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When the Levein breaks

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Mean old Levein, taught me to weep and moan

On the morning of last Saturday’s midday encounter with Rangers, the official club Twitter page released a short video showcasing the eye-catching designs being painted onto the walls within the Main Stand. As brilliant as these are, I couldn’t help but wonder if they had been put in place to distract us from the sheer tedium on the pitch, in the way a toddler would be handed a set of shiny keys or brightly-coloured crayons to alleviate their boredom.

Assuming that was the club’s rationale, it may be worth their while commissioning someone to redesign the seats as well, to allow for greater slouching capacity. To the detriment of my already poor posture, I’ve spent the past six months at Tynecastle in the sort of position I usually reserve for dull conference calls at work or when I’m waiting for Line of Duty to start and have to endure the latter stages of the Antiques Roadshow.

In fact, it only occurred to me shortly after Steven MacLean scored our consolation goal on Saturday that I barely flinched from that position when the ball hit the net. Never before have I reacted to a Hearts goal with such indifference. Needless to say, much of that attitude emanated from the players themselves, with MacLean’s strange trademark GIRUY celebration the most animated any player in maroon actually got over the 90 minutes, such was the passivity of their performance.

On one hand, given our recent form and the pasting we took at Ibrox only a few weeks before, it was somewhat naïve of me to think we had a chance of taking something from this game. On the other hand, that performance at Ibrox was precisely what convinced me wouldn’t be subjected to a repeat. The players would surely have too much professional pride to roll over and have their bellies tickled so soon after the last humiliation? When they’re still feeding off the high of making the Scottish Cup final seven days before? With a raucous Tynecastle atmosphere to help them ride that wave of momentum? No, a committed, energetic performance was the very least we could expect.

Instead, the players produced arguably the biggest, smelliest shit sandwich of the season to date — no mean feat when you consider some of the previous servings we’ve had to swallow. Since Saturday, I’ve wondered if I was letting recency bias cloud my judgement, but in the past five days I’ve struggled to think of a more spineless, submissive showing over a 90-minute period, at home, in a prominent fixture that in theory demands hunger and determination.

In practice, the players lacked the appetite for battle and with the cup final presumably now firmly embedded in their minds, seemed determined only to avoid injury so as not to jeopardise their chances of being involved on 25th May, rather than use it as an incentive to perform in the interim.

As a result, the only waves being generated around the home sections of Tynecastle were not of sound but of apathy. Mistakes that would once have been met with howls of derision were now mustering no more than the soft sound of a collective shrug.

When Hearts fans — so notorious for their impatience and propensity for jumping on players’ backs at the slightest errors — no longer have the energy to voice their frustrations with what’s happening in front of them, you know something is wrong. When Hearts fans lack the motivation to sell out the away allocation for a derby the following weekend, you know it’s worse still. If you’re looking for any evidence of Hearts’ current on-pitch malaise, this is it.

Initially, my own decision not to attend was financially-driven and made before the tickets went on sale. With the cup final tickets set to be released and various other engagements to fund during May, it just wasn’t viable: it’s a decision I feel has since been vindicated by what I saw on Saturday. Put simply, I don’t think I’ve ever been less confident about a derby.

In the last meeting with Hibs, Hearts actually produced one of their stronger performances of recent months and yet still struggled to find solutions to the defensive fragility, attacking impotence and over-reliance on individuals that have become hallmarks of the campaign, which ultimately cost us the three points.

The old derby cliché about form going out the window simply didn’t apply at Tynecastle that day. While Hibs continued their upward trajectory under Paul Heckingbotham, we found ourselves dropping to sixth, not solely because of that derby defeat, but because of the problems that existed long before it. For that reason — and it pains me to say it — form is unlikely to join Hearts fans in their boycott this Sunday.

Prior to that last pre-split fixture, we had dropped 23 points to the teams below us in the league. For illustrative purposes, Celtic were 28 points ahead of us at that stage, while half of those dropped points would have had us comfortably in third and within touching distance of Rangers in second.

Granted, it’s unrealistic to have expected wins in every one of those games, plus the butterfly effect of a few different results in that time would undoubtedly have changed the complexion of the league. However, this isn’t a case of employing Mark Warburton mathematics and deducting points from those above us to close the gap.

We’re talking about teams who have barely been out the bottom half all season, teams we ought to have performed better against. Hamilton, St Mirren and Dundee have been in a relegation mini-league of their own all season and had amassed a combined total of 44 points before the split, 10 of which were chalked up against us. It’s not unrealistic to have expected better.

Last season, the narrative was very much about Craig Levein “steadying the ship” in the wake of Ian Cathro’s failed tenure and although it seemed like he had achieved that (and more) as we sat atop the league table heading into late October of this season, the ship has been taking on an alarming volume of water since.

Over the past five years, opinion on Levein has been so divided, so fiercely contested on social media that the re-emerging Scottish independence debate looks like a trivial squabble in comparison. Plenty would gladly see Levein thrown overboard before the season’s voyage is complete but that isn’t particularly pragmatic when there’s a Scottish Cup final on the horizon.

His position beyond the summer is a different matter altogether. Having presided over this slump and seemingly found no answer to the recurring problems documented above, the case for him remaining in charge is now so fragile that not even Henry Fonda’s Juror 8 could convince supporters of its merits.

I’m by no means one of these Michael Stewart types who harbours an intense personal dislike of Craig Levein, jumping at the chance to highlight his every mistake while silently begrudging his victories. In fact, I feel a lot of the positive work Levein has done and continues to do behind the scenes — particularly with the Academy setup — gets lost under the negativity.

However, that ill-feeling will only worsen and those positives will be buried deeper still if the man himself is unable to acknowledge when his race is run. Even in the best case scenario — Scottish Cup glory — one hopes Levein would have the foresight to ride off into the sunset on the ultimate career high.

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