There is no stopping an angry Craig Levein in full flow. Inside Tynecastle Park’s new Legends Lounge yesterday, his rant at the Betfred Cup semi-final scheduling became a fittingly fabled tale of its own.
The Hearts manager is outraged his club’s supporters are expected to attend a national cup semi-final with Celtic on a Sunday evening in Glasgow. He left those responsible for the decision to stage both semis at Hampden Park on Sunday, October 28 – namely the Scottish Professional Football League officials Neil Doncaster and Iain Blair – in no doubt about his disgust.
“In all my time in football, I have never seen such disregard for supporters in any situation. If you could find a way to inconvenience people, then this is the perfect way to do it. It’s a shambles, honestly,” complained Levein.
“I’m angry. It’s a disaster for the supporters, particularly for us and Aberdeen. I know the Old Firm have supporters all over the country but the majority of them are in the west. Travelling to Hampden is much easier for them than it is for other people.
“There is human stuff: We haven’t been to a semi-final for five years; we have players here who have never played at Hampden and want to go there with their families and kids. It’s just not possible at 7.45pm on a Sunday evening.
“Aberdeen fans have to get to Hampden for noon with no trains. Do you not think it’s embarrassing?”
Few would disagree. The SPFL claim they are contractually obliged to hold both semi-finals at Hampden when Rangers and Celtic are involved. Neither Glasgow club can play on Saturday, October 27, due to European commitments on the previous Thursday. With a full Premiership card scheduled for the following midweek, the SPFL argued both ties had to take place on the Sunday.
There are other options, however. One possibility would be to move Hearts’ league trip to Celtic Park – due to take place a week after the semi-finals on Saturday, November 3 – and play it on Sunday, October 28, instead of the semi between the clubs. The semi could then take place the following weekend at Hampden instead of the original league fixture.
Switching those games would make sense for fans and Levein agrees. “Well, why not do that? Here’s the thing: Our competitive advantage is Celtic playing on the Thursday night in Europe. We don’t have a midweek game but I’d give that up now to swap the fixtures so we could get a memorable occasion at Hampden.
“I don’t care about the competitive advantage. I want our supporters to be there so it feels like we’ve got the backing of the Hearts fans. That’s more important to me. I want to walk out and see 50 per cent of the stadium maroon. I don’t care about the advantage of Celtic having played on the Thursday night.
“I think you’ve seen the statements from Ann [Budge] and from Aberdeen. This is a nonsense. Here’s the situation: We have to ask for 50 per cent of the tickets for the Sunday night. That’s only fair. We have to give our supporters the opportunity to go. The fact is, it’s unlikely we will sell them all. We might only sell 15,000.
“But I’ll tell you something: This will fall squarely back at the feet of Neil Doncaster and Iain Blair. If the people don’t come, then that’s their fault. It’s nothing to do with the supporters and it’s nothing to do with us. It’s a joke of a decision.”
Other concerns centre around the state of the pitch after Aberdeen face Rangers at noon. The possibility of heavy rain and/or 120 minutes extra-time could leave Hampden’s surface worse for wear by the time Hearts and Celtic arrive.
“If it is raining and it is really heavy and gets dug up, then something might happen. We could sit here all day and discuss all the things that could potentially go wrong with this and why would you put yourself in the position where you are taking those risks? I don’t understand it.
“You’ll have 100,000 people in Glasgow, not all drinking, but one or two will be. Anything could go wrong. You’ve got the pitch situation, possible damage to toilets which has happened in the past. There is a list of things which could go wrong. If any of those things do go wrong, Scottish football will be tarnished by it. Why are we asking for trouble? It’s just madness.
“I don’t want to talk about this all day but I am really disgusted by the disregard for the safety of people and the actual experience of going to Hampden for a semi-final. The disregard for what should be a joyous occasion is staggering.”
Hearts players have relayed their own unhappiness at the decision to Levein and his assistant, Austin MacPhee. “Austin has spoken to a few of the players and they are frustrated. They want to enjoy the experience and they want to take their families to Hampden for a semi-final.
“If is 7.45pm on a Sunday night, that is not going to happen. Kids won’t be going as they have school the next day.
“Every Hearts supporter whether it be a mother and father taking their kids or grandparents taking their grandchildren, brothers or sisters, these matches are supposed to be family occasions.”
Levein also questioned if the SPFL tried hard enough to get out of the contract stating both semi-finals had to be at Hampden. He would have accepted one at BT Murrayfield.
“Why are we contractually obliged to play at Hampden? They haven’t even asked to be released from this contract. Is that not the first thing you would do if you are trying to find an alternative? At least ask the question.
“Murrayfield could easily have accommodated one of these games. I will play anywhere but I want the Hearts supporters to be there in as big a number as possible and to enjoy the experience.”
The furore is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Hearts reached the Betfred Cup’s last four with a thrilling 4-2 defeat of Motherwell on Wednesday night. Since then, the focus has been deflected away from an inspired performance and result to the organisation of the semi-finals.
“We have not been in a semi-final for five years and it is a big thing for us. It has taken the gloss off what was a good performance against Motherwell to get us to Hampden in the first place,” bemoaned Levein.
Hearts will continue to argue their case, harbouring some slender hope that the SPFL could be forced into a rethink because of the backlash.
Ann Budge, the Edinburgh club’s owner, has conveyed her feelings privately and publically and will continue to do so.
“I am leaving the politics of it all to Ann,” explained Levein. “She is fuming, though, with the way things have panned out and she has let her feelings be known to the SPFL.”