On one hand, Craig Levein has fond memories of he describes as a “special” four years as Dundee United boss. On the other, going back doesn't always work out and it's a different United who are chasing him now.
The former Hearts and Scotland boss has been lined up for a shock return to Tannadice after the Tangerines pulled the trigger on Liam Fox following Saturday’s disastrous 4-0 collapse away to Ross County. The heavy Highland defeat leaves United rooted to the bottom of the Scottish Premiership table, and they are now looking for their third manager of the season in a bid to beat the drop and a return to the Championship three years after they finally made it back up.
Levein is said to be the No. 1 choice to replace Fox, who worked under him as a coach while Levein was director of football at Tynecastle. Chairman Mark Ogren has returned to America after jetting in for last week’s AGM, while sporting director Tony Asghar sets about appointing a new man in the dugout.
Asghar has come under fire himself this season with fans taking aim at the lack of recruitment done in January. Appointing Levein, who is still held in high regard by the Tannadice faithful after the job he did there, may ease the heat for now.
It's been 17 years since Levein first worked on Tayside. In January 2008, he combined his role as manager with that of director of football, revamping the club’s youth structure and holding heavy influence over all football matters. It worked, as United became regulars in the top half of the table and reached the 2008 Scottish League Cup Final, which they lost on penalties to Rangers. United lifted the Scottish Cup in 2010 after Levein left for Scotland, but he’d laid the foundations for Peter Houston’s success.
Perhaps more significantly, the changes made to the academy began to bear fruit. With help from Ian Cathro’s Box Soccer programme, the likes of John Souttar, Stuart Armstrong and Ryan Gauld emerged as serious talents, and while it was Houston and Jackie McNamara who got the benefit, it was Levein’s groundwork that allowed the young stars to flourish.
The brief this time would be much different, at least initially. Keep United up. Levein’s teams have always had a reputation for being difficult to beat, well organised and consistent. That’s what this group of United players need moulded into and fast.
However, going back to Leveinball doesn't always work, as Hearts found out to their cost. After the failed Cathro experiment in Gorgie, Levein reprised his dual role, this time in the capital, to try to fix the mess. At first, he did. Hearts stabilised before starting his first full season back in charge on fire, winning their first five games and going top of the table.
That didn’t last though, but they did reach the Scottish Cup Final in 2019, and led before Celtic came from behind to win 2-1 and secure a treble Treble. Many felt Levein should have moved back upstairs then, but he stayed on.
Five months later, he was gone, with the Jambos struggling to pull away from the foot of the table. Daniel Stendel was his replacement, but couldn't inspire the necessary improvement before the season was ended prematurely and Hearts were demoted.
United passed them on the way up, after four years in the second tier. Robbie Neilson was then headhunted for Ann Budge for a second spell at Hearts himself. Levein was linked with the vacancy at United in the summer of 2020, and admitted then he would always have a conversation with the club.
"I had four years at Dundee United and, as much as I loved my time at Hearts, that four years was quite special for me. We managed to build a really strong team and I would never say never to the Dundee United job.
“But I don’t know the structure at Dundee United so it’s something that I would need to look at in great detail, if I get offered a chance of the job. It doesn’t tie you to anything, but having a conversation is something that I think would be interesting.”
He has a better idea about the structure under Ogren now. Crucially compared to last time, his influence wouldn't be the same. Asghar is the man who runs the club – “my man” as the chairman described him.
More recently, Levein raised concerns over United’s approach when sacking Jack Ross, particularly the statement that told fans the board had been “gathering information” before reaching the decision to sack the former Hibs head coach.
He told Sportsound: "The first thing I would like to ask 'what information gathering? What does that mean? Is that the board going to the players and asking about the manager?
"I don't know what they are talking about there. It sounds to me like they've maybe come to the players and asked them what they thought of the manager. I don't know if that's true or not but what information? All the information about Jack should have been gathered before they gave him the job."
It's a job Levein may take based on his heart, but whether that is enough to rule his head remains to be seen.