout here all those years ago and he is fantastic at it. He will look for players and write a profile for each position – what kind of player we are looking for.
“We will identify different characteristics for each position. He will look for those type of players and I will sit down and have a look at them then we will present three or four to Robbie and say, ‘what do you think?’ He might say we can do better than that.
“We don’t want Robbie going to watch a player in Holland three times. We will let Robbie do the coaching. He will tell us what he wants, we will try and find it for him and if he says no we go and find someone else.”