‘The next minute I felt “bang!”‘ | Hearts boss Craig Levein reveals how stint in the Juniors made him a man ahead of Scottish Cup visit of Auchinleck Talbot



AS Craig Levein endured a few good-natured barbs at Petershill Park, it brought back a swathe of vivid memories. Some painful; all formative.

His time in the Junior ranks with Fife amateurs Lochore Welfare occurred close to 40 years ago, a fresh-faced teenager attempting to make his mark in a league of grizzled, wily veterans who did not take kindly to this languid youngster striding out from the back.

Levein points to his face to indicate where he received his first skelp. Welcome to men’s football. It would be the first of many lessons he learned at that level as he grew up exceedingly quickly before joining Cowdenbeath in 1981.

A superb career with Hearts would follow, winning 16 full caps for Scotland along the way. However, he never forgot his apprenticeship on those pockmarked pitches.

“I played for the mighty Lochore Welfare,” he smiles. “My highlights? I don’t know if we had any to be honest! But it made me grow up, it made a man out of me.

“I still remember my first match and the big striker who was playing against me. The ball came up to him and he controlled it. I put my leg between his legs, knocked the ball away and went round him.

“I passed it forward and the next minute I just felt ‘bang’”. The former Scotland manager gestures to his chin. “I was lying on the ground dazed, he said ‘that will be the last time you do that!’

He adds: “The next time the ball came up, fair to say he won it!”

It’s a different ball-game today, literally.

As they illustrated in their 1-0 win over Ayr United in the fourth round, Auchinleck Talbot have far more to their game than those old traits of physicality and force. One of the giants of the modern Junior game, they can play.

He witnessed them demolish Petershill 7-0 in person last Saturday while one of their star men, Gordon Pope, even played under Levein at Dundee United.

“I didn’t manage to stay incognito at Petershill sadly,” he continued. “There was a bit of banter. It was good fun actually. It’s a while since I’ve been to a game at the level.

“It was a wee bit false because Petershill had a man sent off in the first 20 minutes but I got to see the players and what they can do. I’ve got an idea of what to expect and I will share that knowledge with our players.

“You could see that they are used to winning. They have good players and they have some decent recent history. A number of them have been playing together for a while and they may well have the choice of some of the better players in the Junior leagues.

“You look at the Livingston team we drew 0-0 with in midweek, Scott Pittman played Juniors – so it is not outwith the realms of the imagination what they can compete at this level when you look at what they’ve done.

“So our quality will be the thing we need to bring. That will be critical.”

And Levein has vowed to show Auchinleck the utmost respect by selecting his strongest side, bidding to avoid a repeat of the nervy 1-0 victory Hearts claimed over the Bot in January 2012. The second-string Jambos, managed by Paulo Sergio, got out of jail that day with a late Gordon Smith strike.

Although Levein was not at the helm that day, he will heed the warning.

“Obviously I wasn’t here at that time but from what I have heard, it was a weakened side that was put out against them,” he added. “I certainly won’t be doing that.

“There might be some changes from Wednesday night but I don’t see the need for wholesale changes at all.”