Confined to his home in Fife, Craig Levein will pick the Hearts team to face St Mirren tomorrow and let assistant coach Austin MacPhee execute his instructions. The team-talk will be straightforward: “Win for your manager and make sure you stay top of the league for him returning.”
Levein’s health scare on Monday shocked the Scottish football community, not to mention the Hearts players and staff when owner Ann Budge broke the news in person at the club’s training ground. Thankfully, he is now recovering at home after a short stay in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’s coronary care unit. He intends to return to work in time to be back in the dugout when Hearts play Motherwell at Fir Park in two weeks.
Until then, MacPhee is steering the ship, aided by coaches Jon Daly and Liam Fox, plus a raft of senior players. Levein’s restructuring work since returning to Hearts as director of football four years ago ensures the club can operate without him in the interim.
“We had a meeting at the start of the week and said that, if everybody does a little bit more, then we won’t have to change anything,” explained MacPhee. “The senior players are very significant in this as well: Aaron Hughes, Christophe Berra, Steven Naismith, John Souttar – in terms of his attitude and the number of games he has played – Michael Smith, Steven MacLean.
“They all help set the culture and the culture is good. They remind everybody that we want to win this game for the manager by doing a little bit more. Hopefully the supporters can give us that little bit more encouragement as well, which will get us over the line and make Craig feel relaxed about his recovery and relaxed about how long he takes off.”
Levein doesn’t intend taking much time off, such is his desire for daily involvement. Hearts have a 100 per cent league record and are favourites to maintain it against a St Mirren team who have lost their last three fixtures without scoring. Sitting top of the league nurtured unity which has only strengthened following the manager’s illness.
“Craig has hit a bump in the road and we want him to feel relaxed about the processes he has put in place,” continued MacPhee. “Ultimately he has brought us all to the club – whether that’s the staff or players – as the director of football and manager.
“We just want to make him feel good about everything he has done and show that it is working – and that the people he has allowed to gain experience coaching, dealing with the media, speaking to the players and developing the players, helping them do their job, are up to the challenge. So we all just need to do our job.”
There is still room for a sense of humour amid the serious business of trying to win a football match while your manager is absent with ill-health. It is something Levein himself would approve of. “I went to see Craig on Monday afternoon,” smiled MacPhee. “He likes a scone – a dry one like his sense of humour.
“There weren’t any available on the bypass so I went for something more traditional going to the hospital and I got him some grapes. They were actually maroon, of all colours. I thought I did quite well and then Ann went to see him on Tuesday and had got him Demetri Mitchell. I was upstaged, but we all have a different budget with gifts.
“I’ve had my teeth knocked out before so I’m not asking him whether he has been asked to take a complete step back. I’m just answering the phone each time he calls.”
Completing a loan deal for a Manchester United player would certainly have cheered Levein up. “He was in good spirits and wanted out of hospital,” added MacPhee. “He wanted to talk about football, training and know about what I was doing with the transfer targets. He was determined to get out of there as quick as he could. The care he has had has been fantastic and he is now home. He is on the road to recovery.”
The exact date of his return to work will be down to the manager himself. “I know he is recovering quickly and he is recovering well and he is home, but medically I am not sure,” said MacPhee. “They could have let him out of there on Monday afternoon and he would have been here! I don’t know if there was a lock on the door. He is doing well and is in good spirits. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.”
Defender Aaron Hughes remains doubtful for Hearts tomorrow after missing last week’s win at Kilmarnock with a calf problem. A final decision will be made on his readiness tomorrow. Likewise, midfielder Arnaud Djoum is close to a first-team return after six months out with a snapped Achilles. The Cameroonian internationalist has played two reserve matches and is in contention for a place in tomorrow’s squad.
“I’ll need to see with Aaron. He has had a scan and that showed he hasn’t got a major problem there. He’ll be days, not weeks away,” said MacPhee. “Arnaud came through 90 minutes the other day in the reserves and we were down to ten men so it was a harder game for him.
“I’ll have a chat with him after training. I think it’s important when Arnaud comes back to Tynecastle he feels sharp and really good about himself. If he does, then there’s every chance he’ll be in and around it.”
Whoever is selected will be a decision for Levein based on information given to him by MacPhee and other coaches. “Craig will pick the team. We’ll have a conversation but he’ll make the decisions. That’s just the way it is.”