Craig Levein hopes to have Hearts’ new head coach in place ahead of next Saturday’s Ibrox showdown with Rangers. The director of football is adamant that Robbie Neilson’s successor must be willing to embrace youth and have the required temperament to handle the lofty expectations at Tynecastle.
Youth-team coaches Jon Daly and Andy Kirk will take interim charge of the team for today’s Premiership match at Ross County after Neilson and his No.2 Stevie Crawford left to join MK Dons following Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over Rangers.
Hearts are expected to make an official approach to Newcastle United over the weekend to request permission to open talks with their assistant manager Ian Cathro, the burgeoning 30-year-old Dundonian who is the clear front-runner for the job.
Levein, who faced the media at Hearts’ pre-match press conference yesterday, refused to be drawn on individual names, although he said nothing to dispel the widespread belief that Cathro will be appointed over the next few days.
“Ian is a friend of mine but he is employed by another club, so I don’t want to talk about him,” said Levein. “The profile hasn’t changed from Robbie really. We are looking for a young, intelligent, energetic, enthusiastic coach who can help us move on from where we are. That is the approach we have decided on. The salary is not astronomical and, just like signing players, sometimes you need to see potential in people and develop them with room to improve.
“A lot of experienced managers can be set in their ways and have expectation levels of salary and suchlike. And some of the really serious ones, if we were to go after them, we wouldn’t be able to afford. It is about finding someone who is value for money who maybe doesn’t have the ceilings in their thought processes that everyone else in Scotland has.
“We have this vision of developing young players so there is no point in me going out and getting a coach who has never worked with young players and who won’t promote young players.”
Asked if he would expect his new man in place for visit to Ibrox next Saturday, Levein replied: “That would be nice. Whether I am optimistic or not about that is irrelevant. But I’d be hopeful.”
Despite elevating Hearts from the Championship to second place in the Premiership in two-and-a-half years, Neilson, who was described as having done a “fantastic” job by Levein, divided opinion among the support, to the extent that an aeroplane was charted to fly over the stadium with a banner calling for his head shortly after losing to Hibs in the Scottish Cup last season. Levein, who has managed and played for Hearts, knows his new head coach, as well as being a talented operator, must have the strength of character to cope with the intensity of the job.
“See this job, if you don’t have the ability to handle pressure, then it’s the wrong job because you get stick,” he said. “I say that to players as well. Sometimes players moan when they get booed at times. I say ‘well go and play at Cowdenbeath – if you want to play with Hearts deal with the situation’. And if you want to manage Hearts you need to deal with the situation.
“We just laughed about the plane thing, I thought Robbie dealt really well with it, and he has dealt well with everything that has been thrown at him. It was his first job and we have had far more experienced guys [managing Hearts] who were getting a hell of a lot more money who got nowhere near the level of consistency he did.”
Much has been made of Levein’s role in first-team affairs, with suggestions in the past that he has an overbearing presence on the head coach and effectively calls the shots. The director of football scoffed at such claims and insisted he will be easy for the new man to work with.
“I have to laugh,” he said. “Just because you guys [the media, although he said this with a smile] don’t get on with me doesn’t mean everyone doesn’t get on with me. I had a fantastic relationship with Robbie. It was easy. He was in charge of everything to do with the first team and I was looking after everything else. He would sometimes come to me and ask advice about stuff and sometimes he would ignore it and sometimes he would do something I suggested. I’m here to help and the perception of this role is skewed. I’m here to help, not to tell people what to do.
“I just think that people don’t understand the role and then, of course, some people don’t like me so they continue to say the same stuff even though it doesn’t make sense. The the role was always to assist the head coach. It was never to tell people what to do. If I had been telling Robbie what to do, never ever is there a point when you find out how good he is. So, the head coach has to make his own decisions because if he doesn’t I would be as well doing the job myself. I have so much stuff here to deal with. The academy has grown at such an enormously quick rate and there is so much stuff going on that needs attention.”
Levein explained that the current structure at Hearts should, in theory, mean that the departure of Neilson and Crawford – sports scientist John Hill is expected to go to MK Dons with them – shouldn’t unsettle the team too much.
“The idea is to have some sort of continuity,” he said. “That’s what the whole thing is based around. What happens at a lot of clubs is that they have a manager and they are successful or they are not. If they are successful, he leaves and somebody else comes in who might want a different style of management and change the way things are done. Even worse than that, if a manager doesn’t do well, a new manager comes in, wants rid of all those players and all the costs that are attached to that. If there is a level of continuity, then everybody knows what it is we are looking for, what players we are looking for, who we are scouting. Also, we are developing our own young players to come in and sit within the team. I would be very surprised if the person we brought in didn’t like the players that we have.”