It may not tally with the widely-held misconception that Craig Levein is obsessed with physicality, pragmatism and experience, but Hearts’ manager has been doing more than most at the top level in Scotland to rear homegrown talent.
While football is flooded with people who speak fancifully of an intention to promote young players, the reality is that the short-term demands of winning matches usually override any inclination to pitch an untried teenager into battle. Levein can’t be counted among this number, however.
At a time when Scotland’s regular starting XI contains two players (Christophe Berra and Craig Gordon) he gave a first-team breakthrough to in his first spell as Hearts manager more than a decade ago, the 52-year-old is busier than most when it comes to giving the next generation an opportunity to fulfil their potential.
In Hearts’ last three games alone, Levein has fielded four teenagers – 19-year-old pair Rory Currie and Jamie Brandon, 17-year-old Euan Henderson and 16-year-old Harry Cochrane. Crucially, these players were trusted to try and make a genuine impact rather than just thrown on at the end to get a minute or two of experience. Currie, although introduced late, was sent on after Hearts’ equaliser at Partick Thistle with the intention of helping them find a winner; Brandon and Henderson came on at the start of the second half of Saturday’s match at Ross County with the match delicately poised at 1-1; and Cochrane started both of the last two matches.
Unlike in the 2013/14 season, when the club no option but to call on youngsters after nosediving into administration, Levein and Hearts are making a conscious effort to give their homegrown players opportunities to flourish in the top tier of Scottish football. For instance, Henderson and Brandon were introduced on Saturday ahead of more experienced colleagues like Rafal Grzelak and David Milinkovic.
No other club in the Ladbrokes Premiership has fielded more Scottish teenagers this season than Hearts, who, in addition to the aforementioned quartet have also given 19-year-old Lewis Moore exposure. In a stat that is as alarming for Scottish football as it is complimentary to Hearts, Henderson and Cochrane are the only two players under the age of 18 to have kicked a ball for any club in the top flight this term, underlining the Tynecastle club’s status as the most pre-eminent nurturers or those born around the turn of the Millennium.
In the three years prior to Levein becoming Hearts manager at the end of August, he had been busy in his role as director of football developing a suitable framework for Cochrane and others, to name a few, like Anthony McDonald, Marc Leonard and Daniel Baur to come to the fore. Any suggestion that Levein is promoting young players merely to vindicate his work as director of football can be emphatically quashed by a look back at his proven and consistent track record of giving young players a chance in previous managerial roles.
In his first spell in charge of Hearts, between 2000 and 2004, Levein was responsible for giving several rookies their first taste of senior action. Berra, who is now back at Hearts as a 32-year-old captain and fully-fledged Scotland internationalist after an eight-and-a-half-year stint in England, was given his debut as an 18-year-old. The centre-back played eight times under Levein, which included five starts, before the manager headed for Leicester City. Gordon, following a loan stint at Cowdenbeath, was given his Hearts debut as a 20-year-old, and then established himself as a regular under Levein as a 21-year-old. Even allowing for the exceptional quality Gordon would go on to display, context of the faith required by the manager to hand him the gloves early in the 2003/04 campaign is offered by the fact there are currently no goalkeepers under the age of 25 playing regularly in the Scottish Premiership.
Beyond those two long-standing Scotland internationalists, Andy Webster, another who would go on to represent Scotland, provides further evidence of Levein’s genuine inclination to place his faith in promising young players. The manager signed the centre-back from Arbroath as an 18-year-old, gave him a first Hearts start four days after his 19th birthday and played him regularly thereafter until the end of his reign.
Although those three represented the cream of the crop from Levein’s time at Hearts, he offered more than a dozen others a platform to try and impress. Stephen Simmons was given his debut aged 18 and went on to make more than 100 appearances for the club. Levein gave Graeme Weir his debut aged 17 and, even though he marked it by getting sent off within minutes of coming on at Pittodrie, the homegrown striker went on to make 35 starts and just shy of 100 appearances for Hearts – the vast majority of which came under Levein. Neil Janczyk made his debut at 19 and made nine starts and 27 appearances in total for Hearts. Joe Hamill was given a debut aged 18 before featuring regularly for Hearts and then following Levein to Leicester. Paul McMullan was given a debut at 17 and looked like the heir to Gary Naysmith’s left-back throne before losing his way after 17 starts. Robert Sloan made his debut aged 18 and played 25 times for Hearts, including 15 starts, before moving on to play the majority of his career in the lower leagues. Dread-locked French kid Wilfried Oueifio made three starts for Levein as an 18-year-old.
Ryan Davidson, Darren Goldie, Paul Kaczan, David Dunn, John Knox, Gary Tierney, David McGeown and Craig Sives were others who made fleeting appearances in Hearts first team as teenagers under the Fifer. Levein also relied heavily on a 20-year-old Robbie Neilson and 21-year-old Scott Severin, both of whom would go on to enjoy solid careers in Scotland’s top division.
Upon returning north following his stint at Leicester City, Levein’s penchant for promoting young players would continue at Dundee United. In three years at Tannadice, among others, he introduced 17-year-old pair Keith Watson and Johnny Russell to the first team and continued playing Garry Kenneth and David Goodwillie (who had already made their debuts prior to his arrival) throughout their teens. He also signed a certain midfielder called Prince Buaben following his release from Ajax and gave him a United debut as a 19-year-old. All of those players bar Russell would feature when the Tannadice club won the Scottish Cup in May 2010, six months after his departure to take the reins at Scotland. A further legacy of Levein’s time at United is the excellent work he carried out to restructure their academy, paving the way for the likes of Ryan Gauld and John Souttar to emerge more recently. United didn’t have the patience to persist with a teenage Souttar at centre-back when he suffered a notable form dip and Hearts, with the benefit of Levein’s inside knowledge of the player, duly capitalised when they moved to sign him a year past January. Now one of the first names on the team sheet under Levein despite only turning 21 last month, Souttar is widely viewed as the most pre-eminent Scottish centre-back around under 25 years of age.
Evidence of the last two decades suggests any youngster working under Levein will be given more chance than most to fulfil their promise. Messrs Henderson and Cochrane, as the only under-18s currently getting game time in the Scottish Premiership, can certainly vouch for that.