Junior football taught Hearts boss Craig Levein a tough lesson

Craig Levein is never likely to forget his introduction to Junior football. A raw teenager when he signed up to play alongside his big brother Paul at Lochore Welfare, he had the demands of the sport at that level quickly knocked into him, quite literally.
Hearts manager Craig Levein. Pic: SNS/Ross ParkerHearts manager Craig Levein. Pic: SNS/Ross Parker
Hearts manager Craig Levein. Pic: SNS/Ross Parker

“I remember my first match and the big striker who was playing against me,” recalls Levein. “The ball came up to him and he controlled it and I put my leg between his legs and knocked the ball away and went round him, got it and passed it. The next minute I just felt ‘bang’.”

The Hearts manager gestures a punch to the side of the face, and shakes his head as though he is trying to gather his wits even now. Some memories linger longer than others. “As I was lying on the ground dazed, he said ‘that will be the last time you do that!’ ”

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There is laughter when he is asked how he reacted. “The next time the ball came up, he won it!”

Levein has toughened up since then, he has learned how to roll with the punches and he is no longer a 16-year-old boy operating in a man’s world. But Junior football played a huge role in his development.

His Premiership side play host to one of the Junior ranks’ most notable names this afternoon, when Auchinleck Talbot return to Tynecastle on Scottish Cup duty for another stab at giant-killing. The Ayrshire side came close to pulling off a shock in 2012 but a controversial disallowed goal denied them a replay and Hearts went on to win the trophy.

“Obviously, I wasn’t here at that time,” said Levein, “but from what I have heard, it was a weakened side that was put out against them. I certainly won’t be doing that. There might be some changes from Wednesday night but I don’t see the need for wholesale changes at all.”

This season Tommy Sloan’s men have already stunned high-flying Championship side Ayr United, turfing them out in the fourth round, and, having watched them as they battered fellow Juniors Petershill 7-0 last weekend, Levein knows that Talbot will put up a bold battle today and not only in the stereotypical physical sense.

“The [Junior] game has changed a lot. When I watched Auchinleck, you could see that they know what to do,” said Levein. “You could see that they are used to winning. They have good players and they have some decent recent history and a number of them have been playing together for a while and they may well have the choice of some of the better players in the junior leagues.

“It is a game that everybody expects us to win – the only people who don’t expect us to win will be the Auchinleck players – so we have got to understand that their resistance will be the hardest thing to break down. If we can do that then it is just about football and in that case I would be fairly confident.”

There is always the chance that top-tier players switch off when faced with lower league or non-league opponents but Ayrshire lad Steven Naismith is looking forward to the tie as much as anyone in the Auchinleck Talbot ranks.

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“A few of my mates have played around that level,” explains the Hearts attacker. “The sub goalie Brian Hewitt is from Stewarton as well. He knows my dad and a few of my mates and you see him around town every so often so it will be interesting if I come up against him.

“In Ayrshire it’s spoken about a lot. That probably adds a fair bit to me. I’ve really looked forward to it since the draw.

“We had won [against Livingston] and the draw for this round was on when we were in the changing room. I actually wanted it. Not so much that it was Auchinleck but that I can’t remember being involved in such a gap in terms of teams.

“There’s the Betfred Cup at the beginning of the season where there is a bit of a gap. But to this extent, I’ve thought back and can’t think of any I have been involved in. There were League Ones and League Twos with Everton. But not this. So it’s good. All round it’s a great day for them. We need to be professional and, for me personally, I am really looking forward to it.”

But while it is a day out for Auchinleck, Naismith says it is up to Hearts to ensure it does not become something more.

“At a club like Hearts you need to have a level of responsibility and a level of expectation. That is to go and do a professional job, not be on the other end of Auchinleck being the heroes and moving on. As much as it’s a great afternoon for them, let that be all it is. You don’t want them to be any bigger legends than they were against Ayr.”