At around 16:45, 28 October 2006, referee Dougie McDonald blew full time at the Falkirk Stadium, drawing a close to a shambolic 5-1 defeat for Dundee United. The Tayside team had been thoroughly embarrassed. This was the banana skin on top of a trash pile that had been their 2006/07 season. They had gone over two months without a victory and chairman Eddie Thompson decided that enough was enough.
United were a shadow of the side who had duelled with Europe’s best in the 1980s. After a few dismal seasons, relegation looked like a real possibility. Craig Brewster was relieved of his duties after the Falkirk farce. His replacement was Raith Rovers manager Craig Levein, of whom little was expected. His reputation had plummeted after a poor stint with Leicester City. United needed a spark, and Craig Levein was a man with a point to prove. The next three years were a whirlwind for both player and manager.
Levein’s playing career almost didn’t happen at all. He took a year out of the game when he was 15. It was his brother who convinced Craig to start playing again. He impressed in his brothers’ junior team, developing hugely here. He went on trial with several teams before Cowdenbeath took a chance on the skinny centre back, signing him in 1981.
Two years of Second Division football with Cowdenbeath saw Levein improve hugely, catching the eye of several clubs in Scotland. Hearts lured Levein to make the move
towards the bright lights of Edinburgh. The distance was short, less than 20 miles, but the step up was huge. Cowdenbeath were not far off an amateur side, while Hearts were a very well-established team with a high pedigree and an expectation of success.
Levein spent the rest of his senior career at Hearts, spending 13 seasons at Tynecastle and amassing over 450 appearances in that time, including several European fixtures. He was much loved around Tynecastle. Injury forced an early retirement from the 16-time Scotland international. This was unfortunate, but it paved his way into coaching. He worked with Livingston and Hearts, before taking to the Tynecastle dugout professionally in December 2000.
Levein shone at his interview, his energy and enthusiasm shining through as he bid to be the boss of the club where he had spent over a decade. In his time there he guided Heart of Midlothian to two third-place finishes, qualifying them for the UEFA Cup and bringing some memorable European nights to Edinburgh.
The romance between Levein and Hearts came to an end in 2004 when ambition got the better of him. He understood that he was a talented manager and as such wanted to
manage at the top level; the English Premier League. He took over Leicester City in the Championship, joining them with the task of steering the Foxes back into the top flight. Levein couldn’t recapture his form from north of the border. He oversaw a dismal 15th place in his first season.
The following season started poorly with Leicester unable to gain any momentum. Levein started 2006 as Leicester manager, though the axe fell before January was out. He had spent four years cultivating a strong reputation in Scotland yet just 15 months in England saw it in tatters.
Levein went north to take control of his boyhood club – Raith Rovers. He took charge of only seven games, winning only once and drawing four times in a tough division. Seven games isn’t long in management, but he wasn’t sacked. Raith were delighted to have a manager with the reputation of Craig Levein in charge and were desperate to keep him.
Unfortunately for Raith, Dundee United had just been humbled 5-1 by Falkirk and their manager Craig Brewster was consequently fired. Levein’s mobile rang that night and Eddie Thompson was on the line. Seven games slumming it with his favourite team in the lower leagues and suddenly Levein was back in the top flight.
First up: Rangers. This wasn’t the laughing stock side that we see at Ibrox today; this was the original Rangers, prior to their liquidation in 2012. This was a Rangers side a year before their UEFA Cup final appearance, a side capable of sweeping aside most teams in Scotland. Expectation was low at Tannadice going into the fixture. Levein was a well thought of manager, but it would take time to shape this pitiful team. The objective would have been to keep things tight, especially after the 5-1 dismantling by Falkirk the weekend prior.
United did keep it tight, conceding only once to the Gers – Charlie Adam opening the scoring for Rangers shortly after halftime. Dundee United were noticeably sharper than they had been all season. With just over 10 minutes to play, Garry Kenneth put his head on a Barry Robson corner to equalise. Rangers were a yard off the pace and struggled to keep up with this vibrant United team. With five minutes to go, Craig Conway curled in a free kick which was met by Lee Mair who headed the ball into the back of the net, running alongside the George Fox stand to the delight of the Tannadice faithful.
This victory was a sign of things to come from the newly-christened ‘Craig Levein’s Tangerine Army’. The following two months until the New Year were exceptional, with
United clawing their way out of the relegation battle. After the turn of the yea,r the results began to sour slightly.
The new manager bounce effect was ending, but this was a good thing. It allowed Levein to see who was worth keeping around and who was needed to be moved on. Players like Alan Archibald, Dave McCracken and Derek Stillie were moved on, their weak mentality costing the side. Some players, such as Craig Conway, David Robertson, Garry Kenneth and David Goodwillie all survived the cull; Levein saw something in these players. They would all go on to be pivotal in Dundee United’s Scottish Cup win in 2010.
Over the next few years, Levein would sign players that would go on to be hugely influential in transitioning the club from relegation fodder to a steady top half team. Sean Dillon, Darren Dods and Lee Wilkie were all brought in to shore up the back line. The dynamic duo of Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben were brought in to add some style to the midfield, while an Irish targetman called Jon Daly was brought in. He would go on to captain United in years to come. These players would form the spine of a team that would impress over the following years.
Levein’s time at Dundee United was successful. He won an impressive four manager of the month awards during his spell on Tayside, though unfortunately for the supporters, a trophy never materialised.
The closest that he came was the 2008 League Cup. Enduring a strong league season and having dispatched rivals Aberdeen 4-1 at the semi final, there was a real sense of hope amongst the supporters en route to Hampden Park on 16 March 2008.
Rangers were strong, having a fight on for the league and UEFA Cup, along with their domestic cup battles. Levein would often set his team out to defend strongly in the opening 45, get in the face of the opposition, then throw the kitchen sink at them in the second half. On occasion, they would even grab the opening goal.
This was the case during the 2008 League Cup final. A scramble in the box saw Noel Hunt evade the defence to tap the ball into the net and send the tangerine section of Hampden into raptures. They should have had a second when Christian Kalvenes was pulled down in the box by Carlos Cuellar. Referee Kenny Clark waved the decision away to the fury of Levein. Replays indicated that this was a clear penalty. United could so easily have been two goals up.
The clock was ticking down and United were in control. Keep things simple and see out the game. That was the Levein way. Do the basic things right, then you become tough to beat. Unfortunately, one player in Tangerine ignored protocol. Championship Manager 2001/02 legend Mark Kerr received a pass as he dropped into defence. He looked up and aimed a pass back towards goalkeeper Lucasz Zaluska, through a crowd of players. The pass was criminally under-hit, and with just six minutes left of the 90, Kris Boyd intercepted it and scored to level the game.
This was a gut punch to Craig Levein’s Tangerine Army, who had one hand grasped tightly on the trophy, only to have it slapped away in the cruellest fashion. Extra time saw United lead once more, through Mark de Vries. This was cancelled out by a Boyd header shortly after. Dundee United had been the better side throughout, yet this game was going to come down to penalties.
Penalties are a lottery, and the jackpot did not fall to Levein that day. The defeat hurt the team. There were positives, however. Levein was moulding a strong team. United were a firm top-six side. They had truly earned their place in the final and were unlucky to lose. They were taking points off big teams in Scotland with regularity. Dundee United may have lost the 2008 League Cup Final, but they were a side on the up.
One of Levein’s most infamous moments in Scottish football came in the final weeks of the 2007/08 season. Clearly still angered over the decision by Kenny Clark in the League Cup Final to deny his team a penalty, he was already on edge. The game that unfurled at Ibrox on 10 May 2008 was farcical.
Dundee United conceded early, so were naturally up against it. During the game, they had a perfectly good goal ruled out, were denied a stonewall penalty and the subsequent red card which should have been given. Finally, captain Lee Wilkie fell victim to a headbutt from a Rangers forward. In the post-match interview, Craig Levein was incandescent with rage. He called out referee Mike McCurry, slamming his dismal performance and alleging that he believed that there was foul play involved, rather than sheer incompetence. He said, “We’d have as well not turned up today, we couldn’t win that game no matter how well we played.”
He then went on to indicate that he was sick and tired of seeing Rangers get the favourable decisions. “I think he knew the importance of the game for Rangers. Let’s not bother with Dundee United, it’s all about Rangers… It’s important Rangers don’t lose a penalty, it’s important Rangers don’t end up with 10 men, it’s important the team playing Rangers don’t have an opportunity to get back in the game. Absolutely ridiculous decisions. Not even doubts, ridiculous decisions.”
Levein was fined £5,000 and warned by the SFA over his conduct, but he stuck to his guns. This endeared him to the United supporters even more. He knew his team were being harshly treated and he was determined to fight their case.
This outburst, while justified, was an example of how the so often calm Craig Levein could lose his temper. While he was mild-mannered and softly spoken, he was liable to lose his rag. He most famously did this as a player.
During his playing days, he once received a 12-match ban for punching a player and breaking his nose. What made it more shocking was that the nose belonged to his own
teammate, and he broke it in a pre-season friendly. He was furious with teammate Graeme Hogg after a defensive mix up against Raith almost cost the side a goal.
While Levein is not shy to run the riot act, he is much more than a scream and shout manager. He is an intellectual; he knows not only how to manage, but also how to run a football club. In January 2008 chairman Eddie Thompson made Levein director of football. This ensured that the Fifer not only had control of matters on the pitch but also off it. This wasn’t just a short-term job to get his reputation up again; this was a passion project. Levein understood that money wasn’t thrown about in Scotland the way it is in the English Premier League, and as such he laid down a plan that would see United thrive for the next few years.
He employed a 22-year-old called Ian Cathro and charged him with developing the youth culture at the club, ensuring that style and technique were developed first and foremost. This project was a resounding success. Cathro went on to develop players such as Ryan Gauld and the Souttar brothers, thriving into a much sought-after coach. It was a masterstroke by Craig Levein that ensured the club was in safe hands for years after he departed.
All good things have to come to an end and, for Dundee United, this happened on 23 December 2009. Despite his frequent fighting against the SFA, it was impossible to ignore the job that Levein had been doing at Tannadice. He was offered the Scotland national team job and he leapt at the opportunity. Scotland very nearly qualified for their first major tournament since ’98, a debatable Czech penalty denying them a playoff place. But his infamous 4-6-0 formation, coupled with his fervent anti-Rangers comments in his past, saw him disliked by sections of the Tartan Army. Levein has since admitted that he was too young for the Scotland job, but that if he was offered the chance all over again he would still take it. He said that you just simply couldn’t turn down your country.
Dundee United did not get off to a good start in the post-Levein era. A drab 0-0 against Kilmarnock and a narrow defeat to Aberdeen bookended a 7-1 mauling by Rangers.
Andy Webster allegedly gathered the team together in the aftermath of this turbulent period and locked the team in a room without any coaches so the players could regroup. This evidently worked. United went on to finish 3rd in the league, as well as the small matter of winning the Scottish Cup – their first trophy for 16 years.
There was no bad blood from any United fan. They were saddened to see him leave, but they understood. He had always had the best interest of the club at heart and in just over three years had utterly transformed the club. Peter Houston was the manager, but it was Levein’s squad, Levein’s ethos and Levein’s style that won Dundee United the 2010 Scottish Cup.
In years to come, Craig Levein will be remembered by most for his time at Hearts. He was a legend playing centre-half at Tynecastle, was a triumph in his first managerial spell and has overseen the Jambo’s return to their rightful place in the Scottish Premiership. To others, he will always be the guy that played 4-6-0 at international level. To me, Craig Levein will always be something of an idol. He came into my beloved club at a time when they were on their knees. Over the course of three years he transformed Dundee United from relegation fodder to a Scottish Cup winning side who qualified for Europe, even if it took his long-time assistant coach Peter Houston to get the team across the line.
Many a Dundee United fan will argue that Jim McLean is the more influential manager at Dundee United. He oversaw United in cup and title-winning seasons when they played against the best sides in Europe. I can appreciate this of course, but as someone born in 1995, it is harder to draw such strong feelings from grainy videos and old newspaper clippings.
I watched United under Craig Brewster. I saw Craig Levein’s first game against Rangers at Tannadice. I hardly missed a game in the Levein era and watched as he morphed the team over time. I saw the years after his departure, the slow and steady decline that saw United painfully relegated at the hands of their city rivals Dundee FC.
Craig Levein turned Dundee United into one of the best teams in Scotland in the late 2000s, and their slow demise was an obvious result of the remnants of his United fading away. Levein transformed Dundee United in a way I could never have imagined. He truly was a game changer.