Hearts manager Craig Levein has given himself a chance to turn the tide - now he must seize it
The case of Craig Levein is proving, in the starkest fashion possible, the basic adage that football is a results-driven business.
The vibe and narrative surrounding the fortunes of a team and ultimately a manager will always be dictated by the outcome of the most recent matches played. Levein has been around the block long enough to know this, which is why he always maintained, even when it seemed he had completely lost the Hearts support as recently as last week, that the only way to turn the tide was to win football matches.
The Hearts manager was pilloried to the point where it seemed there was no way back after his team slipped to the foot of the Premiership following defeat by Motherwell a week past Saturday. At that stage, the headline stat doing the rounds was that he had won only four league games in 2019. In addition, he had gone 12 games in succession without a Premiership victory. The criticism was justified on the basis of poor form in the league which stretched back almost 11 months.
A couple of positive results later, however, and all of a sudden the outlook is a good bit brighter for Levein and his team. An Edinburgh derby victory at Easter Road victory followed by a Betfred Cup quarter-final win over Aberdeen, by virtue of a penalty shootout, have earned the manager some much-needed leeway and provided supporters with a renewed sense of optimism that seemed inconceivable less than a week ago.
The manager is not out of the woods yet, by any stretch, with his team still sitting eighth in the Premiership and many still unconvinced that he is the man to lead them back into Europe, but certainly the pressure has eased and, with confidence levels surely now restored to the team, he has a platform of relative positivity to build from ahead of a favourable pre-international break double-header away to St Mirren and at home to Kilmarnock.
There were times last week when Levein was being cast as a hindrance to Hearts, a man who had done nothing but untold damage to the club in his two years in charge since replacing Ian Cathro. Indeed, the mood was so gloomy that some were even comparing him to his hapless predecessor. The past couple of games have allowed the narrative to shift slightly in his favour and have also reminded his critics that there are aspects of his reign which have, despite the underwhelming league form, been encouraging.
Prior to Levein becoming manager, for instance, Hearts had gone seven Edinburgh derbies without a victory. Sunday’s win at Easter Road was the Tynecastle side’s fourth win in their last eight meetings with Hibs. In the season prior to Levein becoming Hearts manager, Aberdeen won on both of their visits to Tynecastle. Since Levein took charge, Hearts haven’t lost any of their five home games against the Dons. After drawing with Derek McInnes’s team at Murrayfield in the first match of Levein’s reign, Hearts have sent Aberdeen away from Tynecastle defeated on each of their last four visits.
Prior to becoming Hearts manager in 2017, Hearts’ cup form had been poor. They hadn’t reached a semi-final since the 2013/14 campaign under Gary Locke. Supporters are now looking forward to their third consecutive semi-final. In the four knockout tournaments Levein has contested, he has reached a quarter-final, a semi-final, a final and now another semi-final. Hearts’ primary targets at the start of any season are generally to qualify for Europe and to progress to the latter stages of one or both of the cup competitions. While he has so far failed to deliver the required consistency to challenge in the league, Levein’s cup form has been solid, especially considering only treble-treble-winning Celtic have stopped them in each of the last two tournaments.
Such is the world he lives in, the manager will right back under the cosh if his team fall flat away to St Mirren on Saturday. Levein has given himself a fighting chance, but now he must capitalise on this period of relative calm and ensure his team, which will be boosted by the return of several key men in the weeks ahead, prove they are capable of picking up results on a far more consistent basis in the league.