In a year of progress for the club on and off the pitch, it summed up Hearts’ recent misfortune that their annual general meeting happened to fall just days after one of their worst results of the modern era.
Instead of reflecting on a period of improvement, which has incorporated the team topping the table by six points at the end of October and being within four points of top spot a week before Christmas, Craig Levein was yesterday the subject of some aggressive questioning from a handful of disgruntled shareholders eager to draw an explanation for the Tynecastle side’s recent downturn, which culminated in Friday’s humiliating 5-0 defeat away to Livingston.
The opening question towards the manager was blunt and to the point. “I just wondered if you’d like to explain the debacle last Friday,” said the first inquisitor. “My first thought was anger about what I perceived to be the lack of application,” said Levein. “When I went home and watched it again, there were so many things that went wrong from the moment of the penalty. I didn’t think we played particularly well before that but there wasn’t anything I could say that was particularly wrong for us not being in front. It was 0-0 at the time. Bobby Zlamal makes a silly mistake that costs us the penalty, Arnaud Djoum gets sent off two minutes later, we lose a goal a minute after that and we lost our focus completely. The last three goals were embarrassing.
“There were players out there doing things they don’t usually do, and I include Christophe Berra and Michael Smith in that. I believe those things all happening so quickly caused us to lose our focus completely. The discussions on Monday were about that. The senior players know that when we go down to ten men, we have to stay narrow and compact but we were all over the place. I honestly don’t know why it happened. It was embarrassing. Confidence is a big thing and injuries are partly responsible but there are some things that happened on Friday that I was completely baffled by. I don’t know how to explain it other than circumstances went against them very quickly and then they lost their focus and everything just went out their heads. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Monday was interesting. We had a long discussion about the game and how we can stop it happening in the future.”
The manager then took it upon himself to explain, in depth and in an entirely logical manner, to the 400 shareholders in attendance why he feels things have unravelled over the past two months for a side who were being touted as genuine title contenders after winning eight of their opening ten Premiership matches. Much of Levein’s analysis revolved around the impact injuries to key men Berra, John Souttar, Jimmy Dunne, Uche Ikpeazu and Steven Naismith has had on the team’s progress. Admirably, he held his hands up and conceded that the loss of so many of his best players to long-term injury has given him a problem he has simply been unable to solve. “If I can give you some insight into what I believe the problem is, maybe you’ll understand where we are at this moment in time,” said Levein. “We worked in pre-season on a way of playing, which involved, particularly when we were at home, in the first ten, 15 minutes, playing the ball longer and earlier. We had Uche plus Steven MacLean and Naisy. It took a few games to get the midfield players into the habit of supporting but it worked really well for us. That’s what we worked on in pre-season.
“The difficulty has been, as we have lost the strikers, playing that way has become more and more difficult. In the last five or six weeks, I’ve been searching for a system that suits the players we’ve got that will allow us to keep the ball in the last third of the park, but it’s just been going forward and then coming back. Earlier in the season, it went forward and it stayed forward. Then Olly Lee became a really important player with his quality in the last third. Peter Haring became an important player because we were allowing him to get into the box and score goals. Our biggest problem right now is that we can’t retain the ball in the final third for any period of time. That has been the issue when I watch all the games back.
“Losing Christophe didn’t help because he’s without doubt our most potent threat at set-pieces. John Souttar is our best passer of the ball from the back. John would start a lot of our attacks. He’s not playing. We managed to get over Christophe going out the team because Jimmy Dunne did a fantastic job. When we lost John Souttar, Clevid Dikamona came in and we still managed to do ok. When I trace it back, our decline started when we lost Naisy. Uche and Steven Naismith have been the two biggest losses by far. In all honesty, I’m struggling to find a system that allows us to score goals at this moment in time. That’s on me, absolutely, but I did not expect a situation where everything we worked on in pre-season resulted in us being where we are at this moment in time.
“Naisy comes back on Saturday and I firmly believe that will make us better. Friday night was an aberration but other than that, since Christophe came back we’ve been better. When John Souttar comes back we’ll be better and then when Uche comes back we’ll be better again. The difficulty has been this period of time. I go home at night, look at the situation and say ‘how can we fix this to score goals?’ I put my hands up and say I obviously haven’t been able to do that. That’s on me, and I feel that. I feel it every single day. I’m doing my best. I try my hardest on the training ground with the coaches and the players to find another way, in the short term, of scoring goals and winning games. It doesn’t need to be nice just now. We just need a win, just like the game against Motherwell where we rolled up the sleeves and competed for 90 minutes. That’s where we are at this moment.”