When Craig Levein first pitched the idea of a “boot-room” succession plan at Hearts, the expectation was that Jack Ross – then the U20s coach – would be groomed to assume the role of head coach at a later date. It’s somewhat ironic, therefore, that five years after presenting the blueprint for a strategy to employ from within and maintain a consistent ethos from one head coach to the next, the club finds itself with a managerial vacancy and no identity, while Ross takes charge of our city rivals.
The continuity Levein had in mind back then was all well and good in theory, but in practice it was only going to work if the overall plan gathered positive momentum. I have to admit that, in an overly idealistic sort of way, I was initially charmed by the thought of a succession plan at Hearts and the prospect of forging a distinct identity that could endure for years to come.
And why wouldn’t I be? After all, the reactionary practice for clubs up and down the country to bin their plans and start afresh every couple of seasons has never proved particularly sustainable, so the idea of my club doing things a little differently – adopting a longer-term, self-sufficient approach – appealed so much that I never stopped to consider the potential ramifications of the whole thing falling apart, or failing to launch in the first place.
Unfortunately, this is the reality we now face. Save for the brief purple patch at the start of last season, the club has been caught in a depressing downward spiral since Ian Cathro succeeded Robbie Neilson in December 2016. During that period, the squad has undergone more reboots than a tired superhero franchise, each as uninspiring as the last.
That lack of stability in the playing personnel has often been viewed as the crux of our problems. However, it’s also worth noting that since Neilson left, we have had two head coaches, neither of whom has been promoted from within, while the backroom staff has remained largely the same. The turnover of players may be alarming, but the backroom staff has worked with them all and the results (at least since Neilson’s departure) have been getting progressively worse.
The fact that none of our first-team coaches have been considered credible candidates for the top job tells its own story and points to a plan that has failed to develop in the way its architect hoped it might. As the old proverb goes, “You can lead Jon Daly and Liam Fox to water, but you can’t make them drink.”
To a large extent, the same can be said for Austin MacPhee. Speaking before Saturday’s trip to Ayrshire, for example, the interim head coach outlined his manifesto for landing the vacancy on a longer-term basis:
Hearts want to hire someone who plays attacking football, wins games and scores goals, let’s be honest. We did that two weeks ago, so it surely can’t have damaged my chances.
However, as we’ve already established, the gaping chasm between theory and practice has often proved difficult for the current regime to bridge. If the win over St Mirren had kept alive MacPhee’s hopes of landing the role longer-term, they were more or less flat-lining by 3.16pm on Saturday. Reports since then that Ann Budge held detailed discussions with Daniel Stendel over the weekend suggest the life support machine has since been turned off altogether.
Personally, I like MacPhee. He comes across very well in interviews, seems to have good understanding of what is required for a club like Hearts to succeed and possesses skills that will undoubtedly serve him well in some capacity within the game. In fact, his influence in persuading the likes of Kyle Lafferty and Ryo Meshino to join Hearts, when they may otherwise have passed, has led some Hearts fans to suggest he would be better suited to the newly-created Sporting Director role.
Whether or not that would represent a clean enough break from the previous underperforming regime is debatable. For many supporters, MacPhee talks a good game but, along with Daly and Fox, is synonymous with the failed tenures of both Cathro and Levein, which significantly weakens his case for retaining any sort of influence within the club going forward.
If we are to assume that Levein’s succession plan was shelved the day he was (and there was certainly nothing in Ann Budge’s press conference the other week to suggest it hadn’t) now would certainly seem like a good opportunity to hit the reset button, empty his disciples and grant any incoming head coach – whether that’s Stendel or someone else – the freedom to shape his own backroom team with new ideas and a fresh approach.
How much of a part Austin MacPhee has to play in that, if any, will no doubt become clear to us in the coming days/weeks.