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Levein's long game

CRAIG Levein is so meticulous and methodical in his planning that it seems rather remiss that he does not appear to have mapped out his exit strategy from Hearts.

Craig Levein talks about his plans watched by Ann Budge
Craig Levein talks about his plans watched by Ann Budge

It might seem unfair, just minutes in the door as director of football at Tynecastle, to consider the 49-year-old's long-term future, but a number of conclusions remained tantalisingly possible as he revealed his initial five-year blueprint for the resurrection of Hearts.

The former Scotland manager is an arch empire-builder, the structures he started at Hearts, Leicester, Dundee United, and Scotland, bearing fruit after his departure. While his current project is envisaged to last at least the five years it will take new majority shareholder Ann Budge to transfer ownership to the Foundation of Hearts, could we have seen the last of Levein as a day-to-day manager prowling around a technical area? Is this the first step towards ­becoming a career director of football or merely a short-cut back to some unfinished managerial business south of the border?

"Well, it depends on circumstances," said Levein. "Scotland was hard because I couldn't turn that job down, not in a million years. But there's no doubt that what I had going at Dundee United was the easiest job I've ever had, by a mile. I didn't even need to turn up, that's how easy it was. Although I did.

"This might have a natural lifespan. Certainly, I'm looking at this as a five-year job. I'm not saying I won't be here longer than that, I might only be here a year, but in my mind I've not got an exit strategy. There might be [unfinished business down south] still. There were a couple of job offers that I turned down that I thought 'nah, I don't see how I can make an impact there'."

There has been plenty of Gorgie-based gloating at the prospect of Hearts being joined by city rivals Hibernian in the Championship, if Terry Butcher's side lose out in a two-legged play-off against either Hamilton or Falkirk next week, but as the man charged with making sure they return to the top flight at the first time of asking, Levein is not planning celebrations over such a prospect. "My priority is to get Hearts promoted next year," he said. "Would it be easier with Hibs there? Probably not. There's only one team who'll see us as a derby. A lot of supporters would like to see it because they get the four games, but there's a trap there and it would only be for Hearts and Hibs."

Levein's spells at Tynecastle almost precisely bookend the Vladimir Romanov era at the club, a period when tens of thousands of pounds a week could be spent on one player's wages, and which harvested a couple of cup wins, yet left the club's existence teetering on the brink.

Levein feels he would have used the money more wisely than those who followed him into the dugout, but he would have bristled at the interference in team affairs which drove most of Romanov's managers to distraction. "I'd love to know what happened," Levein said. "I've been looking from the outside the same as everyone else, and thinking 'wow'. It was just a rollercoaster. Obviously I've spoken to guys and some of the stuff was beyond belief, but it's all second-hand.

"It's an interesting question, weighing up the sleepless nights of recent months for the supporters against the euphoria of winning cups, based on his investment. On one hand you think it's brilliant, on the other it's a disaster. It would have been great to have that money, paying players £17,000 a week - what could you have done with that? But we all agree he wasted his money."

Levein clearly has no intention of squandering Budge's cash. Regardless of the improvement the club's young players have made in a year, six or seven experienced players will be recruited this summer to chaperone the young talents, in the way Sandy Jardine mentored Levein as a youngster at Hearts. Ryan Stevenson will be expected to honour the 25% relegation wages cut clause in his contract if he stays.

While Hearts are said to have a good crop of players, beneath that there is a drop-off caused by lack of recent academy investment. Player contracts will be tidied up and three more coaches will be recruited for the backroom staff, with all teams eventually playing in a way all coaches must buy into, even if the final formation has yet to be settled.

"At the academy, we played a 4-4-1-1 but with the first-team situation that might change and when that changes the academy will as well," said Robbie Neilson, the new first-team coach.

Some supporters have been vocal about the brutality of Gary Locke's departure but Levein feels the new Hearts regime could hardly contrast more with next season's Championship opponents Rangers. "Ann's motives are pure," he said.

"It's an altruistic thing, really. She has a clear idea of what she's trying to do, she's not making one penny over five years - in fact it will be costing her money.

"Eric [Hogg, her business partner] is the same. Contrast that with what's happened at Rangers - and I don't know all the ins and outs - but whoever has been involved, there has been opportunism. I look at what's happening here and I hope the supporters realise how lucky they've been. They're a huge part of it as well, but this has been the perfect way of doing it rather than supporters being kept in the dark and things being done behind closed doors."

While Levein and Neilson have met for a chat on regular occasions, the deal was effectively sealed at a last supper at the Jam Jar restaurant in Bridge of Allan.

Levein sees a bit of Steven Pressley in the way Neilson talks intelligently about football, and you can imagine the pair lining up salt and pepper pots as they made some tactical point. Whether Neilson knew he was being interviewed or not, he passed with flying colours.

"We sat for a couple of hours and talked about football. He must have wondered what was going on," Levein said.

"It seems he was doing his homework on me," was Neilson's take. "I must have spoken well. I only realised that when I got the phone call on Sunday."

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