Craig Levein labelled Hearts’ historic 4-0 defeat of Celtic one of the best results of his managerial career. However, he joked that he wasn’t certain of victory until the 89th minute.
The Edinburgh club ended Celtic’s record 69-game unbeaten run with a breathtaking display at Tynecastle Park. A first senior goal for 16-year-old midfielder Harry Cochrane set the tone before Kyle Lafferty added a second before half-time. Winger David Milinkovic scored twice – once from the penalty spot – in the second half to complete a resounding home win.
Levein’s management career includes spells in charge of Scotland, Leicester City and Dundee United, plus a previous stint at Hearts. He insisted the result and performance against Celtic were as satisfying as any game he has been involved in.
“It’s up there for sure, because of the circumstances and everything that has happened in the last year or so. It was pleasing,” he said. “All credit to Celtic to be going into a game which could be their 70th without defeat. It shows a huge level of commitment, effort and quality. I’m just pleased our lads managed to end that run. I wouldn’t say Celtic couldn’t go on another run and get to 70 the next time. That’s the quality they’ve got. It was pleasing we managed to go toe-to-toe with them and managed to come out on top.
“At 89 minutes, I thought: ‘We might win this.’ Until then I was just jumping about like a mad man, ranting, raving and shouting. I’ll enjoy it but, at this minute in time, I’d say this is a one-off. We want to get to that level every week if we can. The crazy thing was we had five or six of our better players unavailable.”
Levein urged caution for anyone keen to heap too much pressure on young Cochrane. “We get a bit excited at times and start putting people on a pedestal,” Levein added. “He’s just a delight to work with. A very grounded, well-mannered, very polite, well-brought-up boy who just loves playing football. Whether he’s playing in the under-17s, the under-20s or the first team, there’s no fear.
“It’s all new to him just now. He’s going about with a smile like a Cheshire cat as you can imagine. There will be tough times for him in the future but he’s really got something about him. It’s not easy at 16 to play in a game like that and do well. That’s what Harry did.
“It was our day today. We scored at the right moments when we looked like we might drop out of the game. The two goals in the second half came at critical moments as well. At 2-0 up at half-time, if Celtic score next then it’s a difficult game for us. The players deserved the result for the attitude they took into the game.”
Levein used Anderlecht’s recent performance against Celtic in the Champions League as the basis for his team’s energetic approach. Even without the services of the influential Jamie Walker and Arnaud Djoum, Hearts were too strong for a below-par Celtic.
“We based our gameplan on the Anderlecht game – the high pressing, being brave at the back and going man-for-man at times. It’s difficult to do because if they cut you open then you could be 3-0 down before you bat an eyelid. Our players’ recovery runs when the high press didn’t work made all the difference. Michael Smith was doing something most unusual [at centre-back] but I thought he was fantastic. He’s an experienced player, he reads the game well and he’s got decent pace. Him and Christophe Berra were up against a very clever and talented Celtic front line, no matter who they play. Everybody contributed.”
Hearts are now unbeaten in six matches ahead of Saturday’s trip to Perth. “The players got the rewards for doing all the running they’ve had to do,” said Levein. “After a couple of results that made them feel better, this will make them feel better again. Now we’re back to square one planning for St Johnstone next week.”