Comment: Ann Budge deserves credit for Hearts’ most exciting appointment since George Burley
Owner may have taken her time but she has landed a coup by coaxing Daniel Stendel to Tynecastle
Hearts will be hoping to vindicate the old adage that good things come to those who wait.
In an ideal scenario, they would have had new manager Daniel Stendel in the door the morning after Craig Levein was relieved of his duties on Halloween. While Tottenham Hotspur showed this can be done when they appointed José Mourinho within hours of Mauricio Pochettino being axed, this scenario was never likely to come to fruition at Hearts, where owner Ann Budge has a strong bond with Levein and wouldn’t have entertained the notion of going behind his back to line up his replacement while he was still in position. Had that happened, regardless of the current perception of Levein in the eyes of some supporters, it would patently have lacked class.
Although a five-week wait, which incorporated six competitive matches with Austin MacPhee in interim charge, has taken a toll on many supporters and led to some stinging criticism of the club, ultimately there has been a satisfying outcome in the form of a relatively high-profile appointment who appears to fit the bill and has instantly lifted the spirits of a hitherto beleaguered fanbase. The effect of exiting the Betfred Cup to Rangers and taking just one point from mid-season away fixtures at Kilmarnock, Rangers and Motherwell and a home game against Livingston will pale into insignificance if Stendel, who initially seemed out of Hearts’ reach, lives up to the hype and gets this highly-resourced, underachieving squad belatedly motoring in the right direction.
On paper at least, this looks quite a coup by Budge in what represents her first genuine managerial appointment in football without Levein, her long-time trusty lieutenant, holding a position of power at the club. When Levein first departed, it seemed likely that another familiar face like John Robertson or Neil McCann, or an upwardly-mobile Scottish Premiership manager like Stephen Robinson, would land the gig. Any of this trio, as well as the likes of Steve Cotterill, Alan Irvine and Stuart McCall (who were all interviewed) would likely have been attainable within a week or two of the managerial search beginning, but as soon as Stendel’s name entered the reckoning in mid-November, it was evident to anyone with a grasp on what Hearts currently require that he was the standout contender among those realistically linked with the position.
There has clearly been hurdles to overcome with regard to recruiting the former Barnsley and Hannover 96 manager, to the extent that some pundits and supporters were starting to suggest Budge should give up on the German and look elsewhere, but the owner deserves credit for holding her nerve amid the pressure and making sure she eventually got her man.
In terms of landing a manager of relatively high stock level who also appears well suited to the role he is taking on, this represents Hearts’ most exciting appointment since George Burley was recruited by Vladimir Romanov 14 and a half years ago. Stendel may have been sacked in his last two jobs, but he certainly couldn’t be deemed a failure in either of his roles at Hannover and Barnsley. Indeed, it was only six months ago that he was the toast of Oakwell after leading the Yorkshire side to promotion from a competitive League One at the expense of greater-resourced clubs.
If a sacking in the ultra-volatile English football scene was any barrier to being appointed by a Scottish Premiership club, Brendan Rodgers, Steve Clarke, Derek McInnes, Neil Lennon and Jack Ross, who was needlessly mocked by Hearts in their statement unveiling Stendel last night, would never have been given the chance to reassert themselves as managers of substance in this country. Stendel, having acquainted himself with British football during his 16 largely fruitful months at Barnsley, appears to have the charisma, passion and football nous to give the Hearts supporters the type of team they crave; in short, one that plays with personality, aggression and intent.
His Barnsley team had the best defensive record in the entire English Football League last term and didn’t lose a single home game in the league. Hearts, despite having good defenders at their disposal on paper, have been shipping far too many goals, while they have also dropped far too many points at Tynecastle over the past year. Stendel’s Barnsley also played some of the most exciting football their supporters can recall in decades, to the extent that several have suggested on social media that they would like to travel to Edinburgh to watch the German’s new team in action. Hearts, with the exception of sporadic high-tempo performances at home to the likes of Celtic and Aberdeen, have been a stale and uninspiring side for several seasons now.
The timing of Stendel’s appointment may indeed prove to be a positive. Instead of starting with testing trips to Rugby Park, Ibrox and Fir Park - which would have been the case if Hearts had been able to get their man instantly - the German will begin his reign with a run of four home games out of five before he will have a proper chance to get his ideas across during the upcoming winter break.
It is widely accepted that there is a far better squad in place at Hearts than their dire current league position suggests. Stendel, as Budge clearly recognised fairly early in her search for a new manager, looks exactly the type of charismatic character they have been crying out for to bring the team to life.