Craig Levein insists Hearts’ signing policy is not underpinned by a desire to recruit foreigners as he revealed that they are keen to bolster their strikeforce.
Since the start of last season, only three of the club’s 17 outfield signings have been Scots – James Keatings, Gavin Reilly and Danny Swanson. However, the director of football is adamant that the influx of players from overseas since he and head coach Robbie Neilson took over at the helm in May 2014 has been entirely down to the search for value for money as opposed to any conscious decision to shop abroad.
“It looks like we’ve signed foreign players because it’s a policy, but it’s not a policy,” he told the 300 shareholders in attendance at the club’s annual general meeting yesterday.
“The only policy we have got is value for money. We sign players that myself, Robbie, Stevie Crawford and John Murray feel represent value. If you try to sign players from England, it’s expensive. All we’re looking to do is get value for money.”
With the January transfer window due to open in four weeks, Levein explained that the club are keen to add to their attack as they aim to build on a strong start to their Premiership campaign which has left them in third place ahead of tomorrow’s visit from Inverness.
“We’re constantly looking at the squad and the positions we feel need strengthening,” he said. “Robbie and I agree that we could do with a little bit more firepower up front, so that’s an area where we’ll be looking to do something.”
Having overseen a runaway Championship title win in his first campaign at the helm last season, Levein is adamant that Hearts continue to climb the Scottish football ladder at a rapid rate. While the party line from Tynecastle this season has been that a top-six finish is the target, Levein admits the team, who are just eight points behind leaders Celtic, should be aiming even higher.
“Once you win something, it’s a dangerous time because sometimes people put their feet up and think they’ve achieved something,” he said. “But I can assure you that isn’t happening here and there’s no lack of ambition. As much as Robbie and everyone else talks about finishing in the top six, I can assure you our ambitions are much greater than that. We talk regularly about what we want to do but I’m not going to say what the target is because it’ll create a headline. Trust me, we are trying everything we can to finish as high up the league as possible.
“The league position could still be better. I personally feel we’re not at the top of our game yet. That’s partly because we’ve brought in a lot of new players, some who have taken longer to settle in than others. We’ve also had a lot of injuries early in the season and haven’t really had a settled team for most of the time. It encourages me greatly that I know we can do better. I’m looking forward to seeing that between now and the end of the season.”
Levein explained that the Hearts squad will continue to evolve in order to keep moving forward.
“At the end of the season, we lost or moved on a number of players, and the challenge after that was to recruit better players,” he said. “Moving up to the Premiership, we knew we were going to be facing teams with quicker, stronger players who are better organised, so we needed to recruit better players than we had last season. It’s an ongoing process. We’re not standing still – that’s the message. Both in the academy and at first-team level, we are trying to progress as quickly as possible.”
Levein gave an insight into the thought process behind Hearts’ recruitment. “Some of the players we bring are what I call ‘stabilisers’. They might not have any resale value, but they are the experienced guys who play important positions and who will help the younger players develop because ultimately that’s what we’re about.
“Others we sign with a view to improving here and then possibly selling on in the future. Everyone will have their own opinions about all the players we’ve signed, but I can assure you that everything we do on the recruitment side is investigated to the ‘nth’ degree. We want to find not only good players, but also good characters. An issue you have when you sign foreign players is that they sometimes need more time to settle in. You hope they’ll all hit the ground running, but it doesn’t work like that, so I’d ask the fans for patience with the new ones.
“Recruiting players is actually much easier now than it was when I was Hearts manager first time round. We didn’t have a training ground back then so my dealings with agents and players involved taking them along Princes Street, sitting in a cafe somewhere and looking at the castle saying ‘isn’t this a brilliant place’. Now we can take them to the training ground and the stadium, and everything’s hugely positive when we’re trying to recruit players. I’ve had a long association with the club but I’ve never been more excited by what’s going on than I am now.”
With the transfer window looming, Levein confirmed that Hearts have had no fresh interest from other clubs for any of their players. “Agents speak to me about teams watching certain players, but that’s just normal football gossip,” he said. “As yet, we have had no direct contact from any clubs, apart from Ipswich Town who were interested in Jordan McGhee in the summer but their valuation of the player was way below what ours was, so we knocked that on the head immediately.”