Craig Levein: Final is huge for Hearts – but I don’t feel any pressure
Craig Levein is dressed immaculately in a grey suit, crisp white shirt and official Hearts tie. His beard is trimmed, hair combed neatly and he omits a confident aura chatting to media inside Hampden Park.
The Scottish Cup final is merely hours away and, beneath the pristine exterior, Levein’s broad shoulders bear the weight of expectation. From the Hearts owner Ann Budge, to directors, staff, players and tens of thousands of fans – the desire to beat Celtic is enormous.
All of that lands on the manager. He accepts it willingly. Levein is 54 and survived a heart scare last autumn to guide Hearts to this final. It is also his chance to finally win the first major trophy of a playing and management career spanning more than a generation. He is ready, feeling good and relishing the opportunity.
“It’s a huge thing. You play football and you become involved in the game afterwards in order to have moments like this,” he said. “I’ve come close a few times in the past but this is another great opportunity. It’s kept the season going for us. I’m excited and I can sense that the players are as well.
“However, I don’t feel under pressure in this situation. I have felt pressure before at Hampden but this is different. It’s big for me but also for most of the players who haven’t won silverware and who are coming up against a team which is used to collecting trophies.”
The health issues of a few months ago are not a factor for Levein. “I know it sounds silly but I have kind of forgotten about that. At the time it was a big thing but I feel good and it doesn’t really come into my mind at all now. This is more about the football. I have had enough years of striving to get to this position to actually enjoy the build up and everything about it myself.”
Some would argue that finishing in the top six and simply reaching a cup final represents a decent season for Hearts. Levein is having none of it. “Not for me. Winning the cup and a top-six finish is a good season,” he replied. “We know it is difficult to get to a cup final and to get here with, in my eyes, a live chance of winning the cup is a great position to be in.”
His only other Scottish Cup final involvement came back in 1986. He was in the Hearts defence for a 3-0 loss to Aberdeen at Hampden. The previous week – minus Levein, who was ill – the Edinburgh club had lost the league title on goal difference at Dens Park.
“That seems like such a long time ago, almost like a different person and different lifetime. It’s slightly different in a managerial sense. You carry a lot of weight for everybody to take pressure off the players.
“You’re doing your best for people in the boardroom, who have high expectations, and the supporters. Our supporters will be expecting to win. It’s my job to try and get that expectation over the line.”
One thing he does recall from 33 years ago was a natural feeling that cup finals and major successes would be regular. “You just think that’s what happens. You go to Hearts, play in Europe and then challenge for the league. Little did I know.”
Celtic’s domestic monopoly is well-documented over the past three seasons. Success tomorrow would bring them a ninth consecutive trophy. Few people are giving Hearts much hope but Levein has a plan. He isn’t revealing it, but you know it’s in his mind.
“I don’t have any problem saying things will need to go our way in this game to give us the best chance of winning,” he admitted. “That will mean we have to make few mistakes or no mistakes. You can’t control everything. As much as we need to play really well, I think we will need other things to go in our favour.”
Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, is aware of Levein’s propensity to formulate a gameplan for any given fixture. The pair enjoyed a simmering rivalry on opposite sides of Edinburgh’s footballing divide for 18 months until January this year when Lennon left Hibs and quickly replaced Brendan Rodgers at Parkhead.
“I get on well with him. I think he’s a decent fella,” said Levein of his Celtic counterpart. “We’re all striving for the same thing so there’s an element within us all that we have some empathy for other people in the same job. It’s not easy to bear the weight of expectation for the fanbase, players, directors, everybody. I admire anybody who has had the bottle to do it and particularly at the level Neil has been at.”
Both men are steeped in their respective clubs. “Absolutely. It’s in your blood. I don’t think you can help it. That’s a fact,” said Levein.
His preparations have been tailored towards this final for weeks and he could not be happier now that the match is about to start.