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Craig Levein On His Playing Days And Managing At Club And International Level

Craig Levein On His Playing Days And Managing At Club And International Level

An interview with Craig Levein, conducted before he became the new St Johnstone manager, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You started your managerial career at Cowdenbeath and took the club from fighting relegation to challenging for promotion. How proud are you of that success given that it was your first managerial job?

“I am immensely proud of what I achieved there because it was a tough gig with the club having little money.

“I was fortunate to have a great chairman in Gordon McDougall who cared about the club and ran the club in a resourceful manner.

“We had to be creative to get better players in the door and I enjoyed challenging myself in management after playing the game.

“Managing in the lower leagues enabled me to develop as a manager without having a massive spotlight on me and I would recommend that approach to aspiring managers today.

“I was able to learn on the job and my three years in charge of the club taught me a lot and led to me joining Hearts as manager so I will always be grateful to Cowdenbeath for that opportunity.”

What was the adaptation process like for you upon becoming Hearts manager given that you were going from managing in the Scottish Second Division to managing in the top flight? 

“I made the same journey as a player but doing so as a manager was different.

“I took Tom Ritchie to Hearts with me from Cowdenbeath as a fitness coach which was important for me as I wanted to go into Tynecastle with someone on the staff who I had a strong working relationship with.

“Peter Houston was already at Hearts at the time and he became my assistant for the first time when I joined the club and that was a working relationship that worked well for us going forward as a trio.”

During your first spell as manager of Hearts, you became the first manager since the 1960s to qualify for European football in successive seasons as well as performing well in the league. How pleasing was that first spell for you, overall?

“The job was tricky because the remit when I arrived at the club was to reduce the wage bill which meant that I had the unenviable task of telling senior players that we would need to move them on.

“Those decisions and conversations were tricky as was the rebuild of the squad that I had to make.

“Overall, things did pick up and we had a good blend of younger players on their way up and experienced heads which worked well for us on and off the pitch.

“We took the club into a good place and qualifying for European football, as you said, was a strong achievement.

“During my first spell, we improved our performance year on year domestically in addition to European qualification which was most pleasing.”

After four strong seasons at Hearts, you moved to Leicester City as manager in 2004. You were in charge for two years at the Foxes before departing in 2006. Looking back, was that move a case of the right club at the wrong time?

“Yeah, that is fair.

“Before I talk about Leicester, the reason I moved was because, although, Hearts were doing really well during my time at the club but there were protests around the club due to the rumours that Tynecastle was going to be sold.

“That noise around the club and the approach from Leicester being made that time made me think moving would be the right thing to do as I was unsure how we could continue to move forward at Hearts with the uncertainty off the pitch.

“As it transpired, just as I left the club, Hearts were taken over by Vladimir Romanov who I did not work for, which I do not know if that was a good thing or a bad thing (laughs).

“Part of the reason that Leicester wanted me was due to them wanting to cut their wage bill and strive for progression albeit on a smaller budget.

“I was able to deliver that at Hearts and they had hoped I could do a similar job for them.

“The club had been in administration a few years prior to me becoming manager and as a result of that, there were lots of directors who had small stakes in the club as an ownership group rather than one main shareholder.

“That meant that managing upwards was difficult as it was not always clear who you were necessarily reporting to.

“Ultimately, I could not get the players that we needed to leave the club out as quickly as I would have hoped, in order to build my own team and move forward in a timely manner.

“I ended up being at the club for a couple of seasons but the Championship is a notoriously difficult league and I did not manage to get my signings right and build the squad that we needed to compete at that level.”

You returned to management in Scotland with Dundee United – after a short spell at Raith Rovers – and you had similar success there to that experienced in your first spell at Hearts. What are your standout memories from your time at Tannadice?

“I went in at Dundee United with an ambition to establish the club in the top half of the league and continually improve.

“We were able to achieve that as reach a League Cup final in the process. Unfortunately, we lost that final on penalties to Walter Smith’s Rangers which was tough to take after playing so well at times in the game.

“The job that I did at Dundee United attracted the attention of the SFA when George Burley left his post as Scotland manager.

“I was happy and settled at Dundee United but when your country comes calling, you cannot turn that opportunity down and before I knew it, I was the manager of Scotland in December 2009.

“Thankfully, my assistant at Dundee United, Peter Houston was then appointed the manager at Tannadice for the second half of the season and led the club to Scottish Cup success.”

Was Dundee United winning the Scottish Cup – in the same season that you left – bittersweet for you in any way?

“Absolutely not. The same thing happened to me at Cowdenbeath when I left in December and the club went on to win promotion in the second half of the season.

“I was proud of that achievement because I played a part in it and I felt the same when Housty won the Scottish Cup at United.

“I had built the team at Cowdenbeath and the team at Dundee United so I was thrilled for both clubs and the success that they went on to achieve.

“I was delighted for Peter Houston and the chairman at Dundee United, the late Eddie Thompson.

“The fans treated me very well and I have nothing but happy memories of my time managing the club. I felt that I had done a good job at Tannadice and I smile whenever I think of that period of time and the club as a whole.”

You managed Scotland from 2009 to 2012 and came up short in both qualifying campaigns that you were in charge of. What is your honest reflection of that period now?

“I tried my best. That is my overriding feeling because I desperately wanted to succeed as Scotland manager like any Scotsman would.

“We did not have the strongest squad at that period in time and unfortunately, you have to work with what you have without being able to make too many changes like you can at club level.

“The managers before me and the managers after me – until the arrival and success of Steve Clarke in recent years – suffered from the same problems.

“The players that we have now and where they are playing their football week in, week out is vastly different to my time in charge.

“I am not taking anything away from Steve with that observation because he has done a fantastic job with the team and deserves the praise that he receives because he is a top manager.

“My honest opinion on my time with Scotland is that I do not think that I did a particularly good job but I also do not think that I did a particularly bad job either. I would rank it as being somewhere in the middle.”

I have to ask you about the 4-6-0 formation that you lined up with against the Czech Republic in 2010 and the fallout from that. How frustrating was that for you and do you think you were unfairly pigeonholed with that afterwards?

“You are better to known for something than nothing, that is what I would say, Callum.”

“However, in all seriousness, Rubin Kazan had gone to the Nou Camp in the Champions League and beaten Barcelona with the same approach.

“I spoke to Walter Smith about that game and I felt that it could work for us because we were having trouble with our forward line at the time.

“I hold my hands up and admit that was partly my own doing due to a fallout with Steven Fletcher. So, we did not have an ideal forward partnership in the front line.

“The approach on that night in Prague was probably a blatant attempt to get out of there with at least a draw. Such a result would have been a strong result for us at that time in our group.

“We did a fair bit of work on it before the game itself and we lost the game due to a set piece which was deeply annoying.”

You returned to Hearts in May 2014 as director of football before having a second spell as manager from 2017 to 2019. How would you sum up those five years upon your return to Tynecastle?

“Things change all the time and Hearts had certainly changed when I returned in 2014.

“Romanov was no longer in charge of the club and the fans were in the process of taking ownership of the club with Ann Budge being an interim custodian of the club until that process could be fully completed.

“When Anne first approached me to return to the club, I thought that she wanted me to return as manager and I told her that I did not think that it was something that I would want to do because I had no intention of returning to the club as a manager.

“She then explained that she wanted me to become director of football and oversee the process of bringing in a new manager and building different aspects of the club from the academy structure to the first team set-up.

“I took her up on that opportunity and we brought Robbie Neilson in as manager who did a good job and left the club for MK Dons after a few positive years in charge.

“It was a good time to be at Hearts and I enjoyed working with Anne.

“I then took on the job as manager for a couple of years with the aim of getting the club moving forward again. The club were under some pressure after Robbie had left the club and the next appointment did not fully work out so I wanted to get the club back on a solid footing.”

Many football fans across Scotland will know you as a manager but you also had a distinguished playing career. How would you describe Craig Levein the footballer?

“That is a good question.

“I was a slow starter as a player because I was not attached to a senior club from a young age and I actually stopped playing football altogether for a while when I turned 15.

“My brother was playing at junior level and I went to train with his team and I ended up playing junior football as a teenager before joining Cowdenbeath after that.

“I really enjoyed playing for Cowdenbeath because they gave me an opportunity at seventeen to play first-team football and be in an environment with senior professionals which was a learning curve.

“The banter was always flying around and I learned a lot in a short space of time that stood me in good stead to move to Hearts after two years in the first team at Cowdenbeath.”

Finally, Craig, you played for Hearts from 1983 until 1997 representing the club over 300 times as a player. What are your standout memories from those days?

“Playing at Hearts was something that I took great pride in but it was a tough time for the club as Dundee United and Aberdeen were experiencing high levels of success by winning league titles whereas we were not able to reach quite the same levels.

“To add to that, unfortunately, I believe those days of teams like that winning league titles in Scotland are now gone.

“The closest we came to winning a league title in my time there was in the 85/86 season when we ran Celtic very close and finished 2nd in the league. That was the one that got away and summed up my time at Hearts as a player as we came close but could not quite get over the line in the league and in cup competitions.”