Steven Pressley would be an ideal Hearts manager who could withstand any criticism from disgruntled fans, according to Alex Smith.
Falkirk’s technical director gave Pressley his first managerial job seven years ago and believes he is well suited to replace Ian Cathro at Tynecastle. Hearts owner Ann Budge and director of football Craig Levein interviewed the 43-year-old on Thursday after sacking Cathro last week.
A section of the Hearts support remain unhappy with Pressley after he left the Edinburgh club to play for Celtic in 2006. However, Smith has backed the former Tynecastle captain and insisted he would be a steadying influence if given the job in Gorgie.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt he can lead a club of Hearts’ size. He’s familiar with big clubs and that club in particular,” Smith told the Evening News. “He knows the challenges you have in Scottish football with a club like Hearts.
“He knows the demands of the Hearts fans, he knows the demands of the club itself and where it’s expected to be. He also knows the pressure that brings him from clubs like Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Hibernian. Hearts expect to be in amongst that group, at least in the top four.
“Steven doesn’t get fazed by anything. He can handle anything. He can walk into a room and be a personality, converse and speak deeply about the game in any company. He’s got that kind of strength about him.”
Smith stressed that Pressley’s strength of character would ensure he coped with supporters who may question his prospective return to Hearts. He played in maroon for eight years and captained the club’s 2006 Scottish Cup-winning team. However, his celebrations after returning to Tynecastle with Celtic saw some fans turn on him.
“He is a boy who can drum up enthusiasm but he can drum up controversy as well,” continued Smith. “He has that, but clubs like Hearts need it. I’m not telling Hearts what to do but Rangers and Celtic always have strong management teams and you need to be strong to compete with them.
“Brendan Rodgers introduced young players at Celtic but he’s also a very strong and likeable personality. You have to be a strong manager to go in and compete against him. It was the same with Martin O’Neill, or Walter Smith at Ibrox, or Craig Levein at Hearts, or Derek McInnes at Aberdeen.
“These are strong personalities and you have to handle them publicly and handle the environment. You need to know you’re strong enough to carry your club. Steven Pressley would be the same character no matter which club he was managing. He’s as honest as the day is long and his courage is tremendous.
“He does court controversy sometimes but there’s no harm in that. It can actually be a breath of fresh air. If there’s anybody cut out for Hearts, he is as much as anyone.”
Pressley has been out of work since resigning as Fleetwood Town manager in July 2016. He still lives with his family in England but is willing to return to Scotland to resume his managerial career.
His time at Falkirk saw a clutch of young academy players promoted to the first team, including Jay Fulton, Stephen Kingsley, Blair Alston and Craig Sibbald. He left in March 2013 to become manager at struggling Coventry City. He kept them in League One despite two separate ten-point deductions, plus the fact they were forced to play home games 34 miles away in Northampton.
He was sacked after a poor run of results in February 2015 and became Fleetwood manager in October that year. Smith believes the former Scotland defender will have learned from those experiences in England and is ready to take on the role at Hearts. “One of Steven’s biggest assets was he was a good listener, even though you wouldn’t get that impression,” explained Smith. “If you spoke to him he would listen and take things on board if he thought it was viable. That’s one of his strengths.
“You’d maybe think he is somebody who doesn’t listen but he does. He takes everything in because he thinks it’s educational. Every bit of information is needed and that’s how you should look at it.
“He knows the game and he’s tactically astute, whether it’s a tight defensive unit or attacking with flair. He appreciates players with extra talent. What he gained here at Falkirk was having the courage to play young players.
“At firs,t it was about first-team players but he soon listened and realised that young players can be better than experienced players in some situations. He had the courage to put them in. That’s one of the secrets of team building to develop a club.
“Hearts brought players like Jamie Walker and others through a few years ago because it had to be done. It was a bit like that here as well. Falkirk were financially struggling because we’d come out of the Premier League but we were still player top-level salaries. We had to cut to a smaller budget, which meant bringing in younger players.
“You need to identify who can play and who can handle stepping up. Steven has the ability to do that, plus the courage to promote them. A lot of managers don’t have that any more.
“He captained most of the clubs he played at. He led and lived to his principles, he was strong and had all the qualities of an excellent captain. That’s a good sign of someone who wants to take responsibility as a manager. He’s got that in abundance.”
Hearts will interview other candidates for the role, including the former England manager Steve McClaren, before making a decision. Although events conspired against Pressley down south, Smith is confident the Edinburgh club would get a reliable and knowledgeable head coach if they decide to appoint him.
“Coventry were in a complete mess when he went there, playing their home games at Northampton’s ground and trying to stay in the league,” he said. “Steven was doing well until they sold his two strikers. It’s difficult to replace them when you don’t have money so it became about survival. I think he was let down a bit by people within the club there. He played for Rangers, Celtic, Dundee United, Coventry, Hearts. He had a big playing career. He wasn’t afraid to offer his thoughts as a manager. He was slightly adventurous at times but he knew how he wanted to play the game. He always had a solid way of playing and I thought he had great promise.”