The topic wouldn’t ordinarily be considered a laughing matter but Craig Levein is chuckling.
Talking about the heart attack he suffered in August, the question is whether he feared he would have to give up a job that consumes his every waking minute and walk away from a sport he says he loves more than ever. There is a flash of that increasingly-familiar twinkle in his eye. It is a sparkle that usually heralds mischief. “Well, I would have had to if it had gone the wrong way!” Cue laughter.
Six months on he is still here, though. He knows “it could have gone horribly wrong” but while it was a worrying time, and a couple of stents and regular check-ups serve as a reminder of what might have been, he says it has done little to alter him as a person.
“Maybe it was the way it happened. Very quickly. It was a miracle. I had gone from being crumpled up thinking I was going to die to having the stents put in and feeling fine,” he said. “That’s how quickly it all changed. It almost felt like a bad dream.
“I still love my job. I still stress about it, still put the hours in. If anything I’m worse. The doctor asked me what I do to relax and I had nothing! I walk the dogs, that’s my only respite. Even at home, I watch a lot of games to size up the opposition, analyse what we can do better and look at players.
“Winning games fills my head because if I don’t win then everything else we have put in place here suffers. Sometimes that feels like such a huge responsibility. But I couldn’t give it up. I just couldn’t.”
His wife Carol and daughter Christie accept that. They know how much he struggles every summer when he has to try to find ways to occupy his mind minus the day-to-day demands of football.
“It’s my life,” he added. “I have my family, of course, but they have learned to live with that. There is also the investment I have made. I have invested in this with everything I’ve got for the past four-and-a-half years – longer if we go back to my playing days and my first spell as manager – and it matters to me. Every minute of every day has been about getting this right and once you have put that much in, you want to be successful.”
Levein has brought in players he believes have that same attitude and vindication of that recruitment came at the start of the season when his side marched to the top of the table and into the semi-finals of the League Cup. After injuries and a horrible dip in form they are back on the up and into the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup.
As well as the on-field attributes, he wants his players to be good people and won’t compromise one for the other.
“I don’t expect players to read book after book about the history of Hearts but I do want them to understand what is important to the club and supporters. I think that helps them feel part of something that is not just a football club, it is far more than that.”
Levein wasn’t a Hearts fan when he walked through the doors at Tynecastle as a young player in 1983. “No, but I very quickly became one. It is the way this club makes you feel. I have felt that way for a long, long, long, long time.”
That is what Ann Budge tapped into when she asked him to join her in rebuilding a club ravaged by poor governance and subsequent administration.
“She sold it to me on being able to do something to really help the club reestablish itself. That tugged at my heart strings,” he said.
“I’ve had much better offers financially to go elsewhere but it isn’t about money. It might be somewhere else but not here. Also, the way my career has gone, I have been somewhere for a period of time and just when I got things going, I’ve moved on. I don’t want to do that again. I want to see this through.”
At Cowdenbeath he was tempted by Hearts, where, despite a decreasing budget, he brought in and moulded the likes of Stephen Pressley, Paul Hartley and Craig Gordon, core players who would help the club into Europe, secure silverware and go on to play at the highest level.
That grabbed the attention of Leicester. Although that didn’t end well, he began the rebuilding process at Dundee United, revitalising their fortunes and his own reputation. When Scotland came calling, he left the team in burgeoning form and pushing for silverware.
“I have never felt I have taken a club as far as I could. I feel I’ve set a lot of things up but other people have then come in and been successful on the back of the work I’d done. So I want to see it through this time. I want to be continually reaching Europe, being in cup finals and winning things on a regular basis over a sustained period of time. Maybe achieving even more.
“That is the hardest thing to do. If you look outside the Old Firm in Scotland you have to go back to when Aberdeen won [the league] in ’84-85. There has not been a club able to maintain the level of consistency needed to grow and to use that as a springboard to try to challenge for the title. I would like to try.”
Levein believes that having invested in the academy and on the new stand, the rewards will be worthwhile. Continuity is vital, which is why he is signing experienced players on extended contracts, but so is the promotion of fresh, young talent.
The completed stand will also eventually provide greater revenue and bolster the football department’s spending clout. There is, Levein says, a strategy and it is one which fills him with confidence.
“You can’t challenge Celtic and Rangers on a financial level but you can if you have the best young players coming through, players you can play to be more competitive or sell to make more money,” he said. “Those are the ladders you need to get closer.
“I know I can’t sign a £10,000-a-week player but I can make one through perseverance and hard work. I can hopefully make a Harry Cochrane or a Johnny Russell or John Souttar but I couldn’t afford to sign the finished article.”
As a player, Levein’s potential was never realised, injuries saw to that, but throughout five cruciate operations and rehabilitations he revealed himself as an optimist who wouldn’t give up, one with the patience for long-term goals and someone with the drive to push against naysayers.
He was in the 1985-86 squad who pushed Celtic to the final day before being pipped to the title and missed out on the Scottish Cup the week later. He had Liverpool chasing him but never got his move or any medals.
If he could finally get his hands on a trophy with Hearts, it would be worth the wait, though.
“It would mean everything to me. We won the Championship when Robbie [Neilson] was in charge and I took a great deal of pride from that but that goes down as Robbie’s Championship-winning team. I would like to have that opportunity for myself and to be recognised as the person who won the trophy and I think that is possible here, I really do.”