Perhaps it would have been more concerning had Craig Levein not entered Pittodrie’s away dressing room at half-time on Saturday.
A disjointed Hearts team were 1-0 down against Aberdeen and looking bereft of belief and creativity. Any manager, or indeed director of football, would have been livid. Sitting in the main stand doing nothing would have been the real crime.
Levein’s passing of a note to the technical area via youth coach Jon Daly, followed by his interval intervention, caused much furore during Saturday’s defeat. It is fair to assume he didn’t head to the dressing room to sample the tea or Jaffa Cakes. He provides head coach Ian Cathro with support and insight, as do Daly and fellow coaches Austin MacPhee, Liam Fox and Andy Kirk. All of it at Cathro’s request, it should be noted.
Levein communicated with technical staff and spoke in the dressing room during Robbie Neilson’s tenure. What BT Sport’s cameras captured at the weekend was nothing new in that sense. It would make life easier on Cathro if the director of football was more discreet but his input was nonetheless a sideshow to another damaging result for Hearts.
Aberdeen’s victory should have been more comprehensive given their control and the number of scoring chances created. The defeat forced Hearts down to fifth in the Ladbrokes Premiership when St Johnstone won at Motherwell later in the day.
They sat second at the start of December, so what has gone wrong? Levein is attempting to address the issue, as is Cathro, but the players seem unable to explain the inconsistency. They have won just five of 18 matches in all competitions since beating Rangers 2-0 at Tynecastle on November 30.
“You know as much as me. I don’t have an answer on this,” admitted the Edinburgh club’s Slovenian defender, Andraz Struna. “I don’t think about being second or third or whatever. I just analyse our matches and how we play. Of course, since New Year, we didn’t get good results and we dropped. Aberdeen are constant from week to week. They collect points and they deserve to be in second place now.
“This question is every week the same. What can I tell you? Of course we spoke between ourselves and we try to do things better. The reasons now, I will not speak about this. We are just trying to fix things. Sooner or later, our qualities will show. The most important thing as we still have faith and we will not give up. We have hope and we trust each other. We work hard from week to week in training.”
The previous week’s 4-0 destruction of Hamilton offered hope but, after Sam Nicholson wasted an early scoring chance, Hearts never looked like following it up. The Aberdeen full-back Shay Logan charged forward untracked to head Niall McGinn’s left-sided cross home on 21 minutes. It took until the hour mark for the hosts to affirm their superiority when Hearts centre-back Tasos Avlonitis’ weak back pass gifted Jonny Hayes the second goal.
A late red card for substitute Jayden Stockley for striking Krystian Nowak during a chase for the ball took only minimal gloss over the hosts’ performance. “We are disappointed about how the game went,” admitted Struna. “I don’t think Aberdeen are better than Rangers. Maybe they have more points and because of this you can say they are better. From what I see, Rangers can play good, maybe better, on the field.
“Aberdeen know what they do. They know their strengths. They play simple and with this the plan is good for them. We started well, we won a lot of tackles and second balls. We created one good chance, we didn’t score, and after Aberdeen scored from one good chance. We know how they play, it was a hard game. In the second half, we tried to at least score one goal for a draw but from our mistake they scored again.”
Cathro attempted to explain Levein’s influence to satisfy the questions it raised. He stressed he wants information from an onlooker in the stand and welcomes the support of the former Hearts and Scotland manager, as well as others. “First of all, one of the positive things about the work with the club and the work with the staff is there are a lot of people engaged. We have good staff, we have good coaches and I involve them in our work during the week. I am someone who wants to train with a lot of coaches,” he said.
“We have good staff with the under-20s in Jon Daly, Andy Kirk and Liam Fox, who recently joined us. We work together. I have always worked in a situation where we have one member of our technical staff in the stand who understands the game plan and the work we have done and so on. So that person has the responsibility to me to keep the dialogue active on certain things I have asked them to look at. That’s completely normal.
“I know there’s a historical aspect to this that turns it into a story for you now and then. But, trust me, it’s completely normal. It would be remiss not to rely on the experience of everyone that’s involved in the situation. It’s one of the positive things that we work collectively.
“Now, I can’t discuss too many positive things right now but, if we’re talking generally about this to try and stop some sort of directed hysteria, it’s entirely normal that we work together. More specifically, a coach sits in the stand which we vary through my decision. They work for me. They are doing things asked of them by me, for me.”
On Levein’s appearance in the dressing room, Cathro added: “There’s no space. With the schematics of Pittodrie, there’s no space to do many things. You see a different person sitting behind this desk but trust me – if you were in my changing room, you wouldn’t be opening your mouth.”
Aberdeen continue to go from strength to strength under Derek McInnes and are now 17 points better off than Hearts, sitting second in the table. This was their ninth successive win in all competitions – a record not present in the Pittodrie annals since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson.
“On a difficult surface some of the play was excellent and 2-0 was a pleasing result. It could have been more,” said McInnes. “The honesty is screaming out of this team. They are relentless. There could be more quality at times and we’ll strive for that perfect performance but I could not ask for more physically. They are a credit to themselves and give me and the club everything every week.”