Why building Hearts’ foundations for next season excites manager Craig Levein
Stabilising Hearts’ foundations is often an unappreciated part of Craig Levein’s work as manager and director of football. John Colquhoun, his friend and former Tynecastle Park team-mate, sees the long-term vision.
Players report to Riccarton on Friday ahead of pre-season training starting, yet there remains some disquiet among a section of the club’s support. Perhaps that is understandable after just four league wins this calendar year, but there is more solidity being instilled for the future.
Levein has wisely devoted much of his time to signings the spine of his team on extended contracts. Prodigious kids continue to emerge from the youth academy and the manager is approaching season 2019/20 with much enthusiasm.
“He has optimism for the young players at Hearts. They will be a year older next season with another pre-season behind them to give them a chance to establish themselves,” said Colquhoun. “That’s ultimately what Craig wants – a club with an identity with the Hearts supporters.
“Hearts had to completely rebuild their academy when they came out of administration under Ann Budge, Craig and Roger Arnott. Time and money was spent and it’s exciting for Craig to see the fruits of those labours.
“I don’t think Hearts are that far away from being a very, very good side. It’s not sexy because there is hard graft. Getting John Souttar, Christophe Berra, Peter Haring, Uche Ikpeazu and Michael Smith all signed on longer contracts, that takes time and hard work. Plus they are trying to get Steven Naismith to sign a contract.
“These things are laying foundations. Add those to the young players coming through, I think that’s what excites Craig. I reckon it gives him hope that next season will be when Hearts will have something to cheer in the league and that people will be desperate to come to the stadium.”
Colquhoun acknowledged the difficulties of watching Hearts of late. There will be a few new signings but the most important business was retaining key individuals.
“It has been tough this year. It’s been tough to watch at times. I watch it myself and it’s hard,” said the former winger, now head of Box Soccer. “Sometimes you just have to grind it out but it hasn’t worked. The hardest part of the game now is not going out and finding new players, it’s getting the ones you can trust to stay at your club. They are the ones other people want.
“As soon as they are signed up and the social media fanfare dies off after a day, people are asking: ‘But where are our new signings?’ People want shiny new things and that’s the society we live in. A lot of the work done at football clubs now is laying foundations. Young players need a solid base.
“I’ve seen John Souttar with Aaron Hughes just soaking in the knowledge. Aaron has told me John has been like a sponge. Unless you have someone at the helm of your club putting all that together, you just continually change and bring in new managers and players. The more it doesn’t work, the more people want change and that cycle just continues. What Hearts are after is a bit of stability.”
Levein’s commitment to nurturing youth showed again at the end of last season when 17-year-old Connor Smith started an Edinburgh derby and 16-year-old Aaron Hickey played in the Scottish Cup final against Celtic.
Colquhoun expects Levein to blood those two and several others with more first-team experience over the next year. It will be a careful process to ensure they are not overexposed. If that means the manager taking more heat to protect the kids, Levein will do what is right for his players.
“The experienced guys who signed new deals can be added to with Harry Cochrane, Aaron Hickey, Connor Smith, Andy Irving, Anthony McDonald and the rest,” said Colquhoun. “Craig could have thrown those young lads in because it takes the pressure off him. He could say to fans: ‘I’m blooding youngsters, what do you expect?’ I think the reason he doesn’t do it is because he doesn’t think it’s right for their long-term development. He has to make sure they are ready.
“Put a young player into a struggling team and you might stunt their development or stop it completely. I’ve seen players come into losing teams and had their confidence shattered. They never recovered because it affects them mentally.
“Craig could have done that and bought time with supporters but he didn’t because he probably knew it wasn’t right for the players or the club. That’s what I admire. The temptation for me, who is not in the heat of battle, might be to just throw them in and see how they do.
“Craig has a strategy. He feels these players can develop over the next couple of years because they are getting a few games here and there just now. Then they are on loan, come back, and I think the future with them excites him.
“These players can become the fabric of Heart of Midlothian. Everybody from Foundation of Hearts, Ann and Craig to the coaching staff and fans will get a return on their investment – financially and emotionally.”