Craig Levein returns to the helm at Hearts, on a three-year deal, nearly 13 years after he left Tynecastle for Leicester City.
He finished fifth in his first two seasons before leading the club to consecutive third place finishes. The club are a different entity now, both on and off the pitch, but such are the demands of the Tynecastle faithful Levein will be well aware of the expectations from the stands with little, if any, of a honeymoond period.
So what does he need to do to get the team competing at the top end of the table?
It is most obvious solution but the best thing Levein can do for himself, the board, the team and the club as a whole is lead the side to a win at Murrayfield against top of the table Aberdeen. It would give the fans a massive shot in the arm ahead of four away games, and such is the fickle nature of football fans it would instil a feel good factor among the support.
A comfortable Aberdeen win will only add to the angst among the support as they see a team on an upward curve, a team the fans feel they should be finishing ahead of or at the least competing with. Then come Hamilton Academical, Partick Thistle, Dundee and Ross County. All are teams who Hearts should defeat. But the competitive nature of the league and Hearts’ poor away form, none are straightforward encounters.
Much has been made of Craig Levein’s influence as director of football, but there is an argument that he hasn’t had enough influence with the first team, especially recruitment. Of the 17 players signed in the past two transfer windows few can be attributed to Levein.
This has affected continuity within the squad, one which is unbalanced. Ian Cathro wanted to implement a 3-4-3 system, while Jon Daly looked to simplify matters but struggled to find the right players for the right positions. Levein is going to have to show his managerial nous and experiment to find the right balance to make the side a tough nut to crack, while offering an attacking impetus to excite the fans.
By the time Hearts make the trip to Easter Road it will be well over three years since they’ve defeated their Capital rivals. Two of the defeats in that time have been most painful for the Hearts support, coming in the Scottish Cup. The fans have grown fed-up of being second best, tactically, technically and physically.
The first derby fixture of the season was the one pinpointed when they were released - the first Premiership derby since 2014. Three points at Easter Road would see support for Levein grow exponentially.
Rid the team of its soft touch
Robbie Neilson had his detractors but one thing that couldn’t be labelled about his Hearts team was that it was a soft touch. Aberdeen and Derek McInnes can testify to that. However, since Neilson’s departure the side have been weak, physically and mentally.
Craig Levein’s Hearts side in his first spell were well known for their organisation, their robust nature and physicality, even if it was exaggerated by opponents from time to time. As a manager he won’t settle for seeing his players arrive back in the dressing room having not given their all or having given up easily.
Another aspect of his management in his first spell is that the team would rarely go on a prolonged bad run. After a loss there was normally a reaction.
Plan for the future
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Levein’s appointment is the three-year deal which Ann Budge announced at his media unveiling. More than anything that gives the club stability after a period of instability. It is hard to see Levein’s tenure going the same way as Cathro’s. This is a long-term fix.
As mentioned it is important, in the short-term, that the team gets wins under their belt, to give everyone at the club, namely Levein, breathing space in yet another season of transition. Yet, with Levein awarded full autonomy for the first-team he can get to work with John Murray to pinpoint players to recruit in January and next summer. The club have also used the free contract market outwith the transfer window wisely in the past and may need to do so again.
At the same time they need to think of the players at the club and begin to put in motion plans for moving on unwanted and unwilling individuals.