Promoting from within is a contentious issue at Tynecastle just now. Hearts director of football Craig Levein hopes time will eventually prove him correct in giving inexperienced coaches and players their big break, but many are sceptical.
Levein is 52 and has been involved in professional football at every level. He knows how the game works and accepts the criticism. Hearts’ results since he appointed 30-year-old Ian Cathro head coach in his first managerial role last December have been miserable, with only six wins in 26 matches.
Many feel a club aiming to challenge amongst Scotland’s top three should employ a respectively qualified manager to lead them. Levein’s own position is under scrutiny since Cathro was his appointment. He also sanctioned many sub-standard signings last summer and in January, which contributed to the poor form. Yet Levein is more determined than ever to make a success of his project.
He will return to promoting players from the Riccarton youth academy after veering from that policy recently due to a lack of quality kids. He also wants to develop coaches at youth level to prepare them to one day step up and lead the first team.
“I have ambitions first and foremost to do a really good job here. Our whole plan is to be the best in the country at developing young players,” said Levein. “I spend most of my time at the academy working with the coaches and Roger Arnott, the academy director. I am really pleased with that. It’s something that I like. It’s something that I know. I did it at Leicester, I did it here previously, I did it at Dundee United. I get enjoyment from that. It will be another two or three years before it gets to the point where [Hearts owner] Ann Budge sells the club back to the supporters. By then, I would be very hopeful that we have got three or four of our young players, who have come through our system, playing in the first team.”
The head coach’s job will be filled by a similar process in future. Levein promoted Robbie Neilson from under-20 coach to head coach in 2014 but then lured Cathro from an assistant’s role at Newcastle when Neilson left six months ago. He didn’t feel Hearts’ youth coaches were ready to take charge of the senior side. “The idea of developing players and developing coaches is that you don’t you have to go through an interview process every time you lose a manager,” continued Levein. “Sometimes you get caught up with a a guy doing particularly well at a certain club and think, ‘he’s the guy for us’. It then conflicts with what you’re doing within the club.
“If you bring an experienced manager who only works with senior players, that is going to clash completely with what you’re trying to do. So when Robbie left, which was a surprise to all of us, we had discussions about whether we had somebody within the building who we felt was capable of doing the job? The answer at that time was probably not.
“I’m really happy with the quality of the coaches we’ve got but they only had very limited experience. To promote from within, they need to have slightly more experience. Jon Daly’s only had a season at under-20s. The reason for Ian coming in is that Ian was actually in the building during the first summer . He had agreed to take the under-20s job, but then he got offered the Valencia assistant’s job. We wanted to find somebody whose main role was developing young players, and Ian kind of fitted in with that. That was the reason.
“Also, times have changed, players have changed. The coaches who are coming up through the academy, provided we get the right guys in place, have a better understanding of young players. Players get better, coaches get better, eventually they meet again in the first team and there comes a situation where you are working with people that you know.
“I choose to do this job to help the club develop young players and develop young managers. I’ve got to keep that in mind. My role is to support people. I laugh about this constant nonsense about my relationship with the coach, but if we are winning matches no-one says anything. When you start losing, you are open to criticism.
“I can only say that Ian is a young manager, he is a talented boy and he will work his backside off to get this right and the club is supporting him. What happens further down the line, I’m not going to say. We want to win.”
Time to batten down the hatches and tough it out, it would seem. “Well, he is going to have to if he wants to be a success,” said Levein. “We will support him as much as we can. He has gone through some difficult times, he now has a break and I feel my responsibility is to help him in the recruitment side and see if we can get better quality players in – or certainly players who understand this league and who can deal with the things they need to to be able to dominate matches.”
Some fairly high-profile characters in Scottish football want Cathro to fail. “There are people who have made it fairly obvious that they do, but while you are not winning matches that is the type of criticism that happens. I can understand him feeling a bit sensitive at times because it’s not nice and I have been there once or twice myself. It’s difficult to put the knife in when the team is winning. I don’t want to talk about whether it is fair or unfair because it is what it is and Ian has to deal with that.
“There are people who wish him well. He has created some amount of coverage and he is coping. Some days are better than others but he is coping and he is positive. As I say, the players really like him. They are close to him and understand that he is trying to help them. They appreciate that. So from the players’ point of view, I think he is in a really good place.
“It would be good if you could see him working, it would be good if you could understand what he is trying to do and get an insight into the type of work he is doing at the training ground. But that will manifest itself in time with us playing really good football if we can fix some of the other things.”
The most telling period of Levein’s time as Hearts’ director of football could well be the next few months. A strong start to next season would justify his faith in young, inexperienced coaches. A repeat of the second half of last season would merely vindicate those who believe that policy is doomed to failure.