THE decision to sack Gary Locke as Hearts manager was taken three months ago, new director of football Craig Levein revealed last night.
Levein admitted dismissing Locke had been "unfair" and was one of the hardest things he had done in football. But he had no regrets about installing Robbie Neilson as head coach in an entirely new regime on Monday, the first working day under the ownership of Ann Budge.
Levein decided Locke was incompatible with the structure he wants at Hearts, which will focus on "coaching" rather than "management" and aims to produce a production line of in-house coaches so that Hearts always appoint first-team bosses from within.
Loading article content
Locke's fate had been determined when Budge endorsed Levein's plan in private talks three months ago, while she waited to complete the takeover which finally went through last week.
Neilson - who will pick the Hearts team and report to Levein before and after each game - had been a colleague of Locke as under-20s coach this season. He insisted he knew nothing about his part in Levein's plan until receiving a call from him on Sunday night. Neilson made a point of speaking face-to-face with the highly-popular Locke yesterday to ensure the departing boss did not feel he had stabbed him in the back.
Sitting beside Budge and Neilson at a joint Tynecastle media conference yesterday, Levein said telling Locke he had no future at Hearts had been painful. "Without a doubt it was one of the most difficult things I've had to do in football, because on a human level you equate to what he's had to go through this last season; an experienced manager would have struggled. He's been dignified. He's a young guy, he's had his ups and downs, but he's kept the fans and the media onside.
"If we say it's about fairness, then I totally get the point that he deserves a chance. He's done more than enough to get himself another manager's job and I would suggest that's the road that he goes down.
"Him coming in here as a coach within the system didn't play to his strengths. That's why I say this is not a reflection on how Gary did his job last year. It's just a completely different route we're going down.
"It was horrible yesterday. I don't want to sound trite at all, it was a lot worse for Gary. The easiest thing to do would have been to give him the job. But there's no point in having this clear idea of how we should be in five years' time, how we should be in a fantastic position, and then saying 'we'll need to find a place for somebody because they did a great job last year'. Once the decision was made to go down this particular road, that was the point that Gary was not in the equation."
Neilson, 33, returned to his former club last August as under-20s development manager. He is five years younger than Locke, who had been in charge for 14 months. "I met him at the academy
this morning," said Neilson.
"I wanted to speak to him and let him know the situation. Gary is a good guy, we get on well and we've known each other for years. It should be a time of excitement, but it is difficult, you've got to balance it off. I had to tell him what happened. It's the way football works and it was as much a shock to me as it was to him."
The inexperienced Neilson will pick the team and have
the final say on signing players.
Levein explained: "My responsibility as the director
of football is overseeing everything that's involved in the football department. We've already got this agreed at board level. I don't want to pick the team, I don't want to pick the players, because if we are going to be [about] coach education, unless I let the coach make decisions how is he going to improve? That's the crux of the matter. I can't make those decisions because Robbie Neilson has to stand
on his own two feet."
Neilson and Levein collaborated on the decision
to release Jamie MacDonald, Jamie Hamill, Ryan Stevenson and Dylan McGowan. Those decisions were not financial, said Neilson, whose intention
is to sign six or seven new players over the summer.
Levein would not comment on whether Craig Gordon was a target or whether his coaching protege Ian Cathro, currently at the Portuguese club Rio Ave, would become Hearts under-20 manager.