Craig Levein: Hearts pay for Ann Budge's loyalty and sacked manager's stubbornness

Craig Levein and Hearts owner Ann Budge
Sacking Craig Levein would have been a painful moment for Hearts owner Ann Budge

Ann Budge never thought that she'd have to fire Craig Levein, Hearts' owner always believing that, if a decision had to be made about the manager's position, he would be the one to make it for the good of the club.

"He would be the first to say 'this isn't working'," she said in May.

She was wrong in that. Budge underestimated Levein's stubbornness.

It's been said by many irate fans that it was the power and the money that drove Levein at Hearts. That's not the case, not to these eyes at any rate. His love of the club was the thing. It was his greatest strength and, in the end, his greatest weakness. He couldn't let go.

Levein knows better than anybody that Hearts were capable of infinitely better than the dross they've served up on his watch for the longest time. His desire to put things right was so desperate that it obscured his judgement, made him blind to the fact that he was the problem - or part of it - and not the solution.

He couldn't bring himself to admit that Hearts would be better off without him and that he would be better off without the suffocating toxicity of Hearts. Budge would have had a long wait for him to come to that conclusion off his own bat.

Hearts' Harry Cochrane and Kyle Lafferty celebrate against Celtic
Harry Cochrane (left) scored in a famous 4-0 win over Celtic but is now on loan to Dunfermline Athletic

This would have been painful stuff for Budge. It's hard to pinpoint the precise moment when her loyalty to Hearts got trumped by her loyalty to Levein, but it happened, as clear as day in word and deed.

Where once Budge said that fourth in the table was not good enough for Hearts, over time she downgraded that expectation for the benefit of her manager.

When Hearts finished sixth and then sixth again in the league over the past two seasons, she said she "wasn't unhappy" with the way things were going. Quite rightly, she pointed to the infrastructure, to the giant strides the club has made in the past five years.

No Hearts fan has lost sight of the big picture. They all know how close they came to disaster and they also know who helped bring them back from the brink. Budge, and the Foundation of Hearts, will go down in the annals of the club for what they have done to save the place from liquidation.

The Hearts supporters were immense in the crisis, but they're also demanding, brutally so at times. Tynecastle, even on a quiet day, can remind you what it must have been like for the Christians against the lions in the Colosseum in ancient Rome.

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Watch: Levein's final game in charge of Hearts

In their criticism of their own team and their own manager, they can be loud, at times irrational and unreasonable, at other times ugly and abusive. Levein took ferocious stick. On occasion, it was painful to watch, but you could understand it.

Back-to-back failures would have seen other managers sacked at Tynecastle, but it was different for Levein. Compensations were made. Hearts fans went scatty when Budge spoke of the health of the financial results. "Are we still heading in the right direction?" she asked herself before the Scottish Cup final in May. "I genuinely believe so."

Budge admired Levein's knowledge and his work ethic. She could see his passion for the club, the way he defended it from criticism, the way he took abuse on the chin, the way he engaged with everyone from senior pros right down to the kids in the youth set-up, the way he put himself through the mill to the point of putting himself through a heart attack.

Levein said that the health scare changed him a little bit. He said that he was calmer in its wake, not as intense about his work. When Budge heard that, she smiled knowingly. "If he's changed then I haven't noticed," she said late last season. "He's the same Craig. Always driven."

Hearts forward Steven Naismith
Scotland forward Steven Naismith is one of several key players to have missed games through injury

She responded to that. In her own mind, she was convinced that Levein would turn it around. She gambled her own reputation with an element of the Hearts support in the belief that things would come good.

She backed him as director of football and backed him again as manager, agreeing to new player acquisitions and stretching the budget probably more than she would have wanted to. Players arrived in bucketloads. Defender after defender, midfielder after midfielder, striker after striker.

As a microcosm of the issues at play, since they came out of administration, Hearts have signed more than 20 strikers. Some blasts from the past: Genero Zeefuik, Abiola Dauda, Soufiau El Hassnaoui, Juanma, Bjorn Johnsen, Conor Sammon, Osman Sow. Some blasts from the present and near present: David Vanecek, Kyle Lafferty, Steven Naismith, Conor Washington, Steven MacLean, Uche Ikpeazu.

All those players, all that investment and currently Hearts are joint bottom of the league with one win in 18 league games, one goal in five league games and the worst home record in the Premiership.

Tynecastle was once a place that would shake most visitors to the core. No longer. It's a been a seething bearpit for Levein, a torture chamber for the disaffected fans watching a stodgy, uninspired team bore their way through games.

There were highs under Levein, but not many.

In December 2017, Levein's team became the first Scottish side to defeat Brendan Rodgers' Celtic. It was a stunning 4-0 rout. Of the 14 Hearts players who featured that day, only three have appeared this season. The rest have either moved on to other clubs or, in the case of Harry Cochrane and Anthony McDonald, have been sent out on loan.

That tells a story of Hearts' transient world, a club where players come and go and where stability and growth is elusive. Part of the problem is the wretched run of injuries they've experienced. Their promising start to last season crashed and burned on the back of an injury crisis that swept through Tynecastle like a tornado.

David Moyes
Could former Everton and Manchester United manager David Moyes be worth an approach?

Naismith, their key man, missed half of the league season. Peter Haring missed 12 Premiership games. Christophe Berra missed 13.

That injury jinx is still swirling. Haring, Ben Garuccio and Craig Wighton haven't played this season. Souttar and Naismith have started one league game; Jamie Walker has started two. Craig Halkett is out and is not expected to play again this year. Jake Mulraney will miss the next month.

While they're pondering the appointment of a new manager, Hearts might want to have a think about the vast amount of time their players spend on the sidelines and whether there is more they can do to militate against that.

Budge always said that, regardless of her respect for Levein, he wasn't bomb proof. Some doubted her sincerity, but she's been true to her word. Having made one big call, she's now got another to make.

A hundred names have already been mentioned, from Jack Ross (unlikely) to Stephen Robinson (his odds are shortening) to David Moyes (worth an approach).

Budge has to navigate her way through this and find a person who can switch the lights back on at Tynecastle. The place has been in darkness for what seems like an age.

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