THE pain of seeing his Hearts side surrender their lead and lose the William Hill Scottish Cup final to Celtic was still acute when Craig Levein spoke to a group of reporters deep in the bowels of Hampden on Saturday evening.

But the overriding emotions felt by Levein, whose side had defied pre-match predictions they would be comfortably defeated, were those of pride and hope for the future in the immediate aftermath of an agonising defeat.

The 54-year-old may still be waiting to lift the first trophy of his career, either as a player or a manager, but he is optimistic it will not be much longer before he gets his hands on that elusive piece of silverware.

Aaron Hickey, the 16-year-old left back who started the final, grabbed many headlines for his assured and mature display. But the man who has overseen his development knows there are many more like him coming through the youth ranks at Tynecastle. He believes the future is bright for the capital club as a result.

“I take great heart from knowing what is happening at the club,” he said. “The young players we’ve got coming through. There’s not just one or two. There’s dozens of them, in all honesty.

“That encourages me. Whether I’m still here in three years time and these boys are playing 40 games a season, who knows? But there’s a lot to be encouraged by.”

Hickey, who turns 17 next month, has played twice against Celtic in the space of six days this month and acquitted himself admirably on both occasions. In the final, the slight defender had a hand in Ryan Edwards’ opening goal.

Levein is keen not to place too much pressure on the promising kid, but he acknowledged how well he had performed against the treble treble winners.

“He’s handled two extremely difficult situations,” he said. “He’s played in front of 110,000 people in two games. Not many people do that round about the time of their debut and he’s handled both occasions with great aplomb.

“We had this situation with Harry Cochrane and Ant MacDonald last year, when everybody tries to put them up on a pedestal when they’re still learning the game. I can only comment on what Aaron has done in the last two games and he has been fantastic.”

“We only need four players this summer. I’m working on that just now. And guys like Hickey and Cochrane will be better next season as well. The future for the club is fantastic. I’m absolutely certain of that.

“A lot of work behind the scenes doesn’t get seen by the public. It’s only when Harry, or Hickey or Connor Smith come on, does that get promoted.

“My overriding feeling is one of intense frustration that we didn’t get something from the game. That makes me want come back next year and have another go.”

Levein is, despite the 2-1 defeat his side suffered at the weekend, convinced that Hearts and other Scottish clubs are closing the gap on Celtic and can challenge them, in the cup competitions at least, in the seasons ahead.

“I think teams are getting nearer,” he said. “We’ve had our moments against them in recent seasons and so have other teams. I don’t want to talk too much about Celtic because what they do has nothing to do with me.”

“It (their domination) will end if teams do well enough to beat them in the league and the cup competitions. We’ll be trying our best to do that.”

Levein, who moved from his director of football role at Hearts back into the dugout last season, came under pressure from supporters during a disappointing end to the 2018/19 season.

However, the 54-year-old is confident chairwoman and owner Ann Budge will not by swayed by the views of a small section of the Gorgie club’s support and remain firmly behind what is a long-term project.

“We work well together because there’s an honesty there,” he said. “Ann’s slightly different from most owners in that the plan from the beginning is what we’re doing now.

“Only in football does it seem that it’s right to make changes when what you set out to do from the beginning is starting to bear fruit.

“People don’t know what’s going on. You only see the first team matches, but there’s a lot more and by the time the supporters take over the club in a couple of years, we’ll be solidly established as a top four club.”

“A lot of things have worked extremely well, but in football you’re always judged by what’s happening in the first team. People think if the first team isn’t doing well then it’s the same throughout the company, but that’s not how it works.”

Hearts had been written off by many supporters and pundits, including former Rangers and Scotland striker Kris Boyd, before the final, but Levein was satisfied with how his charges performed.

“I don’t listen to Kris Boyd very much,” he said. “Like he didn’t listen to me when I was the Scotland manager. I couldn’t have asked for any more. Okay, we made a couple of mistakes here and there, but that’s normal in a football match.”

“I thought Celtic upped their game a little bit when we scored. They were better once we scored and that happens sometimes. You think: ‘Wait a minute’.

“We weathered a little spell and I thought we’d just got through it when the penalty came. If we could have held on for a while longer, I felt we could have possibly won the match.”

Asked if he thought his Hearts team was capable of winning a trophy in future, Levein said: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”