BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
CRAIG LEVEIN has been spat at, verbally abused and been forced to dodge golf balls lobbed from the away section at Tynecastle. On occasion, the Hearts manager concedes, he has feared for his safety during 35 years in the game.
As a consequence, the experienced coach does not believe the deplorable scenes at Wednesday’s Edinburgh derby marked an unprecedented escalation of hostilities in the capital.
Levein does, however, hope Hearts supporters embark on a rigorous campaign of self-policing to ensure mindless thugs are not allowed to bring shame to the vast majority of right-minded fans.
The result of the stalemate in Gorgie has become a footnote in the aftermath of a contest that saw visiting manager Neil Lennon struck by a coin lobbed from the main stand, while Jambos goalkeeper Bobby Zlamal saw a punch aimed in his direction by one moron in the Hibernian end.
Levein confesses to a sense of helplessness when considering how to halt such cretinous behaviour, conceding similar regrettable incidents have been occurring for as long as he can remember. He notes, rather alarmingly, that ‘there are coins thrown in just about every match’.
However, he is praying decent fans will now rally.
“I’ve been in football a long, long time and I get as much stick as anybody else,” said Levein. “I’ve been in situations where supporters have thrown things at me, people have shouted at me, I’ve been spat on.
“I remember playing at Tynecastle and the away fans threw golf balls at me. It was quite good actually – saved me going to buy them!
“Over the years, there have been flash-points. This is the latest one.
“I have played and managed in these games since 1983. I could tell you half a dozen situations that were worse than Wednesday.
“There are coins thrown in just about every match but, in this situation, one of them actually struck Neil. Some clown also threw a punch at Bobby [Zlamal]. The assistant referee got hit too, so that’s three things in this match.
“I put some of this back on the supporters who are near these people. I know it’s difficult, but if they point them out to the police, that might help as well.”
Lennon was hit by a missile after celebrating Clevid Dikamona’s disallowed goal in the dying embers in front of the seething Hearts fans, prompting former Scottish Police Federation chairman Les Gray to suggest the Northern Irishman ‘could have started a riot’.
Levein was at pains to emphasise that his Easter Road counter-part was not in any way responsible for the incident, but admits he struggles to comprehend how Lennon has the energy to engage with opposition supporters.
“Reacting to it is the worst thing that can happen. That’s my view,” added Levein. “Neil can behave in any way he wants. I just don’t know how he can be bothered with it. It’s just a hassle.
“I’m not saying in any way that [Lennon] contributes to what happened. I’m not saying that. I’m saying I don’t know how he can be bothered. I get enough stick without trying to interact!
“He’s got more capacity in his head than me if he can deal with all that stuff going on behind him [in the crowd] and deal with what’s going on on the pitch.”
Both clubs swiftly issued statements in the aftermath of the encounter and, while the content was, as expected, a strong condemnation of the carnage – the context was more important.
Hibs chief executive Leeann Dempster met with her Hearts counter-part Ann Budge at Tynecastle on Thursday before the clubs released a joint-declaration, with both women photographed standing side-by-side.
“It’s a show of unity to say ‘come on, behave yourself’,” explained Levein. “Let’s have all the atmosphere and tension that gets us to the point where the place is bubbling. But don’t overstep the line.”
He added: “Anybody who has deliberately thrown a punch or coin should be banned for life. I have no sympathy with them and that might send out a message.
“I don’t what the answer is, other than banning people. I don’t think anyone wants nets or barriers. And this idea of playing behind closed doors – can you imagine that?
“That’s punishing the 20,000 people who behaved themselves. That’s not the answer either. Answers on a postcard.”
On the pitch, Hibs were the only side seeking to play anything resembling progressive football on a turgid, goalless night of action, according to the visitors’ captain for the day Marivin Bartley.
Levein added: “Was he [Bartley] playing? I never saw him, to be honest. Oh yes, he should have been sent off [for a lunge on Peter Haring]. Sorry, I forgot about that.”
The events of midweek have utterly overshadowed the build-up to what should be a mouth-watering top-of-the-table fixture against Celtic this afternoon, with Hearts still at the summit of the Premiership.
It was left to Jambos defender Michael Smith to bring some focus back to football.
“I saw on Wednesday that Celtic scored five [against Dundee] – it was always going to happen, they weren’t going to go through a season without playing their best football,” acknowledges the Northern Ireland international.
“So if they are back playing good football then we have to raise our game.
“We have a little bit of a reputation for not doing so well in Glasgow so it is definitely time to change that and we will be trying to do that this weekend.”