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|<-Page||<-Team||Sun 23 Nov 2003 Hearts 2 Hibernian 0||Team->||Page->|
|<-Srce||<-Type||Scotsman ------ Preview||Type->||Srce->|
|Craig Levein||<-auth||Moira Gordon||auth->||Hugh Dallas|
|11||of 016||Alen Orman og 9 ;Gary Smith og 67||L SPL||H|
Head rules the hearts
PAINTING a mental image of pinstripe-clad boardmen, sitting in a room at Elland Road scratching their heads as they try to suss out who this Craig Levein fella is, the Hearts manager is using a mix of self-deprecation and a sound knowledge of newspaper machinations to lay rumours of an impending move south to rest.
One of the bookies’ favourites to replace Peter Reid at Leeds United, he is aware of how unsettling such speculation can be and as he embarks on a week he admits is the biggest of his managerial career, playing host to derby rivals Hibs this afternoon and then Bordeaux in the UEFA Cup on Thursday, the last thing he needs is unrest.
"Remember, I’ve been involved in football long enough to know how these things work. What happens is that somebody sits down and says ‘okay, the Leeds job is available, so who are the managers who could take it’ and they’ll throw about a few names and someone must have mentioned my name and before you know it it’s in one paper and then somebody sees it in that paper and then it’s in two or three other papers and, before you know it, the bookies are putting on odds. The thing is Leeds themselves won’t know anything about it. They’re probably sitting there saying ‘who’s this boy?’."
If they don’t know, it’s their loss and Hearts’ gain. A club in dire need of the kind of integrity, desire, professionalism and winning mentality Levein displays but, more importantly, also demands and, more often than not, gets from his players, he could be the ideal candidate, especially given his commendable ability to operate within strict financial constraints and still engender a team spirit and garner results and respect without moaning or stirring trouble.
With such characteristics, an active mind and cerebral approach to the game, as well as the capability to engender that never-say-die feistiness in his teams, which means only a fool would count them out prior to the sounding of the final whistle, he has been likened to the likes of Martin O’Neill but Levein is uncomfortable with such similes.
"Look, the way I see it, I haven’t won a trophy, so I can’t be compared to Martin," he says, in a no-nonsense tone. "Good managers win things and I’ve not done that yet."
It’s a subject that leaves Levein uneasy and that feeling soon transmits itself to those he so evidently deems silly enough to raise it. There is a self- confessed intensity to the former Hearts player-turned manager when it comes to all things football and it’s the kind of intensity which can invigorate those in close proximity but also intimidate.
Behind the spectacles and deep thinking there is a forceful man, who is tough to argue with. But on this subject, it’s worth the effort. No extra silverware may require dusting down since his arrival in Decemeber 2000, but given the parameters he’s had to work within, finishing third and qualifying for Europe should be considered the equal of a sparkling trophy.
"Yes, that is an achievement as far as the teams outwith the Old Firm are concerned and I’m pleased we did it because that for me was a step in the right direction. I think it shows there has been improvement in my time here but the next step is doing that consistently and cementing our position as the third best team. This season will be the test for us. It’s a big test because if we can repeat that, while also playing our European games, then I will consider that another step forward and, of course, I still think we are capable of winning one of the cups.
"I admire what Martin has done enormously but no matter what anyone says, winning is what matters. He wins but I haven’t yet." It’s an intangible but were he given the resources reserved for Celtic and Rangers in our game, that disparity may not exist. Having secured what is widely regarded as one the club’s best away results ever in Europe, winning 1-0 in Bordeaux, his team are also third in the league, with today’s game in hand, and both the League Cup and Scottish Cup are still there to be played for.
The immediate test is Hibs, but for once that tussle is matched in the minds of most observers by the next fixture against Michel Pavon’s men.
If they were to maintain the advantage over the French side, (and the ever-cautious Levein pleads that due emphasis is placed on that ‘if’) the club would progress to the third round of European competition for the first time since 1989. It would also be the first time in almost 20 years that three Scottish clubs have survived in Europe into December.
"There’s pressure on us to get through to the next round and I’m aware of all the statistics but they don’t make me want to get through any more. I can’t do any more than my best and I would do that regardless of statistics.
"The biggest thing you need to know about me is that I have a fear of making a mistake. I really fear making a mistake or a wrong decision that costs us points or loses us games. That’s why I like to think things through as completely as possible and then try and arrive at the right decision. If we did lose or I did get something wrong, I would hate to think it was through not thinking about it enough."
Although he has made a conscious decision to leave the detailed analysis of the chess-like Bordeaux match until the latest instalment of blow football (otherwise known as the derby match) is over, he has still pondered on it long enough to consider the various permutations and take into account the impact of a home crowd, the nerves and excitement that generates and the almost instinctive desire to press forward. That eagerness will be factored into the final equation and team tactics.
"I don’t even really need to say it, but the Hibs game and the Bordeaux game are two different games. In as much as having been over the course before, we know what we have to do in Sunday’s game. Derbies are more instinctive to players, if you like."
In any normal season, no game would overshadow a derby match, but this week will be no normal week at Gorgie. Levein squirms when asked if it could be one of the greatest he’s been involved in. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that, he says, because if he does, by definition, he would also be accepting that it would be one of the worst should neither result go their way. It’s an outcome he doesn’t want to give headroom to.
"There’s absolutely nothing else in my life I’m this intense about. Because this is a huge thing. This a my job and it’s something I care about. I know the hopes and expectations of an awful lot of people rest with me."
And then there’s the financial implications. "We have a 1-0 lead from the first leg, it’s a sell-out, the game’s on TV and financially it’s worth half a million pounds to the club if we get through. I realise people are relying on me to get it right."
It’s fans’ hopes and dreams but it’s players’ Hearts futures.
"We [the board and himself] have had discussions about cutting the squad again at the end of the season but if we do get through it might mean we are able to get a better class of player in, but, realistically, I’m hoping it just means I won’t have to cut back on my squad from the point of view of quality or quantity."
It’s another topic he doesn’t like too much, but at least he’s candid enough to tell you why.
"As soon as we open that can of worms it can cause problems. Players start becoming unsettled or come knocking at my door anxious about new contracts and it can affect the mood around the club and that doesn’t help anyone. So that’s why I keep pushing it back.
"I don’t go knocking on doors demanding answers. I don’t have all the answers and maybe I don’t want them all yet because until I have all the information I don’t have to think about it. Maybe I’m burying my head in the sand," he says, looking slightly bashful at the realisation but firm in the belief that the end justifies the means.
Honesty and fairness is something he believes in and wherever possible he tries to abide by both principles, but in the big, bad world it’s just one area where he has had to make a few compromises. He would love to entertain every week, but admits great football probably only rears it’s head "three or four times a season".
"The best bit of advice that I ever received was ‘just keep winning’." His team have managed that 10 times in 16 games so far this term, drawing three of the remaining six. Another two victories, over Hibs and Bordeaux, would leave Levein in wonderland. The alternative, he won’t even contemplate.
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