Is there method in Hearts' perceived madness of letting Craig Levein fulfil some sporting director duties?

We analyse the logic behind letting a former manager still perform duties at Hearts

Thursday, 12th December 2019, 6:13 pm
Updated Thursday, 12th December 2019, 6:14 pm
Craig Levein still has a role at Hearts despite being sacked as manager in October. Pic: SNS

As soon as Ann Budge confirmed on Tuesday that Craig Levein continues to work behind the scenes at Hearts, it came as no surprise that hackles would soon be raised in many quarters.

The former Hearts defender, manager and director of football has never been short of detractors in recent years, and the number of people who view him in a negative light had swelled considerably among the club’s fanbase by the time he was eventually relieved of his duties and seemingly shown the door after five-and-a-half years in full control of football matters at Tynecastle.

In the eyes of many, his legacy as a Hearts great - by virtue of being one of the club’s finest-ever defenders and one of the most impressive managers of the modern era (based on his first spell in the early Noughties) - had been tarnished by the fact he had remained in his position as manager beyond the end of last season, when many felt his time in charge had run its natural course following back-to-back mid-table finishes. That he eventually left with the team embroiled in a relegation battle merely heightened the sense of anger among those who had long since decided that Levein’s presence was holding their beloved club back.

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The appointment of Daniel Stendel as manager - a bold and exciting one at that - was supposed to be the catalyst for a club looking to banish the negativity of recent years and re-engage with its increasingly exasperated support. In that regard, news that Levein continues to have an influence at the club served as something of a fly in the ointment for those relishing the prospect of a fresh start following a period in which the Fifer had been omnipresent both as director of football and manager. Gary Mackay, Levein’s former team-mate and long-time enemy, vented his bemusement at the situation in his Evening News column, and the club’s record appearance holder had several supporters nodding in agreement.

A logical outlook

Equally, however, there are others who are relatively unfazed by Levein continuing to work away in the background for the remainder of his contract, which expires in the summer. While it is an unusual scenario for a director of football / manager to remain at a football club after being relieved of their main duties, it could be argued that there is some logic in retaining Levein in this case.

While the situation has done little for Budge’s popularity, it is clear she still views Levein as a knowledgeable operator who can be of value to the club, even if his two-year reign as manager didn’t go to plan. Given that she has worked more closely with Levein than anyone else in the past six years, this is a valid and understandable outlook for the owner to hold.

Ever since Budge became the standout contender to take over the running of Hearts, she has worked in tandem with Levein to build the club back up in the wake of administration. While they have lost their way on the field in recent seasons, generally their alliance has been a fruitful one in terms of redeveloping a damaged infrastructure and re-establishing the club in the Premiership.

In Scotland, where there are not many proven director of football / sporting director-types around, Levein is one of the few who has performed the role for a reasonably sustained period of time, and with any form of success. He was highly regarded for his work in the role at Dundee United, and there is little doubt that his first two-and-a-half years in the position at Hearts brought sustained progress. The performance of the first-team under Ian Cathro and subsequently Levein himself over the past three years has created an unedifying landscape whereby it becomes easier for critics to brand the Budge/Levein combination an unmitigated disaster. When a team hits the bottom of the league following a prolonged period of poor form, as Hearts have done, a hysterical clamour erupts for everyone associated with the football club - board members, manager, coaches, players and even medical staff - to carry the can and be cleared out collectively.

Budge, still relatively new to football ownership, isn’t tarnished yet, however, by the “throwing the baby out with the bath water” mentality that so often afflicts modern football clubs. In other words, she clearly feels that just because you have deemed your manager unsuitable for leading the first team, it doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t be utilised in another role at the club, especially when he remains on the payroll. In many ways, this is a refreshingly logical outlook amid a bonkers environment where football clubs routinely shell out eye-watering sums of money in pay-offs to axed employees.

Finances will play big part

Levein, to all intents and purposes, appears to be sharing sporting director duties with his former assistant manager Austin MacPhee for now, while Budge assesses various options for the role. Bearing in mind that the club have just pushed the boat out to land Stendel, a manager who would usually have been out of Hearts’ league financially, there is every chance that Hearts will see allowing Levein and MacPhee to carry out these duties for the time being as a more efficient approach than paying both of them off and then hiring a new man on another significant salary with no guarantee that he will be any more productive in the role. Furthermore, the cost of paying off Levein and/or MacPhee while also recruiting a new sporting director from outwith the club would almost certainly have a restrictive effect on Stendel’s ability to sign new players in next month’s transfer window.

Levein, for all that his latest reign as manager degenerated into a bit of a disaster, remains a canny and well-connected operator in the modern football world, as most who have attended his press gatherings in recent years will testify. Indeed, it was only a few weeks ago that when musing with colleagues about where Levein might end up next, a Falkirk-supporting journalist suggested that they would be delighted to see him come in and take over director of football duties at their club.

Budge, for all that she ended up allowing him too much time in the dugout, is an intelligent woman and clearly feels that Levein still has something to offer the club behind the scenes. With a man of Stendel’s stature in charge, there is little danger of Levein interfering in first-team matters. Budge made it clear on Tuesday that she feels Hearts have lost their way on the field recently so it would be highly unlikely that she would allow the man who oversaw the team’s demise to do anything that may hinder her exciting new German appointment.

Perhaps in an ideal world, Hearts would have wanted to sever ties for good, but for all the anger it has prompted in recent days, Levein’s ongoing involvement appears to represent nothing more than an arrangement of convenience which is unlikely to bring any further harm to the club.