ON reflection, Craig Levein probably isn’t the man to quiz about the enhanced spectator experience at Murrayfield. Only once has the Hearts manager ever made the short trip from Gorgie to take in a rugby match and it didn’t exactly end well.
In fact, to be precise, it ended at half time, with Scotland trailing England by 13 points in a Calcutta match which would end with the hosts being whitewashed by a resounding 20-0 score line. The pitch, which at that point in early 2014 was being eaten by a pesky type of worms called nematodes, could best be described as ‘treacherous underfoot’.“I have been to one rugby match and it wasn’t very good,” said Levein. “It was an England game and the pitch was terrible and we were getting hammered at half-time so I left. Hopefully I will stay for the full 90mins this time.”
Thankfully a new hybrid surface was brought in soon after but for the record Levein’s involvement with the home of Scottish Rugby Union goes back further than that. Rewind another decade and here he was, a Hearts manager attempting to convince a sceptical supporter base that Chris Robinson’s doomed plan to uproot the club wholesale from Tynecastle had some merit to it. Having played a pre-season friendly in 2004 against Dundee there ‘in front of six people’, and largely put in a series of forgettable performances there while the main stand at Tynecastle was being rebuilt least season, victory against Celtic in today’s controversial Betfred Cup semi-final might just be the occasion where the club’s supporters finally fall in love with the place. The match, on course for a 67,000 sell-out, will be the best attended Scottish football match for nearly 30 years. While Hearts can’t count upon the crucible-like intensity and smaller dimensions of Tynecastle which helped hem Celtic in with their high energy pressing during their 1-0 league win earlier in the campaign, Levein is simply happy that it represents a level playing field.
“According to the SPFL, the Murrayfield pitch is going to be the same size as Hampden and that’s fine, I am happy with that,” said Levein. “The reason for the game being at Murrayfield was just common sense and giving people an opportunity to come and watch it. We’d have had 10,000 at Hampden if it had been at 7.45pm and this is obviously going to be a much greater spectacle because we will have nearly 50 per cent of the crowd. People say Hampden is a neutral venue, well Celtic have been to Hampden a hell of a lot more times than our players and it feels like a second home to them.Murrayfield is not a second home to us but it does make it a little bit more neutral. We’ve sold a hell of a lot of tickets to kids and families who otherwise would not have been at the game. If you want to promote Scottish football the occasions like Sunday are the perfect opportunity to do that.”
It isn’t just on the pitch that Hearts have played a blinder in this competition. After all, they were almost chucked out of it for fielding ineligible teenage midfielder Andrew Irving in an early group stage match against Cove Rangers. Levein thinks the administrative row might just have been the making of them. “It actually helped us in a way – it was a galvanising moment,” said the Hearts manager. “We made an administrative mistake and the players had to try to pull us out of the hole. I think that helped. We went to play Raith Rovers at Methil and won on penalties, then beat Cowdenbeath, and that was the start of things for me.”
If Hearts’ are hopeful of reaching their first cup final since the defeat to St Mirren in this competition in 2013, don’t underestimate the size of this moment too for their manager, a man whose days in front line management were assumed in some parts to be behind him. “I’m excited,” he said. “From the time I made the decision to come back in, it just took me a bit of time to get back into the swing of things because I had spent three or four years trying to separate myself from the players and the decision making.
“It took a while to get back and last season was the toughest I have ever been involved in throughout my career with everything we had to deal with. If it had been my first job, I would have been struggling. But the fact I had been at the club and knew the league, that made it a wee bit easier. This year has been better … but we are still early in the season.”
They were back training at Murrayfield on Friday, three days after Celtic did likewise. He is girding himself for more ‘banter’ with his opposite number on the subject of the length of grass. “It’s just banter, eh?” said Levein. “Brendan and I sat and spoke for 25 minutes at Tynecastle last time so if there is any niggle nobody has told me. But you know grass is constantly growing? By the time they get back and measure it it will have grown a couple of millimetres. They’ll be measuring it, I’m sure.”
Source : HeraldScotland