After being unceremoniously stopped in his tracks by the heart scare that befell him almost three weeks ago, Craig Levein has returned to work buoyed by the level of support he has received from the football fraternity and beyond.
While his energy levels may be understandably diminished as he recovers from the fright he encountered last month, the Hearts manager has lost none of his penchant for a laugh.
When facing the media yesterday, for the first time since being discharged from hospital a fortnight ago, Levein, reflecting on the overwhelming amount of messages of goodwill he has received, including from Hibs manager and verbal sparring rival Neil Lennon, jovially suggested that recent events had made him more popular than ever.
“I’ve had a lot of well-wishers,” he said. “Lenny was different class. I’ve had a lot of support from all over Scotland and abroad, and not just in football. I was lying in my bed after I got home from the hospital and my daughter had been on social media. She said: ‘this is the best career move you have ever made, you should have done it when you were Scotland manager’.”
Levein was understandably reluctant to go into the specifics of his health scare, but was keen to thank the medics who treated him by nipping the problem in the bud. “I don’t really want to go into the details but of course my family got a fright,” he said. “The paramedics and the people at the Royal Infirmary, in the Coronary Care Unit, were fantastic. They fixed the problem for me almost as soon as it had reared its ugly head. I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
Levein subsequently missed Hearts’ home match against St Mirren and he tried to relax at home instead as assistant Austin MacPhee took the reins. “It was difficult that Saturday,” he said. “The doctor had told me not to listen to the game so I went to my bed and read a book – I can’t remember which one now – and at five past three my missus shouted up the stairs: ‘It’s 1-0’. So I went and got my iPad and watched the rest of the game.”
Although disappointed at missing the 4-1 victory which kept his team three points clear at the top of the table ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Motherwell, Levein had full faith in MacPhee and fellow coaches Jon Daly and Liam Fox to keep things running smoothly in his absence.
“I felt good about not being there because I wasn’t panicky or worried,” he explained. “I just knew they would all just do what they do every other week. I’m the one who does the least!
“What’s really good is we have one more member of staff than other clubs. Normally you have a manager, assistant manager and a first-team coach. We’ve got myself, Austin, Jon and Foxy. They all have their own responsibility so if I’m not here it runs the same.
“From my time as director of football, sometimes all the responsibility can fall on one person so it’s good we have different people who have different responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. That’s been something that has helped.”
Levein’s first week of recuperation coincided with the closing days of the transfer window. Despite the manager’s absence from Riccarton, the club were still able to recruit Demetri Mitchell, Craig Wighton and Clevid Dikamona. “They had been in the pipeline for a while so a lot of the things had been done on that,” said Levein. “Craig Wighton came up late on when we couldn’t get David Vanecek. It was a little bit awkward but that’s the advantage of having so many good people around. If one person can’t do the job then there’s someone else capable of stepping in.”
Hearts’ experienced players also helped ensure things continued to move along nicely in the manager’s absence. Levein was thrilled to see one of his senior players, Steven Naismith, return to the Scotland team with a match-winning goal against Albania on Tuesday.
“As a man I love him to bits,” said the manager. “I think he epitomises all that’s good in a footballer but also with his character. You wouldn’t meet a more humble person considering what he’s done in football and that’s a big thing.
“Him, Aaron Hughes and Christophe Berra are all really, really humble guys and approachable and willing to share their knowledge with everyone at the club. Having Stevie on board is a huge plus. He’s a fantastic guy and I can’t speak highly enough of him.”