Date: 21st August 2008 at 6:16pm
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He’s now a well-established manager in the SPL, who’s made a few headlines recently for having the audacity to speak the truth about poor refereeing in this country, but today we’re taking a nostalgic look back at Craig Levein the player.

There are only a handful of players who have donned the famous maroon of Hearts over the years who can safely assume that they’d be in the vast majority of supporters’ all-time XI’s. We’re talking about the genuine ‘creme de la creme’ of those who have represented our club over the years here, people like the legendary Dave Mackay, Tommy Walker or more latterly, John Robertson. For me, Craig Levein is one of those players, particularly if we’re talking about the modern era, during which it’s debatable whether or not Hearts have had a more accomplished defender. Indeed only the cruelly bad luck he had throughout his career with serious injuries prevented Levein from being one of the best defenders that Scotland has ever had, never mind Hearts.

One of Alex MacDonald’s many fine signings back in the ’80s, and a snip at that from Cowdenbeath, Levein was gently broken into the Hearts first team under the watchful eye of old master Sandy Jardine, himself a silky defender, who was approaching the tail end of his career in his player/co-manager role at Tynecastle. Many of the qualities that went onto define Craig Levein the player could probably be traced back to Jardine, with the unflappable demeanour and uncanny ability to give the impression that he was never in a hurry despite being under pressure, being almost like a carbon copy at times.

Levein was a key member of the famous Hearts side of the 1985/86 season (during which he picked up his second successive Young Player Of The Year award) that came so close to winning an improbable league and cup double, and from then on was viewed as one of Scottish football’s hottest properties. Tragically though, just as his career was about to go into full swing, he was cut down with two serious injuries, both cruciate knee ligament problems, that kept him out of the game for the best part of two years. It was actually said at the time that he was on the verge of signing for English side Spurs in a big money deal, so it could well be that these injuries were the reason that we had the privilege of seeing Craig playing for Hearts for so many years. Still, I can’t imagine that this was of any consolation to the man himself – or those who genuinely had the interests of Scottish football at heart.

There were genuine fears that Levein’s career could be over before it truly began as a result of his injuries, but thankfully he was able to make what seemed like a full recovery. We’ll never truly know just how much better he may have become had his career been injury-free of course, but it was of great testament to the man’s character that he came back from such crippling (literally!) disappointments to go onto have the career that he did, which included becoming club captain of Hearts and representing his country in a World Cup.

Levein’s international career tended to mirror that of several other players in the Scottish game who didn’t play for particular teams. Basically, he never got as many caps as his talent suggested he should have, and although this was possibly justified in the early part of his career when the likes of Willie Miller and Alex McLeish (a legendary partnership at club level) were still around, there was certainly no excuse for the likes of Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown to have used him as sparingly as they did, especially given the fact that such average footballers as Tom Boyd, Colin Calderwood and even Colin Hendry were winning caps for fun back then. Levein was a far superior footballer to these guys, but a combination of his bad luck with injuries and perhaps not playing in England or for one of the Old Firm definitely hindered his chances of being a Scotland Hall Of Famer, even if he was able to become a regularly capped player during the ’90s. Still, there aren’t too many Hearts players of the past 20 years who could boast that they made their debut in a victory over the World Champions (Argentina in 1989), played in a Scotland win in a World Cup match (Sweden at Italia ’90) and also captained their country (V Germany in 1994), so to be fair he had a pretty respectable international career with all things considered.

However despite all of his many qualities as a footballer, we can’t have an article covering the playing career of Craig Levein without mentioning one of the most bizarre incidents ever seen at a Hearts match – the infamous boxing match with Graeme Hogg! I actually went over to Stark’s Park in Kirkcaldy for the innocuous-sounding pre-season friendly in the closed season of 1994, and the incident, which happened just before half-time, was definitely one of those in the ‘did I really just see that?’ category. After some uncertainty in the Hearts defence, Levein and Hogg has a disagreement about which of them should have covered for right-back Stevie Frail in the previous Raith attack. When Hogg started to plead his case more aggressively, the two of them started a shoving match, and when Hogg clearly took things too far in Levein’s eyes, the Hearts captain laid his much tougher-looking team-mate practically out cold! I’m not sure which seemed less likely – two Hearts players having a fight during a match, or Craig Levein actually getting the better of Graeme Hogg! One thing is for sure though, the Raith Rovers fans behind the goal that the incident took place were absolutely loving it, and although it spelled bad news for Hearts, it was extremely difficult to stifle a grin, especially given the comedy way that Hogg hit the ground – it really wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of those old ‘Carry On’ films!

Up until this happened, most football supporters in Scotland viewed Craig Levein as a ball-playing defender – someone a bit silky and very much in the Alan Hansen mould, as opposed to an all-or-nothing bruiser like Hogg or Colin Hendry. He certainly wasn’t associated with any nasty stuff. However if you speak to any former professionals who played against Levein, they’ll tell you that although he was indeed a fine player, he knew all the dirty little tricks of the trade to help him keep tabs on his opponents – he just knew how to get away with it. This could easily have been another trait he inherited from Sandy Jardine and Alex MacDonald of course, and quite frankly it’s something that Hearts could badly do with right now – most top sides have players who know how to bend the rules as far as they can take them without being rumbled – many legends of the game were past masters at this sort of thing – but the Hearts of today are sadly lacking in this department.

Predictably, Hearts and the SFA took a very dim view of the boxing incident, and in the end Hearts took the matter into their own hands by banning both players for 12 matches and putting them up for sale. This immediately signalled the end for Hogg at Tynecastle – he’d been a solid enough servant but never good enough to be at Hearts long-term, and this merely sped up the process of him leaving the club – he’d probably have left at the end of that season anyway.

As for Levein though, he served his ban and ended up fighting his way back into the first team at Tynecastle despite the transfer threat. In fact, he came back at a time when Hearts were once again in dire relegation trouble, and the influence he had on the team was once again clear for all to see when he took is place back in the defence – the extra bit of composure that he was able to bring out in those around him made all the difference, and it’s quite probable that had he ended up leaving Tynecastle that season, Hearts could well have been playing First Division football the following year.

Sadly though, Levein’s career didn’t have much longer to run. He had managed to regain the club captaincy when Jim Jefferies took over the reigns at Tynecastle, but only a few games into his tenure he was on the end of a horrific challenge (albeit probably accidental) from Dunfermline’s Stewart Petrie at Tynecastle in a League Cup tie, and unfortunately it was one injury too many. The subsequent press conference he gave to announce the end of his career remains one of the saddest I’ve ever seen.

It goes without saying that there will always be suggestions that Craig Levein’s playing career was a case of ‘what might have been’, despite the fact that he was able to have a relatively impressive one as it was. Comparisons can perhaps be drawn with Rangers’ Iain Durrant, who was another extremely talented young player from that era who sustained a similar injury, at a time when medical science had not moved on significantly enough to guarantee players a full recovery. Both players did recover significantly enough to come back and play for many more years, but there will always be those who say that they never became the players that they could have had they gone injury-free. I suppose it’s all hypothetical though, isn’t it?

Regardless though, for those of us who were able to watch Craig Levein playing regularly for Hearts in his prime, it was an absolute privilege.

 

5 Replies to “Hearts Stars Of The Past: Craig Levein”

  • Great article sir. Levein was a legend on the pitch for Hearts. I still smart a little when I see him managing Dundee Utd, I feel the same about Robertson. I remember getting hacked off at the Scotland team selection constantly missing him out, had he been in Blue or Green he may have fared better. I always though McLaren would have emulated him, but a trip to play for the Gers and career ending injury prevented this from, possibly, happening. The recent comments by Levein about referees has made me possibly more paranoid, as most of you will know I don’t tend to believe referees are biased. about them. After all, if squeaky clean Legend Levein thinks there’s something dodgy going on with refs there has to be doesn’t there!?! 🙂

  • Haha nah he’s just as paranoid as the rest of us! Good point about Robbo – he never got the international recognition he deserved either – in fact he was given much more of a raw deal than Levein ever was when it came to that.

  • Excellent article MrH, brought back a lot of happy memories. On the subject of national caps – I remember watching Sportscene with Archie MacPherson, when he made quite a fuss about Levein’s talents. He was pretty much *pleading* with Andy Roxburgh over the air to include him in the squad. Another aspect of his game which was often overlooked is that he used to make these surging forward runs from defence – though they became less frequent when Big Slim took up that particular responsibility! Ah, simpler, happier days…

  • Good article, Mr H. I think Sandy Jardine said in his book that the riskiest decision he and Doddie ever took was convincing Wallace Mercer to spend £30,000 (which the club didn’t actually have ) on Levein, who was basically just a promising youngster who had impressed them the previous year in a League Cup tie for Cowdenbeath at Tynecastle. The ups and downs of Levein’s injury problems mimic the ups and downs of Hearts fortunes in the 90s, when we flirted with relegation and challenged for the title within a year or 2 of each other !!

  • Simpler, happier days indeed! I do indeed remember Leveins runs forward, and although they weren’t perhaps as legendary as those of Big Slim, I think it’s fair to say they were ever-so-slightly more elegant! One interesting thing about CL that I missed actually, was that in almost every game he would hit at least one fantastic long range pass straight to the feet of a team-mate…….but in the same game he’d then also make one truly horrendous pass at the opposite end of the spectrum to cancel it out! We used to run a book on how long it would take for one to nullify the other!

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