When the mobile phone of Stevie Crawford rang late in the afternoon of Monday, May 12, he could never have guessed the significance of the contact.
The name “Robbie Neilson” flashed up on the screen and Crawford answered the call. Unknown to him, he was quite literally answering the call.
Neilson wanted him to become Hearts’ assistant coach. The club’s former right-back was only appointed head coach at Tynecastle hours earlier but instantly knew who he wanted by his side – his ex-Falkirk coaching partner. Crawford immediately set the wheels in motion for the move.
It is exactly that kind of clear, swift decision-making that Neilson will need if he is to succeed at Hearts. Any manager must have a trustworthy assistant who shares their philosophy on football and, in Crawford, Neilson identified a young, hungry coach with the ability to improve young players.
They coached briefly together at Falkirk last year during the transition between manager Steven Pressley’s exit and Gary Holt’s arrival to replace him. Those few weeks sowed the seeds for what would become the new Hearts management team, working under director of football Craig Levein.
“Within 24 hours of him getting the Hearts job, Robbie phoned me to say he knew I was the one he wanted to work alongside him. It was basically to sound me out to see if I would be interested,” Crawford told the Evening News. “He wanted to do it in the right manner and give Falkirk their place if I was interested. Craig then spoke to the chairman at Falkirk.
“When Robbie said he wanted me in at Hearts, one of the biggest clubs in Scotland, I was very keen to talk to him. We were still involved in play-off games at that time and I asked Gary Holt if there was any chance I could speak to Hearts. Gary was great with me and allowed me that opportunity. Once the play-offs were decided I went in to meet Craig and Robbie. I decided it was right for me so I went back to Falkirk to thank them for the three years I’d had there and said I’d be moving on.”
Neilson and Crawford don’t have a long history of friendship. It is simply the case that they share the same coaching principles. They shared many a pitch in the old SPL but never struck up any particular bond. “Having played against Robbie over the years when he played with Hearts, I knew him well enough to speak to after games but not as a really close friend,” continued Crawford. “When Robbie came to Falkirk and Steven and Neil MacFarlane went to Coventry, Robbie started to help me on the coaching side. We had five or six weeks together taking training before Gary Holt came in.
“He moved on at the end of that season but we both crossed paths again doing our youth coaching licences. It wasn’t a case of one of us definitely taking the other one with them if we got a managerial job. It was just that we enjoyed working together and had similar views on the game. I learned from working with Robbie defensively and he enjoyed the stuff I was doing with the attacking players.”
That specialist knowledge is partly why Neilson coveted Crawford. The proverbial man of many clubs, he scored goals at all levels of Scottish football and also enjoyed two spells in England during his playing career. His list of former teams reads Raith Rovers, Millwall, Hibs, Dunfermline, Plymouth Argyle, Dundee United, Aberdeen, East Fife, Cowdenbeath and Forfar Athletic. He also played 25 times for Scotland, scoring four goals.
His wealth of expertise is what Neilson wants to tap into. Crawford’s coaching is intended to make Hearts forwards like Dale Carrick, James Keatings, Gary Oliver and Soufian El Hassnaoui better players. Having three years at Easter Road on his CV is not seen as any kind of barrier to him succeeding on the other side of Edinburgh.
“I played with Hibs in the earlier part of my career, but I didn’t see that as a hindrance to joining Hearts,” said Crawford. “The harder thing was I’d built up a bond with the young players at Falkirk. I was battling with myself over leaving them more than whether it was the right job. I had a gut feeling right away about Hearts given the size of the club.
“I spoke to Craig and Robbie about my position, where they see the club going, how they wanted to work with the players, the age of the squad, it started to excite me. I enjoyed working with the boys on the training field at Falkirk. I got a massive kick from that and we’re hoping to develop the Hearts players and make them better. Hearts will have more expectations with the support they’ve got. It’s a pressure I’m looking forward to.
“I’m able to relate to the mental side of being a forward firstly. Sometimes you don’t appreciate that the type of ball a striker gets can buy him that split second to get a shot at goal or create a chance. Then there’s the mental strength needed when you miss an opportunity to make sure you’re back in the same position for the next one.
“I’ve looked at the Hearts squad and the players have different dimensions to their forward play. It’s really just about adding to that. It’s not about trying to change anything. They’re good players who can beat opponents, score goals, provide dangerous crosses. I want to make them better, add goals to their game and help them take responsibility in leading the line to make Hearts a better team.”
Feedback since he began work at Riccarton at the beginning of the month has been positive.
“People stop me in the street and say, ‘brilliant job, what a great opportunity’. Mostly everyone has seen it as a positive step. Although Hearts have been relegated, everything seems on the up. Ann Budge has come in with this five-year plan and everybody seems to be going in the same direction. It’s a new challenge for me.
“There are some hard times but the expectations of playing in front of 14,000 or 15,000 at Tynecastle is great.
“It’s hard going there as a player but I’m relishing helping our players go out there and perform. Once the Hearts crowd get behind them, it will be an intimidating place to come to.”