Cooney and Black

I imagine that Craig Levein said to himself: ‘The coal face is not for me again. But I have the right knowledge and determination to make this executive position work for me.’


THE unplugged version of football is terribly simple. The politics can make it horribly complicated.

An explanation is provided if you come back with me to my situation at Aston Villa in the early Noughties. I was European scout for Aston Villa. John Gregory was the manager.

In came former England boss Graham Taylor in the role of director of football. No trade secrets are being broken here: I was less than impressed by him.

Okay, Taylor had a grandiose title, but in essence he wanted to be manager. I said to Gregory and his assistant, Ross McLaren, that in my opinion Taylor was using the situation as a stepping stone to get back into management.

They, however, thought that Taylor’s aspiration didn’t include working at the pit face again. Gregory didn’t last very long after that. Mind you, neither did I.

When Taylor became manager, he brought in players I didn’t think were good enough for Villa. And I told him that. To coin his own phraseology: did he not like that! No, he hated it. But, strangely, there was no row between us. I jumped ship – jumped before I was pushed overboard – and went to Derby County with Gregory.

The pity is players like Ulises de la Cruz and Marcus Allback arrived at Villa Park. I’d watched Allback on seven or eight occasions and he wasn’t good enough. Six goals in 35 matches perhaps proved my point. But the fact was that Taylor’s first two signings were against the European scout’s wishes.

So, if you look at the scenario from outside to in, you would see it was always going to end in tears. Now, I’m not equipped to be a soothsayer, but I cannot for the life of me see a similar kind of situation being repeated at Hearts.

They have a situation whereby former Scotland manager Craig Levein is director of football and Robbie Neilson, his former player, is head coach.

I imagine Levein, would have thought about things quite differently to Taylor, and said to himself: “The coal face is not for me again. But I have the right knowledge and determination to make this executive position work for me.”

Let’s concentrate, for a bit, on Levein’s last job with Scotland. Listen, he is a very strong-willed person who is nobody’s fool. I think he may have been sidetracked by thinking he had to produce something out of the ordinary as far as international football was concerned.

He certainly made an impact with the national side, but it wasn’t in a positive way. The results were less than favourable. But, at the end of the day, he was sacked because of that, not because of his 4-6-0 formation against the Czech Republic.

But he thinks deeply about the game. I think there would be a lot of anger in him because his term ended in failure. But after he had taken time off, the defining aspect of it was that he didn’t put the helmet on and return to the coal face.

For want of a better expression, he’s manoeuvred himself into a position he probably feels is more beneficial to him and also to the club. His experience can be spread rather than inserted directly into a results-driven business.

So, instead of complicating matters, Levein is playing to his strengths. I would think he would want to have a very big input with the team, but that would have been one of the considerations in taking on Neilson as a coach.

Levein seems to have an ability for working with young players. He’s probably thought that this is where they need to go rather than where they’d like to go, An understanding of the club is very important, of course. And I don’t think there would have been anyone in Scottish football who would have understood Hearts more than Levein.

So, all in all, I think it’s been a good marriage: Levein, director of football, and Neilson, whom he knows very well, to implement his own ideas as well as those of Craig.

Whatever, it seems to be working. I watched them against Celtic last week and saw the chink of light. Come off it, Andy, it was more than a chink of light. Sure, they came away with a 3-0 defeat, but I don’t think there would have been any despondency attached to it.

For long spells in the game, they certainly looked like a side that had improved from last season. Things are far more balanced this year. They’ve come down a division, but things have stabilised and there’s a good balance between youth and experience. They caused Celtic many, many problems. Yeah, there’s a lot to be optimistic about if you’re a Hearts supporter.

And talking about those supporters, the club is very fortunate to have such a fan base. When a call for funds has been issued, the supporters have been to the forefront.

They always turn out in their numbers. Even last season, with the massive points deduction and the knowledge that relegation was high in the list of probabilities, they were constant, loyal and lusty.

That didn’t surprise me. Back in 1977, when Hearts were relegated, they were still a massive draw. You could still go to Tynecastle and play in front of a guaranteed five-figure audience.

They’ve had a series of escapades in the last decade: The Pieman (Chris Robinson) and then the Romanov Empire, but still the supporters filled the stadium. Even when they were disconcerted about those running the club.

There has always been that background of disaffection, but strangely it hasn’t affected the people who come along to pay at the turnstiles. The loyalty is handed down from grandfather to father to son. That’s a powerful legacy. It’s something that the club should be very proud of.

So, all in all, everything is positive down Gorgie way. Finances are probably at a better level than they’ve ever been; there are lots of good young players coming through, and Levein has signed well as regards experience. I expect them to go very close in the First Division title race.




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