Craig Levein used Hearts’ annual general meeting yesterday to outline the huge strides being taken to rebuild the football department of a club decimated by its demise under previous owner Vladimir Romanov.
Immediately installed by owner Ann Budge as director of football upon her takeover of the club at the end of last season, Levein has been chiefly responsible for implementing infrastructure and impetus to an empty shell of a club that had been left with a lack of players, coaches, scouts and direction.
Evidence of the team’s rapid resurgence since exiting administration last spring can be found in an unbeaten start to the Championship season, taking them nine points clear at the top of the table.
Seven months on from officially taking office, the club’s former player and manager gave an insight into the job he faced to help turn Hearts’ first team into instantaneous promotion contenders while simultaneously trying to revive the club’s ravaged academy.
“It was a very difficult summer after the club came out of administration,” he told the audience at the AGM. “There were a lot of changes, which personally was very difficult. It was a real challenge from that point in May to get a team in place for the start of the season. When I say team, I don’t mean just the 11 players to start the first match, I mean the whole staff. Because of administration, we’d lost a lot of people.
“We had three months to get nine new staff members in and we also had four staff positional changes as well, so that’s a fair number of people to settle into new jobs before the first ball is kicked. On the playing side, there were ten first-team players recruited from the 12th May onwards, as well as nine youngsters, which shows how short we were with regard to squad numbers. We’re still not running with a particularly huge number of players. We’ve got 34, including the youngsters. There were times not so long ago when Hearts had 70 players on the books. We managed to get off to flying start and from then everything’s been fairly settled.”
Levein explained how he and head coach Robbie Neilson had to come up with an efficient transfer strategy when it became apparent that their budget wouldn’t initially stretch to allow established big-hitters to be recruited. The director of football felt extra responsibility to make every signing count as they would effectively be funded by supporters who had rallied to keep the club alive.
“I was a little bit concerned about using the money as wisely as possible,” he said. “Robbie and I made some crucial decisions early on about our signing policy. We looked at the possibility of getting tried and tested players in, but after looking at the quality that was available with the money we had, we decided it would be better to take a gamble on a few fronts by bringing in some younger players to fit with our philosophy of being a club that constantly develops and produces young players.
“When we look at bringing players in, we are obviously always looking for ability. But it’s equally important that they have hunger and desire. They’re not always going to be playing on an impeccable pitch in front of a full house, so you need to have people in your camp who don’t like getting beat.”
To that end, Levein was delighted when, after the club generated more income than they had budgeted for in the summer, he and Neilson were allowed to delve back into the transfer market and add experienced duo Adam Eckersley and Miguel Pallardo to a squad that was already making light work of the Championship. “After we had reached the budget that was set, because of the extra input from the supporters with regards to season-tickets, merchandise sales and also the money that’s come in from the Foundation of Hearts, we managed to add two extra players to the squad,” he said. “That was Adam Eckersley and Miguel Pallardo. It was fantastic to bring in those two senior players after we had already done the bulk of our recruitment. Those two bring critical components to our dressing-room. We’ve got a young, talented squad, but we need role models.
“We were lucky to get Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis in who, at 26 and 28, are steadying influences. It was also great to get Neil Alexander to steady the defence. Danny Wilson has flourished this season with people round about him to take the weight off him. As the captain, Robbie and I have been delighted with his performance.
“We are a massive club in Scotland and we’ve made a conscious effort to sign players we believe are not just to get us out of this division, but can also perform equally as well in the Premiership. That will mean there won’t be a huge turnover of players in the summer as long as we go up. We will add some more quality to see if we can get up to the top end of the Premiership as quickly as possible.”
Levein is hopeful of bolstering the squad in next month’s transfer window and doesn’t envisage any of the club’s main assets leaving the club any time soon. “As of this moment we’ve not had any offers for any of our players,” he said. “Whether we sell players or not will come down to discussions between the board members about what’s best for the club. I can’t say one way or the other if players will be sold, but I don’t see any pressing need to sell in January. If somebody makes a ridiculous offer, we’d have to look at that, but at this moment in time, I think it’s most likely that we’ll be enhancing the squad in January.”
Levein was asked about the situation of Jason Holt, who is out of contract and finding regular starts hard to come by, and the director of football did little to dispel the notion that the midfielder may be one of the players moving on in the near future. “Without going into details of conversations I’ve had with players and agents, there are situations that develop where players might not be happy with the offers that have been made and want to leave or that they don’t feel they’re getting enough game time, and I understand that,” he said. “There will be movement in January. There will be some players leaving who some supporters like, but nobody leaves the club without us having thought long and hard about it.”
As well as overseeing first-team affairs, Levein has been busy re-establishing Hearts’ academy, which had been neglected over the previous few years, but is viewed as crucial to the club’s future prosperity. The director of football, who has prior experience of such ventures, feels significant headway has already been made in turning Riccarton into a vibrant breeding ground for young footballers.
“We want to develop the club into a place where the best young players in Scotland want to come,” he said. “But for that to happen, we need to get the academy right. Over the last three or four years, the lack of investment has drained the life out of it. Although we have a crop who have come through, that’s all credit to everybody involved because there has been a grinding away of the overall quality in the academy. We’ve lost coaches and we’ve lost players and I think we’ve lost our way a little bit. Overhauling the academy from top to bottom, for me, has been the biggest challenge, but that is well under way.
“I did a similar type of thing at Dundee United, and using that as a gauge, I’d say we’re about half way through the process of fixing the academy. I watch games at the academy every Saturday and Sunday and the youth teams are already playing the style of football that the first team’s playing. They’re not all playing the same system as the first team, but the philosophy is the same. There are certain principles of play that must filter down from the first team so that the further up the ladder they get, they’ll be ready to go and play in the first team when we feel they’re capable. That’s already been implemented.
“Coach education is also huge for us. We had lost some coaches but we brought some in and we’re in the process of re-training others. The most important thing about the academy is that people want to work and train there. We’re overhauling the scouting department. We had four youth scouts and we’re up now to 16, with a view of getting up to 20.
“Early in the new year, we’re opening four new development centres for kids of around 7-9 years old. They will be funded by Hearts Youth Development Committee, so we’re grateful to them for embracing this new project. The idea is that these four centres will then develop into six centres over the next few years and will then feed into the academy and, although I don’t know if I will be here that long, it would be great to see kids come into the development centres at seven years of age and then progressing right through to play in the first team.”