WHEN the odds for the Premiership sack race for season 2019/20 went up at the start of the season, very few would’ve predicted that Craig Levein would be the first managerial casualty in the top flight. A board member, the a Director of Football and a strong relationship with owner and Chief Executive Anne Budge, his position was described by many as one of the safest jobs in football, despite a dreadful period of results going back 12 months.
As recently as last month, Budge publicly backed her man in the aftermath of a fans protest outside Tynecastle, angry at the severe lack of progress under Levein’s tenure. Victory at Easter Road and a League Cup Quarter Final win on penalties against Aberdeen turned out to be false dawns as anger turned to apathy amongst the Jambos faithful.
All this made people check their calendars to check it was Halloween and not April Fools Day when news broke that Anne finally Budged and removed Levein from two positions at the club. Not only is he no longer Hearts Manager, he has also lost his role on the board as Director of Football, losing full control of Football Operations that he’s held since 2014.
It was a move that has shocked many cynics who thought that Levein was bombproof given his close relationship with Budge, and who thought that the only way he’d be removed as Manager would be if he chose to go back to his role as Director of Football. The fact he is being removed from both positions is more incredible, and very bold of Budge to do so.
The decision might be a surprise but, in terms of both roles, it is the right call.
Firstly, his role as Manager. This was Craig Levein’s second tenure in charge at Tynecastle after a reasonable first spell from 2000 to 2004. To put it bluntly, he landed the role because Managers with higher credibility wouldn’t work with him as a Director of Football having seen his over interference with his predecessor Ian Cathro. Budge made the surprising call to give him a route back into Management for the first time since he was fired from the Scotland job.
As predicted, his priority was to make Hearts hard to beat and build his team around a solid defence. This made his team not pretty to watch and results were mixed when he first returned to the dugout, until his finest hour in his second tenure by ending Celtic’s 69 match unbeaten run in domestic competition with an emphatic 4-0. That afternoon, his side played with a tempo that even Brendan Rodgers side couldn’t cope with, a high press with energy and slick passing.
It should’ve been a wake up call for Levein on how to get the best out of his Hearts side but he reverted to type immediately, as emphasised in a goalless draw with Hibs at Tynecastle over the festive period. He got too carried away with a Scottish Cup win over their arch rivals the following month, declaring that “natural order” had been restored in the City. Hibs, who had just been promoted back to the top flight after a three year absence, would go on to finish a whopping 18 points clear of sixth place Hearts, one place lower than the previous season.
Levein was given some leeway over that initial first season and was given the chance to clear out some of the mess from the previous campaign to build his own team. No fewer than 15 players arrived in the summer as Hearts began with intent. They stormed to a six point lead in the Premiership after ten games (albeit, having played more games than Celtic) and reached the League Cup Semi Finals.
This was where it all started to go horribly wrong!
Having already lost key defenders Christophe Berra and John Souttar, plus striker Uche Ikpeazu, to injury, tallisman Steven Naismith hobbled off against Celtic at Murrayfield with an injury to which he’s still not fully recovered from. Hearts went down 3-0, missed out on the League Cup Final and went on a horror run in the League, winning just seven of their last 28 League games. Their horrific form took them down from top to sixth, once again below Hibs having been 15 points ahead of them and ending up three behind their City rivals. Natural order indeed!
What probably saved Levein from further flak was a run to the Scottish Cup Final, albeit with the aid of a very generous route to the Final. After seeing off Livingston in the Fourth Round, Hearts didn’t have another top flight side to face en route to a Hampden showdown with treble-treble chasing Celtic. On the day, they did give a decent account of themselves, remarkably taking the lead before an Odsounne Edouard double gave Celtic another domestic clean sweep.
Some say that Levein should’ve stepped aside that day having taken the club as far as he could, but he vowed to carry on and make up for a disappointing end to the League campaign. Having initially said he required just three or four new players, he brought in NINE new faces over the summer, further emphasising the high turnover of players during his tenure. Although they have reached another League Cup Semi Final, the League form has been abysmal and the club sit joint bottom after eleven matches on just eight points, ahead of St Mirren on goal difference.
A timid defeat by St Johnstone was the straw that broke the Camels back, and Budge showed the ruthlessness that made her a successful businesswoman by wielding the axe just days before their Hampden showdown with Rangers.
From a Director of Football point of view, removing Craig Levein was the right call. As mentioned earlier, he had too much control over player recruitment and interfering with other managers, which put potential candidates off before he reluctantly agreed to step back into the breach. Just removing him as Manager would not have solved Hearts problems and he was as big a contributing factor in Cathro’s disasterous spell as the rookie himself was, again sanctioning a massive player overhaul in two transfer windows in 2017 before Cathro was sacked. If Hearts want to attract a decent calibre off Manager to revive their fortunes, they had to remove Levein from all football activities and this will give the club a chance to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.
Such is Budges affection for Levein that she hasn’t quite got rid of him yet, allowing him to see off his contract, which runs out next summer, to improve the back room and youth structure at the club. Whilst his presence is still linguiring around for the next seven months or so, at least his control over the areas that matter has been shifted.
Hearts are in a good position off the park thanks to the stability of the club led by Anne Budge and the Foundation of Hearts, who saved the club from the train wreck of the Romanov era. They have a great stadium, excellent fan base and are in a good financial position. Quite frankly, Hearts supporters deserve better than a man who served them turgid football, was arrogantly stubborn and who constantly humiliated the club with his conduct towards his fellow peers such as Rodgers, Neil Lennon and Derek McInnes. The fact they turned out in huge numbers to protest a few weeks ago spoke volumes to their feelings towards Levein, and can now sleep easier knowing he’s no longer there.
Whilst Levein going is, without question, a positive, who do they now turn to in order to turn their fortunes around?
Jack Ross is the obvious candidate. He was on the coaching staff at Tynecastle before taking the job at Alloa and his stock in Scotland is still relatively high, despite his recent sacking from Sunderland. He’ll be eager to jump back into a big job to show why he was voted Manager of the Year in 2018 after stealing St Mirren to promotion, and the Hearts job would fit the bill.
If Ross doesn’t land the job, Stephen Robinson of Motherwell is another candidate having done a very good job at Fir Park. People of a more emotional viewpoint have earmarked John Robertson for a return having done well at Inverness.
Whoever Anne Budge brings in, it will have to be the right appointment to work with a squad that still contains some players of decent calibre, including Internationalists like John Souttar, Glenn Whelan and Connor Washington. If that manager can inspire them to be more aggressive and attempt to play some kind of football that they’re capable of, then Hearts should be good enough to climb the table and start putting the awful second tenure of Craig Levein firmly behind them.