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The Levein blueprint . . . 10 years in the making

ONCE the immediate speed and drama of the changes had been absorbed, and sympathy for Gary Locke and the other dismissed coaches and players duly expressed, it was down to business at Hearts.

Craig Levein will promote Robbie Neilson's successor at Hearts when the time is right. Picture: SNS
Craig Levein will promote Robbie Neilson's successor at Hearts when the time is right. Picture: SNS

What was presented as the way forward by Craig Levein yesterday was, by his own admission, the resurrection of a 40-year-old ideal.

Moments before he entered Tynecastle's Bobby Walker Suite to be presented to the media as Hearts' new director of football yesterday I bumped into a smiling Levein in a corridor. Long time no see, etc.

He was carrying a folder and joked that it was compulsory for any director of football. I replied that the folder was probably empty and all for show. In fact, anyone familiar with Levein would suspect it was crammed with paperwork.

He is a man for blueprints and structures and systems. He had those at Dundee United and while he was Scotland manager. The vision he has for Hearts is ambitious and different, but not without flaws.

Levein himself will become Tynecastle's grand puppeteer, pulling the strings of, first, Robbie Neilson and then all the head coaches who succeed him. The idea is that having just appointed Neilson they will soon appoint his successor.

Hearts' next under-20 coach will come into the fold, learn the club's methodology - Levein's methodology - and make a seamless promotion to first-team coach when the time is right. If it works, Hearts' first-team coaches from now on will tend to be young, ambitious (and, it must be said, inexperienced) guys familiar with the club's ideology.

The inspiration for all of this is Liverpool's "boot room", a cradle of coaching so long revered that in truth it sounds a bit hackneyed to hold it up as an inspiration these days. The boot-room sequence at Anfield actually covered only three consecutive managerial appointments from within: Bob Paisley in 1974, Joe Fagan in 1983 and Kenny Dalglish in 1986.

Levein's intention is to develop coaches as well as players, so that along with rearing talented young footballers the club will also produce the men who will lead them.

He wants consistency and continuity, a distinctive "type". "When I see a manager's job come up and see who the six on the shortlist are, they are all completely different types of manager. That is madness. There is a kind of randomness about selecting managers.

"You could name just about every club in Scotland who does it the same way: you get a manager, you see how he does, hope you can pick a good one next time, you get into this cycle of having to pay players off, then you get the manager saying 'this is not my team'. This system does away with all that because the next coach is in the system.

"He understands the players and what the team are trying to achieve. He understands the philosophy, the way the team plays. I've had this in my head for 10 years anyway.

"I began looking at what club has been the most successful at producing consecutive managers. For me, there is only one club who has done that and it's Liverpool.

"That was no coincidence - they came from inside the club, knew the culture, knew the players and knew what success tasted like and how to replicate it. The Liverpool boot room is the idea. We will not be able to get the quality of people that Liverpool had, but who knows? We all know about coaching footballers, but there is no reason you can't coach coaches and invest money and time in making people better."

The long-term success of the coaching model will rest on the quality of individual Levein can attract to wait in the wings (without leaving to manage a smaller club elsewhere) and eventually take over the first-team duties. It is a blessed club that can stockpile talented coaches all capable of handling one of the biggest operations in Scottish football, ready to slot them in one after another.

"There's coaching the first team and the tactical side of it," said Levein. "But also, so much bigger than that, it has to be about this original idea of building something, building something from the top to the bottom. I've tried to do that every club I've been at. I've never been there long enough to get it all the way through, but I think it's possible to develop players and coaches at the same time. There has to be a coach-education programme to do that."

Levein himself will be hands-on: with the first-team coach, rather than with the first team itself. He will sit with Neilson a couple of days before a game to discuss "who's going to play, why he's going to play it, how he sees the game going", and the day after the match they will meet again for a debrief. Academy director John Murray will revert to his previous role as chief scout.

Murray will source players and discuss them with Levein. "We will present three or four to Robbie and say, 'what do you think?' He might say 'we can do better than that'."

The whole strategy is developmental. Budge said she was "shocked" by the lack of leadership within the club once she made an initial assessment from within. Her post-administration modus operandi at Hearts - make hard decisions, enact them immediately, establish a new order, live within a budget - contrasts sharply with the flabby, indulgent way Rangers have run since liquidation.

"This probably does confirm that there is another way to do things and it has got to be better, in my view," she said. "I have always tried to look at this as a business, not from a football standpoint. We know where we want to get to and we want to remove the issue of managers disappearing and another coming in. I don't believe in that."

When Vladimir Romanov bought Hearts he promised the world, and a Champions League win. Budge smiled and gently rolled her eyes when reminded of that yesterday. What was her promise?

"I will only promise on the business side of things. My focus is to fix some of the business problems, get a really strong business and football set up, and who knows . . . the sky's the limit."

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