Paperwork for seven new signings is safely tucked away inside Riccarton’s filing cabinets. More will follow. Hearts’ squad rebuilds are becoming uncomfortably frequent for those who like continuity, but the difference is Craig Levein is solely responsible for this year’s regeneration.
Having stepped forward to assume the manager’s job on top of director of football duties last August, Levein is now in the midst of his first summer recruitment drive in nine years. Not since leaving Dundee United has he found himself totally in charge of club signings after handing previous head coaches Robbie Neilson and Ian Cathro autonomy to shape their own Hearts squads.
The next few weeks are crucial and Levein has started early before his players report for pre-season training on the 21st of the month. Goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal, left-back Ben Garuccio, midfielders Olly Lee and Bobby Burns, winger Jake Mulraney, plus strikers Steven MacLean and Uche Ikpeazu, are tied up for next season already. Midfielder Ryan Edwards should be next, with forward David Vanecek also a possibility.
Levein’s total number of new faces will certainly reach double figures before the transfer window closes at the end of August. Another goalkeeper will arrive in addition to a centre-back – and that’s before any incoming loans.
Turnover of players at Hearts has been high in the last few transfer windows but Levein is aiming for stability with this one. Those who know him point to his experience of being over the course before as evidence that the Edinburgh club are in safe hands.
“He doesn’t just jump in. He will make extensive enquiries about a player and he will find out their background before signing him,” said Kenny Black, who coached under Levein with both Leicester City and Scotland. “It’s not just a case of: ‘I saw him a few weeks ago and he played well.’ Working closely with [scout] Gary Kirk and other people around Hearts, he will have people watched four, five or six times. He won’t be gambling.
“He will build up a portfolio of information about whether somebody is suited to the Scottish game, which is physical and quicker than a lot of other leagues. Craig likes to see a player in action himself but will enhance his knowledge with information from other people.
“He’s had a situation where players have come in and he hasn’t been totally in charge of first-team affairs. First there was Robbie and then Ian Cathro. Now Craig has taken on the manager’s job and I wasn’t surprised by the changeover. He was always very meticulous when it came to organising a team and making it difficult to play against.
“He is experienced and knows exactly what he’s looking for. He knows the personnel he wants to play the way he thinks will bring success to Hearts. He has already identified the areas of the team needing strengthened. It’s not just in the UK – he will be all over Europe. He has an extensive knowledge and network of contacts.”
The new arrivals are intended to strengthen a squad Levein wants to haul back into European contention. Hearts finished fifth in the Scottish Premiership under Cathro in 2017 and sixth this year. “Craig doesn’t want to finish sixth,” stressed Black, pictured below.
“It would be great if we could say every signing will be a success but some players take longer than others to settle. Myself and Stuart McCall experienced that at Bradford recently after losing four or five players from the play-off final last year. We were left to pick up the pieces after losing out and unfortunately we weren’t successful.
“If there is going to be eight, nine, ten signings at Hearts, then it would be fantastic if they all manage to gel at the one time. I think there will be a lot of work being done behind the scenes, so let’s wait and see if Hearts can be up there challenging for major honours again.
“You look at the likes of Motherwell, who reached two cup finals last season under Stephen Robinson. He has done a fantastic job. Motherwell can be competitive so there’s no reason Hearts can’t.
“You see that fantastic new stand there and the support they get. Tynecastle is one of the best atmospheres, if not the best, in Scottish football. Hopefully the supporters continue to come out and see a successful Hearts team.”
Watching Hibs qualify for Europe while Hearts sit mid-table only increases the craving for improvement amongst Hearts fans. “Nobody is more desperate than Craig. I know what he’s like and he’s desperate to be successful there,” said Black. “Across the city, Hibs are doing well and Neil Lennon has done a terrific job there. We want Scottish football to be a competitive as possible and a strong Hearts and Hibs goes a long way towards that. You’ve got to stand up and be counted and I’m sure Craig will do that.
“You can see the work he has done. He got a lot of criticism when he first went back into the job but since Hearts got back to Tynecastle their goals-against record has improved. If you are difficult to play against and difficult to score against, it gives you half a chance. Time will tell and I hope for Craig and everyone connected with Hearts that they get success.”
Black makes a relevant point about Levein’s organisational skills. Those were integral in Hearts setting a new club record of eight successive clean sheets during December and January. Levein favours a definitive style of play and Black feels it will take time to implement next season.
“That identification with the style of play is about being well-organised and difficult to play against when they don’t have the ball. Also, it’s about counter-attacking when they have the ball. I don’t think Craig will change much that way. That’s how he wants his teams to play and he has been successful. You are always going to get criticism, even Brendan Rodgers got it because Celtic lost a couple of games last season. Craig knows exactly what he is looking for. It’s just patience that’s required. If Hearts get off to a good start next season then everything else will fall into place.”
One thing the manager won’t compromise on is his philosophy on nurturing young players. The number of teenagers who played for Hearts last season hit double figures. “The youngsters will be given a chance again. They will see a pathway because young lads who join Hearts will get a chance in the first team,” said Black.
“Some managers maybe overprotect a little bit but Craig is experienced enough to know how to handle it. Any supporter loves to see a home-grown player. The lads at Hearts have been a breath of fresh air for Scottish football. Last season’s experience will make them better for next season.”