London Hearts Supporters Club

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<-Page <-Team Thu 27 Nov 2003 Hearts 0 FC Girondins de Bordeaux 2 Team-> Page->
<-Srce <-Type Sunday Herald ------ Report Type-> Srce->
Craig Levein <-auth Alan Campbell auth-> Grzegorz Gilewski
[A Riera 8] ;[P Feindouno 66]
17 of 017 ----- E H

Forward thinking

Kevin McKenna and Hearts must learn from the naive defensive tactics that knocked them out of the Uefa Cup and focus on the future, writes Alan Campbell

WITH a woolly hat protecting his ears from the Edinburgh chill and the mandatory tracksuit, defender Kevin McKenna wasn’t literally wearing sackcloth and ashes on Friday. Nevertheless, like his team-mates and the rest of the staff at Tynecastle, the Canadian internationalist was fighting to stave off the gloom on the morning after the night before.

As Craig Levein was agonising over the tactics he employed in the 2-0 Uefa Cup defeat by Bordeaux hours earlier, McKenna and the rest of the squad had the task of lifting themselves for today’s match against Dundee United at Tannadice. The euphoria following the 1-0 first-leg win in France helped Hearts to grind out a similar result against Aberdeen three days later, but McKenna and his team-mates face a different test today.

“The boys were dejected when they came in this morning,” the 6ft 2in defender conceded, “but they realised the Dundee United game was only two days away and we all have to get on with it.

“It’s going to be a tough game for us, but we have to lift our heads up and focus on getting the three points. It’s going to reveal our character, and how we can bounce back from defeat against Bordeaux.”

The previous night, McKenna, who is still only 23, had played in central defence alongside the even younger Andy Webster. They were left exposed by the shockingly misplaced pass of Jean-Louis Valois which gave Albert Riera the time and space to score one of the greatest goals ever witnessed at Tynecastle in the eighth minute; thereafter it was Levein’s tactics which were open to scrutiny.

“I know we were leading by a goal from the first leg,” said McKenna, “but Bordeaux scored almost straight away and suddenly the game turns in their favour because if they score one more away goal they have a huge advantage.

“We were confident we could win the tie, but Bordeaux are a successful side who have played in the Champions League and have had massive players come through their club. We’ve taken a step forward in Europe in what was a learning experience and I think we did well.”

Levein, while agreeing with that assessment, was still wrestling with his decision to stick to the 4-5-1 formation which had served his side so well in France.

“I spent the rest of Thursday night looking at the [video of the] game to try to analyse what might have given us a better chance of going through,” he said. “I haven’t come back with a definite answer. It’s easy to say we should have played differently. When I got home I was sitting thinking should we have just played a 4-4-2? Should we have started in the system we play normally here at Tynecastle and had a go?

“I knew what type of team they were, and that releasing players forward might have given them opportunities. I don’t believe for a second that with 4-4-2 we’d have kept a clean sheet. It’s something for me to think about. But if we’d played 4-4-2 after leading 1-0 from the first-leg and then gone 3-0 down inside half-an-hour, which was eminently possible, I’d have been called the most tactically naive manager going.”

For all Levein has achieved since replacing Jim Jefferies at Hearts, the biggest flaw in his fledgling managerial ability may be an exaggerated respect for superior opposition. This exaggerated caution was evident in his early months with the Tynecastle side when he packed players behind the ball against the Old Firm, and may have been so again on Thursday against a side who might not have liked Hearts in their faces against the backdrop of a packed stadium. Instead, Hearts allowed the opposition to take the initiative.

“We could have played the system better,” says Levein. “I think I was over-cautious in my message to the players. Early on we went forward with the ball and there was a hesitancy in the midfield to join the attack. That was the lesson for me.

“You have to let the players decide for themselves at times when is the right time. You can’t control the whole thing completely.”

Again, given the way that the opening 30 minutes were flowing in favour of the ever more confident visitors, some wondered why Levein hadn’t seized on the injury to Paul Hartley to replace the midfielder with striker Andy Kirk and give the Bordeaux defence something to think about at last.

“Committing two up front would have emptied the midfield of a player,” he said. “When Paul went off it was a draw. I knew as soon as we opened up they would be much more of a threat. I didn’t want to take a chance with an hour to go.”

For all the youthful promise of McKenna and Webster, Levein said the loss of Steven Pressley had been the key factor in deciding not to switch to 4-4-2 after Hartley was stretchered off.

“Without Elvis, I couldn’t afford to take that chance,” Levein said. “I could beat myself to death about this for as long as I want – and I probably will. But for a first experience in Europe, it’s not bad.

“I enjoyed it, and the players did too. I want another shot at it next season. Hearts have suffered in the past for having a five-year break between European campaigns.”

The one certainty, whichever way he judges Thursday night after he has played the game over and over again in his mind, is that Levein will have learned from the experience. H e doesn’t take offence at questions which probe at his tactics, and if Hearts return to the Uefa Cup again next season, he will be wiser and better prepared.

Whether he can keep his squad together for that next campaign is another matter. Another round in Europe would have been an unexpected bonus for the Tynecastle coffers, but as the overdraft mounts, players are expected to go next summer.

“I can’t influence that,” said Levein. “We’ve kept a squad together in recent years, but unfortunately we’re not in a financial position where we can keep the bulk of a team. Bring on the day when we can decide whether a transfer fee is the right thing or not, rather than the bank deciding.”

A refrain in British football and, like most in his position, Levein confessed that he would just get on with the job of trying to win that coveted Uefa Cup place next season. That task continues today, when Hearts will again be without Pressley, the suspended Phil Stamp, and, almost certainly, Hartley.

Taken from the Sunday Herald

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