'The intelligence of Arsÿne Wenger and the passion of Sir Alex Ferguson...'

...that's how Leicester's new manager Craig Levein has been described. In his first interview since taking the job, he talks to Ian Whittell about sacking Dave Bassett, punishing footballers who play golf too much - and misleading descriptions
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The Independent Football

The two young Hearts professionals, forced last summer to sprint up and down the steps of Tynecastle's main stand with full sets of golf clubs strapped to their backs, could have borne witness to the fact that Craig Levein is not a man or manager with whom one should trifle, even before events of his first day in the post of Leicester City manager.

Monday of this week saw Levein meet with the club's director of football, Dave Bassett, one of the English game's most enduring and popular figures, to inform him his services were no longer required.

On a to-do list that covered a variety of tasks, not least of all getting acquainted with the baffling East Midlands road system ("I have the only satellite navigation system that lies," claims Levein), dismissing one of football's living institutions might have proved daunting to another manager, new to the club and the country. But, as Graham Weir and Neil Janczyk will testify, Levein has yet to meet a challenge in football he will not tackle.

"I've never worked with a director of football before," says Levein of his decision concerning Bassett. "And what I have done previously has worked for me and for the club I've been employed by. My thinking was, why not continue with what I had been doing previously? I might have been able to work with Dave, I don't know, but I thought I was better making the decision for myself.

"I spoke to Dave about it and he's been in football long enough to know the situation. He was great. He might be disappointed but I wanted to do what was right for me and the club. There was no intention to make a statement or send a message, I just wanted to get my back-room staff sorted out quickly." Indeed, Levein was yesterday given permission to speak to Blackburn Rovers' assistant reserve team manager, Robert Kelly, about a move to the Walkers Stadium.

But sending a message was precisely the effect of Levein's dismissal of Bassett. Bassett, true to type, was subsequently magnanimous enough to spend several hours with Levein, passing on his opinions about Leicester and the Championship division in which they currently occupy a mid-table position, but everyone else, within and without the club, was left in little doubt who is now in charge.

Weir and Janczyk learned the same lesson after contravening club rules by playing golf the day before a pre-season friendly with Hearts' Edinburgh rivals, Hibernian, the second time they had so done. Dropped and fined two weeks' wages on the morning of the match, they were also ordered to carry their golf clubs for an entire week with an identical fine the punishment if Levein were to spy them without their bags. Only after they had completed a post-match "warm-down", involving sprints up stadium steps with the fully laden bags, and reported for a reserve team game with their clubs two days later, were the pair pardoned.

It was an incident that caused much amusement among the first-team squad but issued a crucial disciplinary directive, indicative of Levein's sure feel for man-management. Old-school discipline combined with an open-minded approach to the modern game and modern footballer.

"Even players who fall out with him will not say a bad word," says one current Hearts player. "And that's because he is brutally honest with people. A lot of managers tell players, 'You be straight with me, I'll be straight with you,' then don't follow through with it. He does."

"A combination of the intelligence of Arsène Wenger and the passion of Alex Ferguson," was how the Leicester chief executive, Tim Davies, described his new manager at a welcoming press conference eight days ago, hardly a modest introduction. Levein, quite frankly, looked embarrassed.

"It's part of you guys' job to come up with something like that," he said to a journalist a week later. "Something that people will read and be interested in. I don't really think along those lines. When a young striker gets into the team, he's the next Gary Lineker or whoever. It's no different with managers, and I don't pay any attention to it. I understand why it's done, I just don't believe in any of it."

In Levein's case, it is not difficult to see why such comparisons have been made. The success of numerous Scottish managers south of the border, the lack of success by English counterparts (one top-flight title has been won by an English manager in 17 years) and Leicester's reputation for gambling successfully on the untried and untested - Brian Little, Mark McGhee, Martin O'Neill and Micky Adams - help explain his appointment. Two episodes, one from his 16-year playing career, the other from his seven-year managerial career, go some way to explaining the man.

The former involves him engaging in a furious on-field row with centre-half partner Graeme Hogg over who was to blame for failing to mark a Raith Rovers striker in a game in 1994, an argument that ended with Levein fighting with his team-mate, breaking his nose and rendering him semi-conscious. Yet, the most remarkable aspect of that anecdote lies not in the fact that Raith failed to score, or the fact that the fight took place while the game continued, but the fact that the match in question was a pre-season friendly. Significantly, Hogg was among the first football "pundits" to sing Levein's praises in the Scottish media following his appointment by Leicester.

If that was the "Ferguson" aspect of Levein's personality, the "Wenger" part was apparent two years ago when he was fined £1,000 by the Scottish Football Association for publicly criticising a referee. Outraged, on a point of principle and citing his right to free speech, Levein refused to pay even after the SFA doubled and quadrupled the fine and eventually banned him from the dug-out for four months. Levein took the Association to the Court of Session and, some 10 months later, a hearing was only averted after the SFA admitted it had been partly to blame and the club agreed to pay their manager's fine.

Such is the man Leicester chose to succeed Adams late last month, an appointment that caused surprise in some quarters, if not within Leicester circles, given their modus operandi in appointing previous managers. "There were bits and pieces of interest from England in the past but nothing concrete," says Levein who, by general agreement has established Hearts as Scotland's third club in his four years at Tynecastle. "Given Leicester's reputation for taking a chance on relatively unknown managers, you can see why they offered me the job. It's something that has worked for them.

"There is a massive hunger to succeed among managers up there. Sometimes, in Scotland, you get annoyed by people claiming the League is no good because, if the League is no good, the implication is the managers can't be any good. Everyone I speak to up there is desperate to come down here if they get the chance. It's like a hungry young footballer, coming into a first team and being desperate to make an instant impression. My aim is to get in here and make an impact immediately, to try and improve the club.

"You might ask what it says about the two Leagues, leaving the third-best club in Scotland for a Championship club in England, but that is nothing to do with anything other than me and my wish to get into the Premiership. It's not about the size of the club. You could argue Leicester have got more fans and a better stadium than Hearts but coming here wasn't about comparing Hearts with Leicester.

"I thought getting to the Premiership from Hearts would be difficult. Nobody would take a chance on me. I couldn't see a Premiership club going up to Scotland for their manager. Paul Sturrock had to go to Plymouth to get to Southampton, now Bobby Williamson has left Hibs to go to Plymouth. I thought this might be my best opportunity to find a club, as big as possible, with similar ideas and ambitions to me."

Those ambitions are driven, in large part, by the premature end, through a knee injury, to Levein's playing career. A gifted defender, in the Lawrenson-Hansen mode, Levein would have won far more than 16 caps and, arguably, played at a higher club level had he not been so unfortunate.

"I finished playing too early. That was the biggest thing," said Levein, now 40. "I was playing as well as I had ever played when I got injured, at 29 to 30. There is an element of that in what drives me. I was fit enough, I could have played until 35, easily, at a decent level. So, there is an element of frustration there and it does manifest itself. I say to myself, I need to do as well as I can on this side to make up for what I lost. When I sit down and think about it, it's something I've been conscious of."

From Leicester's point of view, of course, surfing such a talent pool for ambitious young managers comes at a price. Little, for Aston Villa and McGhee, for Wolves, left the post controversially. Levein, however, insists he will not follow suit.

"If you look back through my career, I've always been a fairly loyal person," says Levein, who has spent the last 23 years exclusively with Cowdenbeath and Hearts, playing for and managing both clubs. "This isn't a vehicle for me, other than to try and drive the club into the Premiership. I'm not here to be here a year and gone. Yes, this is a stepping stone to get me into the Premiership, but with Leicester."

Leicester's last flirtation with the Premiership was not a happy one, under Adams a year ago. Relegated by a six-point margin, the season will be forever tarnished by events in La Manga where nine first-team players were arrested, although none charged, following a riotous night out. One gets the impression there will be no repeat performance under Levein. "La Manga was not a factor in my discussions with the board at all," says Levein. "I never asked. They never mentioned it. But if I think taking them abroad in the future is the right thing to do, I will do it." As ever, Levein is his own man.

Tartan trail Scottish managers in England

Alex Ferguson: Led Aberdeen to numerous trophies including European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1983. Joined Manchester United in November 1986, and has transformed the club's fortunes.

Jock Stein: (right) Won the European Cup with Celtic in 1967 and moved to Leeds in 1978 - for 44 days.

Billy McNeil: Started at Celtic and was snapped up by Manchester City in June 1983. Also managed Aston Villa.

Walter Smith: Joined Rangers in 1991 and won seven successive Scottish League titles. Appointed Everton manager in July 1998 and left in March 2003. Had short stint as Alex Ferguson's assistant at Manchester United last season.

Graeme Souness: Five successful years with Rangers before moving to Liverpool in April 1991. After working abroad he joined Blackburn and now manages Newcastle.

Paul Sturrock: St Johnstone, Dundee United and Plymouth before joining Southampton in March but left after 13 games. Now at Sheffield Wednesday.

Bobby Williamson: Won the Scottish Cup with Kilmarnock in 1997. After a brief spell at Hibernian he joined Plymouth in April 2004.

Jim Jefferies: At Falkirk before winning Hearts' first trophy in 36 years (Scottish Cup) in 1998. Sacked from Bradford after 13 months in early 2002.