Barry Anderson: Alan Archibald's words to Hearts fans ring true today as, finally, Craig Levein vacates hotseat
After 41 wins in 105 games, Hearts fans finally get their wish as Craig Levein departs
The words of Alan Archibald rushed back to prominence as Hearts sacked manager Craig Levein yesterday. Archibald was informed after his Partick Thistle side lost 1-0 in Gorgie in March 2016 that a plane had flown overhead during the match demanding Robbie Neilson's dismissal. The Edinburgh club were third in the league and close to qualifying for Europe as a newly-promoted club under Neilson at the time.
"Wow. Be careful what you wish for," was Archibald's stunned reply. Since then, Ian Cathro and Levein have both failed in trying to succeed the man now in charge at Dundee United. Hearts currently sit joint-bottom of the Ladbrokes Premiership having sacked their manager 72 hours before a national cup semi-final. A return to the Neilson era would be roundly welcomed right now.
Levein's tenure came crashing down at 4.11pm yesterday when Hearts released a statement. It confirmed he had been relieved of his first-team duties and would not return to his previous director of football role. He will continue working at in the background at Riccarton until his contract finishes at the end of the season "to develop and improve the structure of the backroom and youth operations".
After 41 wins in 105 games since taking charge for his second managerial spell at Tynecastle in August 2017, the change supporters were calling for has finally come. Assistant coach Austin MacPhee is in temporary charge for Sunday's Betfred Cup semi-final against Rangers.
Levein planned something altogether different when he took control of the team following Cathro's disastrous eight months at Tynecastle. He felt obliged to "fix" the situation because Cathro had been his appointment as director of football. Levein stepped back into the manager's chair but finishing sixth in 2018 and 2019 was below what supporters or directors expected.
Long-term injuries to key players hindered Hearts significantly last season and so far this year. However, form over the last 12 months, and particularly since the turn of the year, ultimately sealed Levein's fate. One league win all season and just five in 2019, will not keep you in a job at Tynecastle.
Levein held on for so long partly due to last season's cup progress and Ann Budge's loyalty. It was her who gave him the DoF role when she became Hearts owner in 2014. Hearts reached the Betfred Cup semi-finals and the Scottish Cup final last season and lost to an all-conquering Celtic on both occasions. That was sufficient for Budge to persist with the man in whom she had placed so much responsibility.
Levein was first-team manager, director of football, a board director and was heavily involved in youth academy dealings all at the same time. Most football clubs would not give any one person so much autonomy - but having a finger in so many pies also meant he was far more difficult to dispense with.
It affected his health in August 2018 when he suffered a heart scare and was admitted to hospital. Yet he returned to work a little over two weeks later, determined to continue as normal. Hearts were flying high at the time and, ironically, were top of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Form since then has fallen dramatically. Since stretching six points clear at the top of the league on October 23 last year, only eight wins have been mustered from 39 league fixtures. Supporters turned on the manager weeks ago, yet chants calling for his removal were initially ignored by Budge.
She released a statement via the club website in mid-September offering the manager a vote of confidence. In it, she made it clear that disappointing results at the time would not prompt any over-reaction from the board and said it was "too early to be panicking and tearing up our plans".
Yesterday, those plans were ripped to pieces. A pre-planned board meeting at 10am was effectively overtaken and dominated by talks on Levein's future following the previous night's depressing 1-0 loss at St Johnstone. Budge had watched that match from the McDiarmid Park directors' box and the decision was made after consultation with her fellow board members.
Levein resigned from his first spell as Hearts manager to take charge of Leicester City, then in England's second tier. He harboured a burning ambition to manage in England's top flight. His second period in charge at Tynecastle has been cut short without his say so and he will leave Hearts altogether when his contract expires next summer.