Countdowns, pictures of Edinburgh Castle, enthusiastic statements and goal montages.
There’s something almost poetic about the way David Vanecek’s arrival in Edinburgh was built up through Instagram stories – short clips which are usually over before you’ve had a proper chance to register what’s going on in front of you, then eventually disappear for good. Much like Vanecek’s Hearts career itself, which reached an unsurprising conclusion yesterday.
In his six months at the club, the Czech striker played fewer than three hours of football across seven appearances, his only notable contribution coming on his debut with a first-time flick to set up Sean Clare’s winning goal against Livingston in the Scottish Cup. If you were being generous, you could argue that without the Czech’s involvement, there would have been no cup run.
In reality, he’ll be remembered more for his social media activity than his on-field exploits and likely go down as one of the worst signings in the club’s recent history as a result. Given Hearts’ recent travails in the transfer market — which have harvested duds like Juwon Oshaniwa, Malaury Martin and Danny Amankwaa — this is no mean feat on Vanecek’s part.
Where the culpability lies for this latest sorry episode in Hearts’ ongoing recruitment “banter years” is already a matter generating debate among fans and seems to have a direct correlation with how far up you place yourself on the scale of contempt for Craig Levein. However, there is blame to be apportioned on both sides.
Having signed a pre-contract agreement with Hearts over the summer, there were brief hopes that Vanecek could be prised away from Teplice earlier to fill the Kyle Lafferty-shaped hole in Hearts attacking ranks. When that failed to materialise and Hearts’ striking options gradually eroded following injuries to Uche Ikpeazu and Steven Naismith, all eyes turned to January and Vanecek’s increasingly-anticipated and much-needed arrival.
If his Instagram account was anything to go by, Vanecek was equally desperate to get his Hearts career underway. However, if that online enthusiasm — coupled with a clever assist on his debut –offered cause for optimism that he would adapt quickly to Scottish football, his next appearance doused much of it in cold water.
After subbing Vanecek a little over half an hour into the 2–1 home defeat to Dundee, Levein launched a critique of his new arrival that was as revealing as it was scathing:
“I thought David was rubbish. He wasn’t playing well, wasn’t holding the ball up. He then got himself booked and I thought it was last thing we needed, him to get another challenge and get himself sent off. He’ll need to do a hell of a lot of work to get himself up to the fitness he needs to be at.”
It later transpired that Vanecek had arrived at the club in alarmingly poor shape, having seemingly let himself go while enjoying a winter break in Thailand. Nevertheless, fans and certain pundits were quick to label Levein’s approach as poor man-management, which is to imply some intimate understanding of Vanecek’s psyche.
As none of us outside the Hearts dressing room possess any knowledge of its inner workings, any statements about what constitutes good and bad man-management in individual cases such as Vanecek’s are pure conjecture. Players think and operate on completely different levels, they have different motivations and different ways of responding to adversity: nobody could honestly have known at the time whether or not a bit of public shaming would do Vanecek some good in the long run.
There are also grounds for questioning the professionalism and self-discipline of a player who, despite being fully aware that he was joining a new club in a matter of weeks, failed to stay in shape while on holiday. That was the player’s responsibility alone.
Given the circumstances surrounding Hearts’ limited options up front, it was imperative from Levein’s point of view that Vanecek arrived ready to go; the fact that he didn’t not only smacks of disrespect for his new employers, it also did little to improve an already-strained situation. On that basis, it’s understandable that Levein was pissed off.
By the same token, Vanecek could be seen as a victim of those circumstances, with the situation becoming so desperate in the months leading up to his arrival that expectations of him had possibly reached unrealistic heights.
He’s also not the first failed signing of Levein’s second tenure to have arrived in poor physical condition, with Amankwaa having also left this season after a year-long struggle to reach match sharpness. Whether that’s a purely physical problem or a more deep-seated motivational issue with the players themselves, the fact that it’s happened more than once in the past 18 months is a poor indictment of the due diligence being carried out by the club into prospective signings. Throw in the plethora of equally-poor signings made over the past few seasons and it’s easy to see why many fans regard Craig Levein — in his Director of Football and managerial capacities — as complicit in the failure.
To lay the blame for every failed signing squarely at Levein’s door, however, is to paint a distorted picture of how Hearts were run while Robbie Neilson and Ian Cathro occupied the dugout. It suggests that Levein had full autonomy over the club’s recruitment, identified his own targets and afforded his head coaches no influence, which forms the basis of this “totalitarian Levein” philosophy many have plugged since the club exited administration.
And yet, the constituent parts of Neilson and Cathro’s squads could not have been more different, which suggests the opposite. Furthermore, when Levein stepped in after Cathro’s sacking, it became clear that a number of the signings made under his two predecessors — Conor Sammon, Malaury Martin, Rafa Grzelak, Cole Stockton — were not going to feature in his plans.
Levein’s involvement notwithstanding, the cases of Sammon, Martin, Amankwaa and Vanecek still raise legitimate concerns over the club’s wider approach to recruitment, the depth of knowledge about prospective signings and the length of contract being offered.
In some respects, credit should be given to both parties on this occasion for recognising that it was in everyone’s interests to end the relationship at the earliest possible opportunity. Not only does the club avoid another Sammon/Martin scenario and put the extra wages towards a more useful recruit, but Vanecek is also free to seek out fresh opportunities and regular football elsewhere.
Even so, it’s a bit of a stretch to say this represents a lesson learned by the club, particularly when this summer’s recruitment has yet to gather momentum. With supporter appetite for further flops having all but disappeared after this latest episode, Craig Levein can ill-afford another repeat.