From hard man to loyalty man

Under new management: Leicester's new leader has a reputation for toughness. Now his players will gain from pain
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Craig Levein has already been compared to Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson. Not bad going for someone who was 40 only last month and who has been manager of Leicester City for less than a fortnight. The Wenger likeness is a less-lined facial one, abetted by the glasses which tend to add gravitas, while the Ferguson resemblance is one of accent rather than achievement so far, allied to a reputation for being a hard man, of which more in a moment.

Levein contrives a small smile at the Wenger-Ferguson stuff, dismissing it as media fluff designed to attach a tag to someone as yet unknown in the English game, and wastes little time in launching a convincing argument that he is very much his own man, and an extremely ambitious one.

A 16-cap Scottish international whose career was ended prematurely by recurring knee injury problems, he learned management basics at Cowdenbeath, the club known up north as "The Blue Brazil" and where he started as a footballer. From there, maintaining the symmetry, he took over at Hearts, where his playing days had next taken him and where he made 401 appearances.

After four years as Hearts manager, Levein decided that English football, specifically the Premiership, was for him. Hence the acceptance of Leicester City's offer. Never mind that Leicester are not actually in the Premiership any more. Like Cowdenbeath, it is somewhere to start in pursuit of his design for fame, either Ferguson-fashion or Wenger-style. "I wanted to come down here and see if I could do it," he explained after putting his players through a training session which stretched far beyond their normal lunch hour. "The Premiership is the best League in the world, so who in his right mind wouldn't want to be a manager at that level?"

Levein maintains the new role is "a great opportunity to try to find a club that has similar ideas to mine". He is, however, swift to point out that he does not intend to use Leicester as a springboard into a job in the big-time. "I have always been a loyal person, this isn't a vehicle for me, other than to try to drive this club into the Premiership. I'm not planning to be here for just a year."

It will not be a straightforward drive. Leicester are in the lower half of the Championship table and unable to break free of drawing most of their games - nine so far and six in a row. As the former player Alan Birchenall, now the club's match-day announcer, human buffer zone and good humour man, pointed out: "We're too good to lose, not good enough to win. We're going for Arsenal's record with a difference, 49 straight draws."

Not if it is anything to do with Levein. The draw sequence will, he hopes, be broken tomorrow when, on a night when they celebrate their 120th year as a club, Leicester entertain Coventry in what is billed as "the M69 derby". He has already witnessed two of those draws, one as an observer of a side chosen by the caretaker, Dave Bassett, at Cardiff, and the second at Crewe last Tuesday, an 11 he had nominated.

That Levein was disappointed by what he saw at Cardiff is an understatement. Crewe, he claims, was better, but still not good enough. Between the two matches he had his first team talk. "We went over some things that were very basic but very important, and I saw players buying into what we were talking about, which made me feel a lot better than I did going home from Cardiff. I talked about being more positive, taking a bit more of a risk with regard to going forward, our work-rate coming back, getting behind the ball, making ourselves difficult to beat, trying to stop crosses.

"All these things were better at Crewe on Tuesday. Anybody who watched the two games could see a different mentality, more positive. We have spent a lot of time in recent matches camped on the edge of our box with 10 minutes to go, hoping we don't lose a goal. On Tuesday night we were on the edge of Crewe's box pushing to try to score a winner. I don't believe we solved the problem there but we have taken a small step and experienced something positive. Hopefully, that experience will be put to good use against Coventry.

"But I worry about us defensively, in all honesty. If we are to get a major improvement, conceding so many goals is something we need to eradicate quickly. The best teams don't lose goals and give other teams opportunities like we do, but I can do something about that." That something, he feels, may not extend to promotion, or a play-off place, this season, even with the coaches he had at Hearts, Peter Houston and Kenny Black, already at his side. "It would be difficult, but I'm not saying it's not possible."

Leicester's grim financial situation, which once saw Birchenall do his pre-match spiel wearing a tin helmet, has eased a little and Levein claims: "Even with cutbacks Leicester's wage bill will be in the division's top three or four next season. There is still a good enough pot to be able to bring in enough decent players."

Clearly, this indicates a clear-out of large dimensions before that happens and he admits: "At the moment there is no money to strengthen, so it might be the case that I shuffle things around."

That hard-man reputation was earned when, in a pre-season friendly against Raith Rovers, Levein and his fellow Hearts defender Graeme Hogg came to blows over who was at fault when Gordon Dalziel almost scored for Raith. Levein collected a 12-match ban and a fine of two weeks' wages, while Hogg picked up a broken nose and ended up, in the words of Dalziel, "completely spangled" on a stretcher.

So have Leicester hired a hard man? "I think I am very fair with the players and the staff and try to play a middle line," Levein insisted. "But my job is to steer the ship in the right direction and to do that I have to make sure everybody is working with the same aims in mind."

Did that, one wondered, mean ensuring the embarrassments of La Manga would not be repeated? It did. "That sort of thing probably won't raise its head for ever more at this club. I believe professional footballers realise they have a job to do, to act responsibly."

Having learned responsibility through a painful route of fisticuffs, injury and managing Cowdenbeath on wages of £150 a week, Craig Levein is admirably positioned to enforce it at Leicester.

Comments