Craig Levein’s plan is working. Hearts’ director of football has overseen a year of remarkable success at Tynecastle.
Sitting in the shadow of the Championship trophy, he is entitled to reflect on the merits of a structure he put in place.
The director of football plus head-coach model still prompts scepticism across Britain, but Hearts have just romped to a league title with it. Levein himself concedes he would never have worked under a director of football in his management days. However, he firmly believes the role will continue to develop in the UK.
Levein appointed Robbie Neilson head coach of Hearts last May as he was named director of football by incoming owner Ann Budge. The previous manager and assistant, Gary Locke and Billy Brown, were cast aside. It was Neilson’s first managerial role and he quickly flourished as Hearts rebuilt following 11 months in administration. The boundaries were defined before a contract was signed, allowing Neilson to coach and manage with Levein there for advice and to shoulder the more bureaucratic side of managing a football -department.
There is no argument about the plan’s success. A glance at the Championship table shows Hearts finished 21 points clear of Hibs and 24 ahead of Rangers after a record-breaking campaign. Levein explains why the system has worked.
“For me it’s quite clear. When I spoke to Robbie the night before we came in, I told him there were a number of things we needed to discuss,” he says. “He is responsible for picking the squad, picking the team, the tactics and managing from the sidelines. That’s his job. Once that is clear, the rest falls into place. I’m not saying that’s the right model for everybody but it works for us.
“For identifying players to sign, it’s [scout] John Murray, myself – and of course Robbie has a part in it. We’ve got John back to doing what he’s best at, which is finding players. He did it for me, finding guys like Mark de Vries and the like.
“We brought in [Miguel] Pallardo, whose agent was the agent of Fran Sandaza, who I had at Dundee United. So there is a lot of that, as well. Over the years, you build up these relationships. John has loads of contacts, I’ve got loads of contacts. That’s why I want Robbie involved as well, so he can start learning about speaking to agents and the like. He doesn’t deal with agents but he’s been having one or two meetings.
“It wasn’t like me saying: ‘Bang! You’re allowed to do this and you’re not allowed to do that.’ It was a conversation about what I can help with, allowing him to focus on the team. He’s working on the training ground, putting together training sessions that are just fantastic. Everybody sees the first team, so that’s the most important thing. My role is to help Robbie with the first team.
“When you’re selecting the squad, that’s straightforward. He’s responsible for tactics, that’s his decision. He’s responsible for who plays in the team on Saturday. That’s completely and utterly up to him. All of those things, I’m there to help him if he needs me.”
Levein feels the days of the all-encompassing British football manager are dying as the job outgrows any one man. “The director of football is coming to the UK. Les Reed has done the job at Southampton and everyone is looking and saying: ‘How can Southampton constantly perform at that level?’ The days of Mourinhos and Fergusons and Wengers – it’s getting too big. They control things because they’ve got huge personalities, massive personalities. I did it at Dundee United, trying to run a club from top to bottom is not easy, there are so many things going.”
Had Hearts, Leicester City or Dundee United attempted to put a director of football above him when he was manager, Levein admits he would have refused. “It’s all right saying you have a template, but it’s personalities. If you put the wrong people in it’s never going to work. If you have an experienced manager and put a director of football in on top of that it’s never going to work. The coach has to look upon it as a help to him rather than a hindrance.
“For the important things for Robbie’s career, he’s got an input into every single thing. He’s got a decision to sign three centre-backs, he decides. It’s not hampering his career. The way I look at it, it’s a big help to him. I think it’s coming because clubs are so big, particularly down in England, and we’re right next door to it. To manage the whole thing is becoming more and more difficult.”
In fact, Levein was ready to refuse the offer to return to Hearts because he initially thought Budge wanted him to become manager for a second time. “Ann asked me if I wanted to work for the club – and I thought she was talking about the manager’s job,” he says. “I had been here before and I am not convinced coming back as a manager for a second time is the right thing to do.
“I had my sights set on doing something different like going abroad. When she mentioned running the football department, I felt that was a bit different. At first, I said that wasn’t what I do but it came about and then I started looking at the football side of things.”
There is an argument that a DoF role suited Levein after the unpleasant ending to his time as Scotland manager. “No-one likes getting criticised. [Management] is not a great place to be if you do not like getting criticised. I have enjoyed being out of the limelight – it is not something I particularly enjoyed prior to that either. I was looking at it and wondering, where am I going to work after the Scotland job? Scotland? Well, I have been at Hearts and I have been at Dundee United. Maybe England? Well, I have been at Leicester and that did not work out. It was more about where can I get a decent job?
“I don’t know if there was a perfect way to come back. There is no doubt that the Scotland thing, the end was bruising. And, when you’ve got a thin skin, it doesn’t help. I was thinking about going abroad somewhere, just to start again. I had something in Australia, half a chance to get something in the States as well. But my missus wasn’t 100 per cent sure about going, either, which didn’t help.
“I even had the Sri Lankan national team wondering if I would be interested. I was like: ‘Nope, not for me’. Again, you find things out. The Scotland job was brilliant. That week or two weeks you had the players, it was brilliant.”
Being director of football allows Levein a more analytical viewpoint at Riccarton. “I don’t get the same buzz I got as a manager. I’m on the training ground – but I never say anything. I never interfere. It was hard at first but now I’m actually enjoying it. If Robbie asks me what I thought about a player in training that day, I can tell him. It happens all the time, just an extra set of eyes.”
Will he return to management one day? “I’m not ruling anything in or out. I just know that this is something, at this moment in time, that is a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. Because I want to keep an eye on first-team stuff and be at training. That’s because, if you get that right, it breaks down barriers to fixing other stuff. As long as the first team is winning and everybody is happy.
“That means you can do things and people won’t question you about it. When things aren’t going well, it’s hard to change things then. So we’ve made a lot of changes, a huge amount of changes, and the way has been paved by winning games.”
Being heavily involved but not being on the touchline brings different emotions for a man who has packed a lot into 34 years in football. “The buzz is different. Or the depression is different,” he laughs. “I don’t have the same feeling waking up on a Saturday morning. I don’t have butterflies in my stomach. Part of that is I know how much preparation has gone into the planning. As the season has gone on, I’ve been able to relax a little bit more. But it’s not the same. When you are on that touchline, it’s the loneliest place in the world, at times. Other times it’s the best place in the world.”