The depth of Hearts’ squad gives Craig Levein belief that they can maintain their impressive start to the season.
The manager has been thrilled by the sight of his side tearing five points clear at the top of the Premiership after winning all five of their league matches so far. Although he is making no grand boasts about how long they can maintain their early surge, Levein is buoyed by the array of options at his disposal and the level of competition for places within what he feels is the strongest squad (depth-wise) he has had at his disposal in both of his spells as Hearts manager.
“I would say in terms of strength in depth it’s the strongest,” said Levein. “We’ve had a lot of good players in my time here at Hearts and some of the ones we have just now are maybe not quite at that level yet, but I think they might get there. But the squad? Absolutely.”
This new-found depth to the squad, in stark contrast to last season when he was heavily reliant on academy graduates, means Levein has plenty options to ponder ahead of selecting his team for tomorrow’s match against Livingston. “The squad, without doubt, is far more competitive than it was last season,” he continued. “Even yesterday I was looking at the team for the weekend and, even with us winning five games, I have three or four options and I’m looking at them and thinking, ‘I don’t know which one would be best’.”
After a couple of years of difficulty, Levein is revelling in watching his players at work as they strive to keep the early momentum going. “I’m enjoying it,” he said. “It is the type of pressure that is good. I have experienced other types of pressure that is not as good as this. I think it is just a case of sticking to the basics and doing everything properly in training every day. What we have got is hungry players, boys who have seen the move to Hearts as a step up, like Uche (Ikpeazu), for example.
“He came up here at the end of last season and watched the Hibs or the Celtic game and went away thinking, ‘wow, I really need to step up’ so he lost 6kg and worked really, really hard over the summer and came into this environment, and you watch him playing now and he is like a dog chasing ball. He is really enthusiastic and our punters love that. They love players who chase lost causes and play with the enthusiasm of a punter, running about with a smile on his face.”
Intensity levels on the training pitches at Riccarton are high, and the manager is embracing it. “When the training is good and at its best it is when everybody is flying into tackles, and I love that,” he said. “It’s like a match and if you can train the way you play, with that intensity, then it makes things easier on the Saturday. I’m fortunate to have quite a few who are happy to get stuck in, and people quickly realise that, if you’re not switched on, you get hurt. That means the tempo goes to a level where everyone is moving the ball quickly and not getting caught.”
Levein believes he has a squad equipped to thrive on the pressure of trying to keep winning and remain top of the table. “I hope that’s the case,” he said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve set off at a good pace and it’s a question of whether we keep that going.
“But that’s why I think having this strong squad, having boys like Sean Clare in the group, bringing Demi Mitchell and Steven Naismith back, these are all assets for what is going to be a long haul. If you don’t have a strong squad, the manager’s job is a lot more about cajoling and making sure everyone is at it for every single match. If you have competition for places they just turn round and look at the bench and think: ‘I had better get my finger out’.”
Hearts are unbeaten in ten matches in all competitions this season and have won nine of them. Asked if he had expected his new-look team to ignite so quickly, he said: “You never know, do you? It has all played out in my head since January, probably, finding a target man, finding pace, finding quality players who can play in a number of different ways.
“You are always hopeful but you need to win, and once you start winning, players think, ‘hang on a minute, we’re actually not bad’. You win another and then they they’re a wee bit better than that. So we’ll keep trying to win matches and see what happens.”