Thursday, 31 December 2009

Donald Park

Hearts may have struggled for much of the 1970s but one player still fondly remembered by older Jambos is Donald Park. The Invernesian signed for Hearts in the summer of 1972 and made his debut three months later, scoring in a 3-0 win over Arbroath at Tynecastle. Although just nineteen years old, Park was to make twenty other appearances in maroon that season as Hearts finished tenth in the First Division.

Parkie, as he was affectionately known, spent six years at Tynecastle during a difficult time for the club, a period when Hearts suffered relegation for the first time in their history. Hearts won promotion in 1978 after their first season downstairs and many saw Parkie’s experience as an important factor in Hearts chances of avoiding further demotion. However, in September 1978 manager Willie Ormond swapped the undoubted skills of Park for two Partick Thistle fringe players, Denis McQuade and John Craig, a move that angered many Hearts fans. Unsurprisingly, Park made an impact at Firhill and Thistle avoided relegation that season - at Hearts expense.
When Hearts finally stabilised under Chairman Wallace Mercer and won promotion to the Premier Division in 1983 - ending a six-year yo-yo syndrome - manager Alex MacDonald looked to experience to help Hearts remain in the top division and he wasted little time in bring Donald Park back to Tynecastle for the Highlander’s second stint in Gorgie. The wee man’s most memorable moment that season was when he scored Hearts equaliser against Hibernian in the New Year derby in torrential rain at Tynecastle.

Thanks to the experience of Park, MacDonald and others, Hearts established themselves as Premier Division club and began replacing the older players of the squad with youngsters. Park moved to Brechin City in the summer of 1985 before taking on a coaching role at Meadowbank Thistle. After a brief spell managing Arbroath, Parkie took on a coaching role at Hibernian before being appointed Assistant Manager to Franck Sauzee in 2001. However, the Frenchman’s reign as Hibs boss was short-lived and both he and Park left Easter Road in 2002.

Park joined his former Hearts team-mate John Robertson as part of the managerial team at Inverness Caledonian Thistle towards the end of 2002 and their partnership helped Caley Thistle to promotion to the SPL for the first time in 2004. It was inevitable that such success would link the pair to Hearts and they returned home to Tynecastle when Craig Levein left Hearts in November 2004. Sadly, things didn’t work out as hoped and Robbo and Parkie left Tynecastle at the end of the season.

Park was to return to Caley Thistle as assistant to Charlie Christie in January 2006 before returning to Edinburgh two years later as assistant to Mixu Paatelainen at Hibernian.

Last summer, Donald Park left Easter Road to take up the position of Head of Coach Education with the SFA in Glasgow.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Phil O'Donnell Remembered

It's two years today since the tragic passing of footballer Phil O'Donnell. The Motherwell player died on the pitch playing for the Fir Park club against Dundee United. His death, not unnaturally, stunned Scottish football. Motherwell played their first game following Phil's passing against Hearts at Tynecastle a couple of weeks later. Below is the tribute I wrote for the match programme at that time. It's not only Motherwell fans who still mourn a great man's passing.

Along with many other Hearts supporters, I had recently been bemoaning the fact that my team had been struggling of late, had not won a game for weeks and were now embroiled in a fight against relegation, a situation a club of the stature of Heart of Midlothian FC should never find itself in. After the last match of 2007 – another defeat at Falkirk – I was agonising over just what had gone wrong with the team I love and trying to come to terms with the fact we were in third bottom place of the SPL, just ten points ahead of fast-improving Gretna. My wife knew - as she always knows when Hearts lose a game – that I had the world’s woes on my shoulder and left me to muse. Then the news came in that Motherwell’s captain Phil O’Donnell had died after collapsing during the game against Dundee United…

The death of someone aged just 35 is shocking in any event. That it should happen to a fit sportsman whose name was known to every Scottish football fan intensified the shock and feelings of disbelief felt that Saturday night. My immediate thoughts were with his young family whose devastation could only be imagined. I have a friend who is a die-hard Motherwell fan and since the draw had been made for today’s Scottish Cup Fourth Round tie, he had been ribbing me mercilessly about what his exciting team were going to do to Hearts, particularly after their recent impressive win in the SPL at Tynecastle. But he found it difficult to put into words how he felt that Saturday night. Like many other Motherwell fans, he remembered O’Donnell as an outstanding young player during his first spell at Fir Park. O’Donnell was a youthful member of the Motherwell team that famously won the Scottish Cup in 1991 after defeating Dundee United in one of the most memorable cup finals in living memory. O’Donnell wrote himself into Motherwell folklore by scoring in that game. The midfield player moved to Celtic soon after and eventually headed to Sheffield Wednesday before returning to the club where he made his name.

Usually, fans ridicule opposing players although this is often seen as a grudging mark of respect. The reaction of fans throughout Scotland on the news of Phil O’Donnell’s passing was a clear indication that here was a player widely respected. Former Scotland manager Craig Brown called him the model professional while Motherwell owner John Boyle called him an inspiration. Hearts fans on internet messageboards such as Jambos Kickback, and The Talk O’ the Toun were quick to offer their condolences to his grieving family. His Celtic connections may have instigated the odd abusive comment when he played against Hearts but there was no doubt that he was an integral part of the Motherwell team that, under the tutelage of Mark McGhee, had taken Scottish football by storm this season. As captain, O’Donnell was McGhee’s commander on the field of play and the manager, like everyone associated with Motherwell Football Club, was clearly devastated by the events of the last Saturday of the year.

O’Donnell’s death brought to mind another player with Motherwell connections who died at such a tragically young age more than a decade ago. Davie Cooper was 39 when he collapsed on the training field and his death in 1995 was another that shocked Scottish football. Only a few weeks earlier, Cooper had been playing at Tynecastle for Clydebank against Hearts in a Scottish Cup tie and there were the usual wags in the stand offering comments regarding his Zimmer frame and walking stick and not forgetting to collect his old-age pension from the post office the following morning. Motherwell fans will mourn the fact that, tragically, two members of that relatively recent cup winning side are now no longer with us.

Such awful events underline that for all the problems we think we have – and Hearts fans have been in despair in recent weeks as the Jambos continue in freefall – football is only a game. The family of Phil O’Donnell will never get over the passing of a thoroughly decent and hugely respected man although they may learn to cope with his loss with the passing of time. Part of this family is Motherwell forward David Clarkson who was O’Donnell’s nephew. Football managers often talk of strength of character but young Clarkson will need to show this like never before and in circumstances that have nothing to do with how he performs on the field of play.

At the time of writing this piece, Hearts had still to face Dundee United and Kilmarnock in the SPL. Defeats in both those games will have intensified the already considerable pressure on Anatoly Korobochka, Stevie Frail and the Hearts players. But the events of two weeks ago must surely put this in perspective.

Some things – as the players and officials of Motherwell FC and the family of a man who was a Motherwell legend will testify – are infinitely more important.

Ralph Callachan

There aren’t many players who play significant roles for both Hearts and Hibernian. However, one who did three decades ago is still fondly remembered by supporters of both clubs.

Ralph Callachan grew up a Hibby but it was for Hearts that he signed as a sixteen year old in September 1971 from Tynecastle Boys Club. A precocious talent, the midfield player made his Hearts first team debut less than three years later. It was in season 1974-75 that Callachan made a big impression at Tynecastle despite the club struggling in the league and cups. He was a class act in a Hearts midfield that struggled at times but his subtle skills perfectly complemented the more aggressive talents of the likes of Drew Busby.

Hearts were fighting against relegation in April 1976 and I recall a sublime performance from the Edinburgh born youngster that was instrumental in Hearts recording a fine 3-0 victory at Pittodrie on a pleasant spring evening. Hearts escaped demotion due in no small part to this result but the following season were again involved in a relegation fight. However, fans could scarcely believe it when Callachan was sold to Newcastle United for £90,000 in February 1977. It was a decision that blew away Hearts chances of survival.

Callachan’s stay on Tyneside was a brief one and eighteen months later, he returned to Edinburgh to sign for the team he followed as a boy as part of a deal that took Hibernian legend John Brownlie to St. James Park. He was to enjoy eight impressive seasons at Easter Road and in 1979 played against Rangers in the Scottish Cup Final. Sadly, like his only other Scottish Cup Final appearance - for Hearts in 1976 also against Rangers - he was to end up with a loser’s medal. After a spell with Edinburgh’s third team in 1986 - Meadowbank Thistle - Callachan became player-manager of Berwick Rangers.

Callachan later ran a pub with Hibs team-mate Jackie McNamara and in 2006 was giving his opinion to the media as an Edinburgh taxi driver on that season’s Edinburgh derby Scottish Cup semi-final. He remains a frequent visitor to Easter Road.
Photo courtesy of London Hearts website

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Dniepr the Defeated

1990 – a new year, a new decade and a new era, not only for this writer but for Heart of Midlothian Football Club. After several years in Aberdeen, I had moved to Edinburgh, intent that my young family would enjoy a better way of life and the cultural experience that was living in the capital city. While I was moving in, the man who had rescued Hearts from oblivion, the man who took Hearts to minutes of the league championship, the man who took Hearts to the latter stages of European competition – Alex MacDonald – was moving out. The writing was on the wall for wee Doddy in March 1990 when a highly fancied Hearts team lost 4-1 at Aberdeen in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup. It was another season that ended in bitter disappointment for Hearts supporters who began to question just how many gut wrenching events they could stomach.

When Hearts began season 1990/91 with defeat at Dunfermline and then were again comprehensively beaten by Aberdeen in a League Cup tie at Pittodrie the knives were out - particularly when, during that cup-tie, MacDonald favoured bringing on Walter Kidd as a substitute instead of £750,000 signing Derek Ferguson at a time when Hearts were two goals down. A 3-1 defeat by Rangers at Tynecastle in the league three days later sealed Macdonald’s fate.

Former Scotland international Joe Jordan was the surprise choice as MacDonald’s replacement. One of the best strikers ever to play for Scotland, Jordan had been manager at Bristol City where his impressive style of management had not gone unnoticed by bigger clubs. Indeed, Jordan had turned down the opportunity to manage Aston Villa just months earlier so his appointment at Tynecastle was seen as a real coup. Although Jordan had no previous link with Hearts – unusually for a Gorgie boss - it was clear that chairman Wallace Mercer had looked at Ibrox where Graeme Souness had transformed Rangers and thought Jordan could emulate his international team mate. The difference was that Souness was given a blank chequebook – Jordan would have very little money as Hearts finances worsened. On paper, Hearts looked a strong team. With the much heralded defensive pairing of Craig Levein and Dave McPherson at last playing alongside each other for a decent run of games, the influential Derek Ferguson in midfield and the goal scoring prowess of John Robertson up front, Hearts looked good enough to give any team a run for their money. However, the full-backs positions were a worry with neither George Wright nor Jimmy Sandison having the consistency to make those positions their own.

In midfield it seemed too much was expected of Ferguson who found it difficult to gel with Gary Mackay and Davie Kirkwood while, up front, the goals seemed to dry up for John Robertson who went three months without scoring a league goal. Despite their troubles, Hearts were still good enough to beat Hibernian as a 3-0 win at Easter Road in September 1990 proved.

Two years after their memorable run which took them to the quarter-finals, Hearts were also looking forward to another run in the U.E.F.A. Cup. Now living in the capital city, I discussed with my mate Gordon the prospect of travelling to the continent to see the mighty JTs and we awaited the first round draw with relish, particularly when some of the clubs in the first round draw were Inter Milan, Real Sociedad, Bordeaux and Anderlecht. Our hearts sank however, when we saw Hearts being paired with…..Dniepr Dnepropetrovsk. It was the era of glasnost and the Soviet Union was about to come to an end but I still didn’t fancy a trip to a club who played just forty miles from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. ‘We’ll save our cash for the second round’ we quipped but, given Hearts struggling league form, I didn’t fancy our chances against the Russians. But on September 19 in the first leg ‘behind the iron curtain’ Hearts produced a marvellous display and secured a 1-1 draw with, inevitably, John Robertson scoring the crucial away goal. Nearly 19,000 Jambos packed Tynecastle a fortnight later to see Hearts try and finish the job. After another famous European night, they weren’t to be disappointed!

Hearts: Smith; McLaren; McKinlay; Levein; Kirkwood; McPherson; Colquhoun; Wright; Robertson; Iain Ferguson and Bannon. Subs: Derek Ferguson; Mackay.

The return of Dave McPherson to the side – Big Slim had missed the first leg through suspension – was welcome while European veteran Eammon Bannon was encouraged to make as much forward runs as possible and to deliver telling passes to John Robertson and Iain Ferguson. There was a feeling that Fergie and Robbo were too similar in style to play effectively together but the pair of them fairly rumbled the Ukrainians on a memorable October evening. The hero of the night, not for the first time, was John Robertson.

The game kick off with the big crowd urging Hearts to glory and within second of the start, a brilliant piece of skill by Robertson seemed to light the blue touch paper. He dummied a through ball from Tosh McKinlay which let Iain Ferguson through the former Dundee United striker lashed the ball beyond keeper Gorodov to seemingly give Hearts a dream start. But the linesman on the stand side dampened Hearts celebrations by signalling for offside and Dniepr were let off the hook. It was a close call, as Ferguson seemed onside to most onlookers. Thereafter Hearts began to look a bit unsure of themselves. The 1-1 draw in the Ukraine meant a goalless game in Gorgie would be enough to secure Hearts place in the second round and the maroons seemed to be in two minds as to whether to go on the offensive or play it tight. Dniepr sensed Hearts unease and looked menacing on the counter-attack. Sidelnikov forced Henry Smith into making a couple of saves and it was clear Hearts still had work to do to ensure their progression in the competition.

George Wright was being encouraged to get forward as often as possible and the midfield player had a chance after fifteen minutes when eh found himself with time and space on the edge of the Dniepr penalty box. However, Wright’s effort sailed high into the packed Tynecastle terracings. Joe Jordan signalled to Dave McPherson that he wanted to use the defender’s height in attack to unsettle Dniepr’s defence and the Ukrainians found the former Rangers man a handful. After twenty minutes Hearts were awarded a free kick on the edge of the penalty box. McKinlay, an astute crosser of the ball, delivered a fine ball into the danger area where confusion reigned among the Dniepr defenders. Keeper Gorodov completely missed the cross but big Dave McPherson didn’t and the Hearts man produced a superb diving header to nod Hearts in front both on the night and on aggregate. Big Slim’s delight was unrestrained particularly as he had been manhandled by the Ukrainians shortly before this and the tie had come to life. Two minutes later, Hearts came forward again. The ever-dangerous John Colquhoun crossed from the right towards Iain Ferguson who managed to flick the ball on to John Robertson. As Robbo was about to pull the trigger he was pushed off the ball by Gerashenko and the Norwegian referee had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. Robertson picked himself up and fired his penalty past Gorodov to put Hearts 2-0 ahead and a step closer to the second round.

Dniepr seemed to lose the place for a brief spell after this and Hearts did their best to capitalise on their indiscipline. There was almost a third goal when keeper Gorodov fumbled the ball but Davie Kirkwood’s eagerness to punish this error saw him lunge in and he was booked for fouling the Dniepr custodian. The maroons game plan then suffered a set back after thirty-five minutes when George Wright hobbled off injured. But his replacement was a Tynecastle legend – Gary Mackay. The midfield player, a Hearts fanatic as well as long serving player, would ensure the maroons kept their focus. Henry Smith was thankfully keeping his when he produced a stunning save from Shakhov to keep the score at 2-0. But with just four minutes until the break Dniepr got the breakthrough that few could grudge them. Tosh McKinlay fouled Bagmut and now it was Dniepr’s turn for a penalty kick. Shakhov beat Henry Smith from the spot - the first goal Smith had conceded at Tynecastle in European competition in over 400 minutes – and the tie was back in the melting pot again. But not for long!

Hearts immediately raced to the other end of the park and forced a corner kick. Colquhoun’s cross was headed goalwards by Alan McLaren for the towering figure of John Robertson to nod past Gorodov. As the half-time whistle blew Hearts were, remarkably, 3-1 ahead on the night, 4-2 on aggregate.

It was all or nothing for Dniepr in the second half and there were some anxious moments, particularly when Kudritsky’s effort flew just inches over the crossbar and Gudimenko was denied by the alertness of keeper Henry Smith who dived at the forward’s feet. Hearts, though, weren’t averse to trying to secure the fourth goal that would put the tie beyond the Ukrainians and Gorodov who seemed to go down in instalments eventually saved Iain Ferguson’s effort. John Colquhoun’s effort towards the end of the game was also close to settling the game but it seemed Dniepr, sensing the game ebbing away from them, had resorted to some tough tackling. Colquhoun, Ferguson, and Neil Berry were all the victims of some crude challenges but despite this Hearts saw the game out and there were no further goals.

Hearts won 3-1 to go through 4-2 on aggregate and it was one of the more impressive European results for the Gorgie Boys. Along with 19,000 other Jambos, I celebrated a fine win that evening.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

East Stirlingshire 1 Montrose 0

Irn Bru Scottish Third Division - Sunday, 6 December 2009 - Ochilview

Tired of the circus that Heart of Midlothian FC has become, my affection for East Stirlingshire has intensified in the last couple of years. I have gone to the now abandoned Firs Park on a few occasions and recently have gone to see The Shire at their new abode, Ochilview Park, Larbert which they share with Stenhousemuir. Earlier this season I witnessed a hugely enjoyable League Cup tie there when The Shire stormed back from three goals down to level the game with SPL side St. Mirren - only for the Paisley team's fitness to prove crucial as they ran out 6-3 winners.

Today I chose not to go and see Hearts latest shambolic performance and opted to see a bunch of hard-working lads who may not be the most talented in the land - they wouldn't be playing in the Third Division otherwise - but who will give their all.

And so it proved as East Stirlingshire maintained their promotion push with a hard-fought win over basement side Montrose. In difficult conditions it was a credit to both teams that they tried to play a passing game. The only goal came from the outstanding Paul Weaver who fired in a great effort after sixty-two minutes leaving the Gable Endies keeper with no chance.

I was impressed by not only Weaver but Craig Donaldson, Derek Ure, Eddie Forrest and substitute Marc McKenzie. The home support were vociferous, humourous and hugely entertaining throughout and despite the freezing cold weather - what else does one expect three weeks before Christmas - it was a very enjoyable afternoon.

I have a feeling I may soon become a conscript of McInally's Black and White Army!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Eammon Bannon

There aren’t many players who spend two different spells at the good ship Heart of Midlothian but one who was a success on both occasions was midfield maestro Eammon Bannon.

The Edinburgh born player joined Hearts as an eighteen year old in 1976 and made his debut by coming on as a substitute against Ayr United in the doomed season of 1976-77, a campaign that ultimately saw Hearts relegated for the first time in their history. Bannon’s subtle but effective skills in midfield meant he was pressed into action even at such a young age but even his skills couldn’t prevent Hearts demotion. Former Scotland manager Willie Ormond was charged with taking Hearts back to the top flight at the first time of asking and with no money to rebuild the team, the former member of the Hibernian Famous Five forward line of the 1950s relied heavily on the skills of his teenage protégé. Bannon didn’t let him down and scored an impressive thirteen goals - including a hat-trick against Kilmarnock at Tynecastle on Hogmanay 1977 - as Hearts duly secured promotion.

However, Ormond’s hopes of building a Hearts team to challenge for honours were left in tatters as Hearts sold Eammon Bannon to Chelsea in January 1979 for a club record fee of £200,000. The money kept the financial wolves from the door - temporarily - but Hearts struggled badly without their star player. Inevitably, they were relegated again at the end of season 1978-79.
Bannon, though, was hoping for big things at Chelsea under their ebullient manager Danny Blanchflower who saw him as a potential replacement for the departed Ray Wikins. Sadly, Blanchflower was sacked as Chelsea manager later that year and his replacement, England World Cup hero Geoff Hurst, allowed Bannon to return to Scotland and Dundee United just ten months after he left Gorgie.

Bannon became an integral part of Dundee United’s most successful team ever in the early 1980s. He was to win League Cup Winner’s medals and, memorably, a Premier Division championship medal when Jim McLean’s team won the league title in 1983. Bannon was part of United’s equally memorable run in the European Cup the following season when the Tannadice side reached the semi-final only to lose narrowly to Italian champions Roma. In 1987, he appeared for United in the UEFA Cup Final where they lost to IFK Gothenberg.
A year later Bannon returned to his first love - Hearts.
By now, Chairman Wallace Mercer had stabilised the club and was keen to build on the progress that had seen the maroons challenge the Old Firm - the signing of Bannon alongside United team-mate striker Iain Ferguson was seen as key moves. Bannon was to spend another five happy years at Tynecastle and while the club didn’t make the breakthrough in acquiring silverware as hoped, Bannon’s influence on the younger players breaking through such as Alan McLaren and Scott Crabbe was invaluable.

In May 1993, Bannon left Tynecastle for a brief spell at Hibernian - his only game for the Easter Road team coming against Hearts - but was back in Gorgie in July 1994 when Tommy McLean appointed him to the coaching staff. When McLean left Tynecastle, Bannon went too and ended his playing career at Stenhousemuir. His spell at Ochilview was triumphant - he was part of the Stenny team that lifted the Scottish Challenge Cup in 1995 - ironically defeating Dundee United in the final!

After a spell as manager of Falkirk, Bannon brought his boots back on to play for Edinburgh’s non-league Spartans in 1996 before finally retiring two years later to run Strathallan guest house in Edinburgh which he does to this day. He also does work for the Press Association in Scotland through the PFA.