Any Hearts supporters underwhelmed, or indeed concerned, by the club’s form since Craig Levein replaced Ian Cathro seven months ago can find some solace by reminding themselves of how his previous two jobs in Scotland’s top flight panned out.
Levein’s reputation as a manager of substance, which would earn him a crack at the Scotland job, was primarily based on his progressive stints in charge of Hearts and Dundee United in the Noughties. Although he left both clubs in significantly better shape than he found them after four and three years in charge respectively, it is worth noting that there was no spectacular or rapid upturn like the exceptional one currently being overseen by Steve Clarke at Kilmarnock.
Having initially taken the reins while the campaign was well under way at Hearts and United, Levein’s early months and years were primarily about ship-steadying and allowing himself a platform to build from. In his first two seasons as manager at Tynecastle, Hearts finished fifth. In his first season at Tannadice, United finished ninth.
By the time Levein left Hearts for Leicester City in 2004, he had led them to back-to-back third-place finishes as well as the UEFA Cup group stage. Similarly, he transformed United from bottom-six plodders to a swashbuckling team who would consistently get into the top six and eventually finish third and win the Scottish Cup just months after he was deemed the outstanding candidate to manage Scotland. During his time at Tannadice, Hearts fans will recall United coming to Tynecastle and cruising to emphatic 4-0 and 3-1 victories.
Of course, those moments were in the previous decade – effectively a different era in the ever-evolving world of football – but the way Levein went about his business in those two jobs is relevant in the analysis of the current situation at Tynecastle. In short, his previous spell at Hearts and his time at Tannadice show that he generally thrives through gradual and sustained progress rather than short-term heroics.
His most vehement critics – and there remains an army of them both within and outwith the Hearts support – will point to the league table, where it looks likely that they will finish a place below they did last season, and suggest that Levein has actually taken them backwards since replacing Cathro. This assertion would be plain wrong, of course. The only reason Cathro’s team finished as high as fifth is that predecessor Robbie Neilson had already banked a healthy supply of early-season points before departing for MK Dons.
In the second half of last season, the Tynecastle side were showing relegation form. They finished the campaign with ten defeats in 13 matches and the malaise continued into the start of the new season when Cathro’s team were eliminated from the Betfred Cup following a defeat by Peterhead and a draw with Dunfermline Athletic.
While Levein hasn’t pulled up any trees in his first season back at the helm, he has certainly improved the situation simply by ensuring that they have recovered enough form to make the top six and the Scottish Cup quarter-finals while also sustaining a season-long unbeaten run at Tynecastle.
Of course, Hearts fans will never be happy with a campaign that ends with their team in fifth or sixth place, well beneath traditional rivals like Hibs and Aberdeen. The fact both of those clubs are currently in the midst of arguably their best periods in the current millennium has exacerbated Hearts’ current plight, placing extra focus on those in charge – in particular Levein, the director of football turned manager.
The primary reason Hearts, within six points of Aberdeen and a league above Hibs just two years ago, have been left behind and overtaken by those two teams is the failed gamble on Cathro, a man Levein – and many others who had come across him – viewed as the next big thing in management.
The young Dundonian’s ill-fated eight-month reign took Hearts from the thick of a Europa League race to a position whereby they were starting this season in a confidence-shorn state of ridicule. Given that Aberdeen and Hibs had been motoring along nicely, with settled squads, under the impressive leadership of Derek McInnes and Neil Lennon, it was always going to be a tall order for whoever replaced Cathro to get Hearts – starting the season with no home games and with a squad signed primarily to suit the style of a manager who had just been sacked – into the top four.
The fact Levein’s previous work as director of football polarised opinion among the support merely muddies the waters in terms of how he is currently judged as a manager. Many are intent on laying the blame for every setback of the last four years at the 53-year-old’s door, even though it has been patently clear to anyone paying close attention that there has been a distinct enough difference between the teams managed by Neilson, Cathro and Levein to decipher that, whatever influence he may have had in his role as director of football, Levein has not been single-handedly running the show all along.
Indeed, the fact the manager pointed out in the Evening News this week that he intended to run a more intense pre-season this summer was a clear indication that he felt Cathro could have done things differently last year. Likewise, Levein explained recently that Malaury Martin was “not my type of player” and was signed to suit Cathro’s style of play, while Danny Swanson, whom Levein was a huge fan of from his time at United, could hardly get a game under Neilson.
As director of football, his influence on the team was nowhere near as overbearing as the cynics would suggest. It is only now, from the end of August onwards, that he has truly had a chance to start doing things his way. Given the circumstances – playing away from home for the first 13 games, without a pre-season to establish a style of play and operating with a squad initially built for Cathro – there is an argument that Levein has done well simply to haul Hearts into the top six, especially considering how impressively Motherwell, who missed out, have fared for long parts of the campaign.
As a highly-regarded former player and manager of Hearts, however, Levein is well aware that mid-table finishes don’t go down well at Tynecastle and that significant improvement is needed next term. From speaking to him in recent months, it is clear that the manager has a grasp on the situation and what is required to fix it.
For instance, he has outlined in recent weeks his intent to make the squad more dynamic over the summer and has attached high importance to establishing a clear playing style and peak fitness within his squad in pre-season.
While his seven-month reign thus far has been something of a slow-burner, history suggests it is only a matter of time before Levein restores Hearts to the sharp end of Scottish football.