Criticising Craig Levein is a favourite pastime for some in Scottish football, but Hearts defender Daniel Baur reckons his manager deserves high praise for getting results whilst nurturing youth players.
Levein oversaw a nine-game unbeaten run and a club record six consecutive clean sheets as the Tynecastle club ended 2017 on a high. The appearance of nine teenagers in the first team since the season began underlines the 53-year-old’s commitment to youth development.
Baur, 18, is one beneficiary. His substitute appearance at Pittodrie on Saturday as the sixth shut-out was secured was only his second senior outing. Levein gave him his debut against Kilmarnock in November and has continued to let the Riccarton academy graduates flourish since. Harry Cochrane, Euan Henderson, Lewis Moore, Aidan Keena, Rory Currie, Jamie Brandon, Anthony McDonald and Alex Petkov have also played in the Hearts first team this season.
Yet some observers continue to chastise Levein over style of play, perceived negativity and an overly physical approach. Baur argued that it is time the manager was given due credit.
“I think it’s really unfair. He’s giving young boys a chance and that’s a hard thing to do. Three teenagers started on Saturday against Aberdeen, then I came on. Plus there were another two on the bench. I think that’s really good. You don’t see a lot of other teams doing that,” said the defender.
“The manager has got trust in us and the team as a whole are working well. You can see that with what’s happening on the pitch. We aren’t conceding any goals and I think he deserves a lot of praise.”
Although a newcomer to the first-team arena, Baur has already noticed Levein’s single-minded approach. “If he does get grief, he will just stick to what he knows works. I don’t think he’s going to change that and sometimes you need that outlook in a manager,” said the teenager.
“He knows what he’s doing and you can see that from our league form. When we come back after the winter break, hopefully we can get more wins and push further up the league.”
Levein has successfully tightened what was a rather loose defence since being reappointed Hearts manager in September. Christophe Berra and Co are currently one of the most defiant rearguards in the country, culminating in a new club record up in Aberdeen.
“I’ve not celebrated a 0-0 draw like that before, but I really enjoyed it,” said Baur, who played left wing-back after replacing the injured Michael Smith in the first half.
“The boys dug in fantastically throughout the whole game. When Mick got injured, I got told to go and warm up. I was ready to come on and I really enjoyed it. The gaffer mentioned before the game that it could be a historic day if we kept a clean sheet, so that was in the back of our minds. To get to 90 minutes, and then to see the board come up with three extra minutes, we just kept digging away.
“The manager said after the game that he knows we can do both things now. He knows we can go and press and he knows we can sit and be dogged, put in challenges and frustrate the opposition. I think he’s happy he knows he can do that, which is a positive sign.”
There can’t be many 6ft 5in wing-backs around, though. “I don’t think there’s any, to be fair,” he laughed. Baur is an orthodox central defender but both his senior outings have seen him delpoyed on the left.
“I really enjoyed it. I haven’t really played wing-back before but it was great experience. I’ll play anywhere. I have to if I want to get a game. When team-mates around you are helping you all the time, you feel more confident. You get into the game more as time goes on, you find your first touch and that all helps.
“Obviously it was difficult when Kyle Lafferty was sent off. We were sitting off so Aberdeen were going to put more pressure on and lump balls into the box. I thought we handled it well. When the final whistle went, everyone was really relieved and delighted to break the record. I was happy just being a part of it.
“I didn’t get the chance to put in any crosses from the left but if I get another chance in that position I’ll look to do that.”
Baur’s targets for the remainder of the campaign are modest. “Even if I played another five games this season it would be great. The team is doing really well just now and they aren’t conceding any goals,” he acknowledged.
“If I’m not back in the team, I’ll just keep working hard in training. I’ve shown the gaffer that he can put me on and I can do a job for him. If I need to go and play for the Under-20s, I can do that to get game time. That always helps and I enjoy it.”
Levein’s influence is certain to continue. He will coach and cajole those under his command to ensure that watertight defence doesn’t start springing a leak after the winter break.
“We go out some afternoons and just work on back four shape to know that we’re confident when a game comes round. Paul Gallacher, the goalie coach, also helps us throughout the week. It’s a great learning experience for me and I’m thankful to the gaffer for the opportunity.”