Craig Levein will hope for a more welcoming scene when he enters the Hearts dressing room after tonight’s Betfred Cup quarter-final.
On Saturday, frustration at drawing 0-0 at home to Livingston spilled over into some angry exchanges between players. “I opened the door to the changing room and there was a little bit of an altercation going on so I just shut it and left them to it,” smirked Levein.
Occasional outbursts like that can be healthy, with the manager knowing he doesn’t always need to intervene and manage the situation. That said, Levein would not want too many repeats. Certainly not this evening against Motherwell. “It is frustration from the players,” he explained after watching his side stay top of the Ladbrokes Premiership but lose their 100 per cent record against the West Lothian club.
“They put a lot of effort in and that is one thing I can’t be critical of, the amount of effort we have put into every single match. The stats we have back that up. We are working harder than we did last season, we are fitter than we were last season and we have benefitted from that in matches up to now. Livingston was the first game where there was a real proper level of frustration.”
That manifested itself in some jeers from the stands at full-time despite Hearts’ scintillating start to the campaign. “I’ve been here a long, long time. I know that, if you don’t win at Tynecastle, that’s what happens,” said Levein. “I think it’s just a measure of the expectation levels of the fans and the club. If you had been in our dressing room after the game, there was a level of frustration there. A few people were having a go at each other. The fans feel the same way. They feel frustrated at not getting the result, just like the players.”
Eighteen new signings are learning fast about demands at Hearts. This evening, they play Motherwell for the chance to reach a national cup semi-final at Hampden Park. Motivation certainly won’t be an issue.
“We speak at length about what to expect at the club when the players come over to visit,” said Levein. “We take them to the stadium and tell them: ‘It’s quiet just now but sometimes it is fantastic when we are doing well. At other times, you need big balls to play here.’ That is true. I have heard people in the past talk about the Old Firm and players being able to handle the pressure, but it is similar type of thing here.”
Levein is confident his transformed squad can shoulder the demands of leading the Premiership and aiming for the last four in one of Scotland’s big three tournaments. Nothing is guaranteed, though.
“We’re better than we were last season, even with Christophe [Berra] being in the treatment room we have managed to deal with that fairly well. We have more ammunition up front than we have had for a while, although Uche [Ikpeazu] didn’t play on Saturday. I tried to get the lad [David] Vanacek over before the window closed, which would have helped, but we couldn’t do it.
“So, we are generally stronger. Last season, if we had any injuries at all, the kids would have played. This year I feel quite good about what we have on the bench, and we still have Jamie Brandon and Marcus Godinho to come back in as well.
“How well equipped are we? When it comes to a one-off match like this, anything can happen. We lost [to Motherwell in the Scottish Cup quarter-final] to a late Carl McHugh goal last season and the game can lead down any path.
“All you are doing is increasing your chances of being successful by having a better squad. That doesn’t mean you are going to win one particular match.”
The continued absence of Ikpeazu would be a blow. He injured his foot in a collision with the Motherwell goalkeeper Trevor Carson at Fir Park ten days ago. “I’m not sure if Uche is going to make it. We might be leaning more towards Saturday for him,” admitted Levein.
Hearts’ starting line-up will change tonight regardless of the hulking Englishman’s availability. Forward Craig Wighton is cup-tied having played for Dundee earlier in the Betfred Cup. The group phase makes for a quick pathway to the knockout stage and Levein is a fan of the revamped layout.
“I do quite like the format, actually,” he said. “It does put a lot of pressure on the favourites for the group phase early, because you are kind of using those matches as a way to get up to speed for the start of the league. You are trying to balance that with the importance of the competition.
“However, I like it and think it’s more interesting than the old format. I think it’s good that there is a trophy up for grabs this early.
“We are on a good run right now and it would be nice to continue that. Before the draw I was hoping for anyone at home, so I’ve got my wish and hopefully that will give us a better chance of progressing.”
Hearts haven’t graced the Hampden turf since reaching the final of this competition in 2013. In the intervening five years, they have entered and exited administration, changed owners, enlisted new directors, players and managers, and built a £15m stand to complete Tynecastle Park. Perhaps the only thing missing is a major trophy success.
“It’s been a while since 2013,” acknowledged Levein. “We are playing well, are competitive, have home advantage and that carrot is big. There are three major competitions in Scotland and this is one of them. We’ll be doing our absolute best to get to the semi-final.”