CRAIG Levein only spent a season or so in the junior game, but the lessons he learned at Lochore Welfare never left him.
As Hearts prepare to play host to Auchinleck Talbot at Tynecastle for the second time in six years in the William Hill Scottish Cup this afternoon, the 54-year-old reflected on the school of hard knocks he encountered at Crosshill as a callow 16-year-old.
“The mighty Lochore Welfare, what were our highlights?” he asked. “I don’t know if we had any to be honest! I went from there to Cowdenbeath so I played there when I was 16.
“Did playing in the juniors make you a man? It did with 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 and knocked the ball away and went round him, got it, passed it and the next minute I just felt ‘bang’ [a punch to the side of the head]. As I was lying on the ground dazed, he said ‘that will be the last time you do that!’ What happened the next time the ball came up? Let’s just say, he won it!”
That picture is unfair to an Auchinleck side who are still dining out on what was the finest result in the club’s history, a 1-0 defeat of local rivals Ayr United in the previous round. Left-back Gordon Pope might be a postman in the local area, but he had a stint under Levein at Dundee United as a young player, and almost booked a replay back at Beechwood Park with a last-minute equaliser in that 2012 match at Tynecastle which was wrongly disallowed.
Paolo Sergio put out a weakened side that day, almost jeopardising one of the club’s most famous days, the 5-1 win over their city rivals Hibs in the final, but Levein will take no such chances today.
“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,” said Levein. “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.
“The game has changed a lot. When I watched Auchinleck, you could see that they know what to do. You could see that they are used to winning. They have good players and they have some decent recent history and a number of them have been playing together for a while.
“The thing with Auchinleck is that like most teams who are used to winning, they will be hard to play against. It doesn’t matter what level, it is not easy to shake that mindset because they are used to winning and used to finding ways to get through games. There will be a part of them that will be expecting to win.”
Levein saw first hand what this junior juggernaut looks like when he travelled to Petershill Park to watch Talbot thump their hosts 7-0, even if the match was skewed by an early sending off.
“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,” said Levein. “I didn’t manage [to remain incognito] and there was a bit of banter. It was good fun actually. It’s a while since I’ve been at a junior game and it was interesting, having played juniors myself.”
Pope is far from alone when it comes to members of the Auchinleck side with a taste of senior football – many of his team-mates have been schooled at either Ayr or Kilmarnock – and Levein accepts his team are on a hiding to nothing.
“It is a game that everybody expects us to win and the only people who don’t expect us to win will be the Auchinleck players so we have got to understand that their resistance will be the hardest thing to break down,” he said. “If we can do that then it is just about football and in that case I would be fairly confident.”
Steven Naismith, a native of Stewarton, Ayrshire, is another man who knows precisely what this match means to the visitors. While he accepts that Auchinleck are legends no matter happens, he certainly doesn’t want to add their hero status.
“A few of my mates have played around that level and their sub goalie Brian Hewitt is from Stewarton,” said Naismith. “In Ayrshire it’s spoken about a lot. Brian stays in the same village, he knows my dad and a few of my mates and you see him around town every so often so it will be interesting to come up against him.
“After we had won [the previous round against Livingston], the draw was on when we were in the changing room and I actually wanted it. Not so much that it was Auchinleck but that I can’t remember being involved in such a gap in terms of teams
“If ever we needed any warning it’s the previous time they were here. That just shows you that it can happen. At a club like Hearts you need to have a level of responsibility and a level of expectation. That is to go and do a professional job, not be on the other end of Auchinleck being the heroes again.”