Sunday, 28 March 2010

Heart of Midlothian 1 Rangers 4

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 27 March 2010 - Tynecastle

After last week's impressive display against Hibernian, Hearts brought their fans crashing down to earth with a bump with this display against Scotland's champions elect. I suspect manager Jim Jefferies had spoken to his players about the importance of keeping things tight early on and not letting Rangers grab the initiative. When a totally unmarked Danny Wilson headed Rangers in front after just four minutes, the Hearts boss must have felt like banging his head off the roof of the dugout.

Hearts did fight back and their tenacity was rewarded after sixteen minutes when Suso Santana volleyed in a tremendous effort from inside the penalty box which gave Gers keeper McGregor no chance. However, Rangers always looked threatening when going forward - admittedly this wasn't difficult against a Hearts defence that appeared as if they had been introduced to other in the pre-match warm up. Rangers went ahead again after half an hour when Naismith's effort cannoned off the crossbar and fell kindly to Kenny Miller who dived to head home. Hearts had keeper Jamie McDonald to thank for a brilliant save from Davis to keep Hearts in the game.

Rangers began the second half the same way they began the first when Whittaker set up Naismith to clip the ball beyond McDonald just four minutes after the re-start. Hearts best move the game followed but when David Obua had the choice of which side of the goal to nod the ball past keeper McGregor he opted to head it straight at him. When Zaliukas' header was brilliantly palmed away by McGregor moments after, Hearts chances of taking anything from the game disappeared.

With thirteen minutes left, Rangers ended the scoring when a Davis free kick was met by the head of totally unmarked Naismith who had the freedom of Gorgie Road with which to head home. Which is precisely what the majority of the disgruntled home support immediately did.

Strangely enough, I've seen Hearts perform much worse this season and still not lose. The midfield was okay and up front Obua and Glen posed problems for the Rangers rearguard. But Hearts defending was quite shocking - they gifted four goals to the visitors who surely didn't expect such an easy ride at Tynecastle.

The only saving grace was that St. Johnstone lost at Hamilton and thus the five point gap remains between Hearts and Saints for that sixth spot in the SPL come the split. If Hearts win their next two games they will be assured of sixth place - but Jim Jefferies will need to sort out the defence if this is to become a reality.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Shock Candidate Emerges for Celtic Manager's Job

What Does the Future Hold?

That may well be what Hibernian player Ally McLeod was asking himself in 1962. Sixteen years later he would be the centre of the football world's attention at the World Cup in Argentina.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Heart of Midlothian 2 Hibernian 1

SNS Photograph

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 20 March 2010 - Tynecastle

It's been a long time since Hearts triumphed in the Edinburgh derby but they made amends at Tynecastle on Saturday in one of the most one-sided derby games I can recall. The talk beforehand was of Hibs pushing for third place in the SPL, how John Hughes had done such a fine job at Easter Road and how, at one point, the Easter Road side were looking at the possibility of splitting the Old Firm. On yesterday's evidence this is a long way off.

Hearts were missing several players as a result of injury - and some of those who did take to the field were far from fully fit. The return of Andrew Driver was a welcome sight but was tempered with the nagging thought that he really should have been on the substitute's bench - but, as with Ian Black, was given a starting place. Driver's presence alongside Larry Kingston gave the impression that manager Jim Jefferies - despite the injury crisis- was going for three points no matter what.

The decision to play Black from the start backfired as the former Caley Thistle player had to leave the field through injury after just twenty-five minutes. Minutes earlier defender David Kurchaski also limped off - two substitutes used before half an hour was played and it seemed the hand of fate had slapped Hearts in the face once more. Ironically, Kurchaski's replacement -the enigma that is Suso Santana - produced arguably his best performance in a maroon shirt as Hearts set about dominating their capital city rivals.

Kingston and Obua both had early chances as the maroons camped themselves in the Hibernian half. The Hearts team may have been cobbled together but it was no surprise when their dominance was rewarded with the opening goal after twenty four minutes. Delightful play by Santana down the right wing saw the Spaniard deliver a teasing cross which smacked off the post and land at the feet of Driver who lashed the ball past a startled Graham Stack in the Hibs goal to give Hearts the lead. Three minutes later Hearts doubled their lead when Driver's corner was nodded on by Jonsson and headed home by Gary Glen. Cue bedlam at Tynecastle.

That Hearts didn't add to their lead was astonishing. Obua, Santana and Glen all had gilt-edged chances to score - the latter being clean through on goal before contriving to try and take the ball round Stack but losing control - and the feeling grew that Hearts patched up team of half fit players would tire as the game drew to its conclusion. Thus, Hibernian pulled a goal back with ten minutes left through Derek Riordan thereby ensuring an uneasy end to the game - quite ridiculous really when Hearts really should have been out of sight. However, there endeth the scoring and a hugely deserved derby win for Edinburgh's big team - normal service has been seemingly resumed.

Hibernian were awful. Much has been written about how well John Hughes' side has played this season but they were out-fought and out classed by their neighbours on Saturday. The last time I recall such a one-sided Edinburgh derby was nearly four years ago when Hearts won the Scottish Cup semi-final of 2006 by 4-0 at Hampden. My Hibernian associates never tire of telling me that Hibs play the game 'the proper way' with flair and style and the oft-told story of how the touring Hibs team influenced Brazil in the 1950s still makes me smile. On Saturday, as Graham Stack launched yet another long, aimless ball in the hope of finding a forward the chant from the sneering home support was 'It's Just Like Watching Brazil...'

Hearts are still not assured of a top six place although this position come the ridiculous SPL split is now between the Gorgie team and St. Johnstone. The Perth Saints lost at Celtic on Saturday and the gap between them and Hearts is now six points - but Derek McInnes' side crucially have two games in hand, the first of which is this Tuesday.

For now, however, Hearts fans are basking in the glow of an Edinburgh derby victory. There is no better feeling!

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Edinburgh Endurance Derby

Photo: The Scotsman

About a month ago, I was in the company of a chap of the Hibernian persuasion and we set about putting the world to rights over a few pints of foaming ale. Together we had a drink in memory of Alan Gordon, a fine striker from the 1960s and 70s who played for both Hearts and Hibernian and we both had memories of the great man who was prolific in front of goal, not only for the Edinburgh clubs but also for Dundee United. The sad news of his tragically early death the evening before was very much in our thoughts. Naturally, my Hibernian associate was keen to point out that Gordon scored twice for his team in the Edinburgh derby of New Year’s Day 1973, a subject I moved swiftly away from. My memories of Alan Gordon in a maroon shirt are somewhat hazy as he left Tynecastle to join Dundee United in March 1969, just a few months after I attended my first ever Hearts game, a 3-1 win for the maroons at Brockville. The sad passing of one of Edinburgh’s favourite sons was the starting point of our now frequent discussions about Edinburgh derby games and how we tend to view them differently. However, one thing we both agreed on was we tend not to enjoy the occasion until the final whistle (apart from exceptional circumstances, more of which later) I wouldn’t blame you if you think that sounds a bit ridiculous but let me explain.

The build up to an Edinburgh derby - the anticipation, the frenzied atmosphere, the tension - is often more exciting than the game itself. There is so much at stake in these games, even the end of season affairs when the league campaign draws to a close and players and fans are thinking about their summer holidays. The bragging rights for the citizens of Scotland’s capital city are so important. When the game kicks off anticipation is replaced by nervous tension and - dare I say it - the fear of defeat. So much so I seldom enjoy a derby game until the final whistle blows and I can celebrate a victory over our city rivals (or not as the case may be) My Hibernian buddy is of the same opinion and he has even taken to staying away from Tynecastle as he feels the occasion isn’t conducive to his good health. However, there are one or two notable exceptions to our non-written rule.

My friend and I were both at Tynecastle for the aforementioned 1973 game. Not together, I hasten to add - a quarter of a century would pass before we became acquainted - but while Gary celebrated a famous win (I won’t mention the final score), my devastation was such it was the first time I cried at a football match. Being a Hearts fan, naturally it wouldn’t be the last. I was nearly two months away from my eleventh birthday but I felt - like thousands of other Hearts supporters that day - that my world had ended. It took a long time to get over it - in fact, nine months until Hibs next visited Tynecastle and were hammered by a Drew Busby inspired Hearts to the tune of 4-1.

There is, however, a more recent Edinburgh derby which I took particular enjoyment from well before the end of the ninety minutes. It’s incredible to think that nearly four years have passed since Hearts famous Scottish Cup semi-final triumph over Hibernian at Hampden Park. That was a curious season as both halves of the Old Firm were out of the Scottish Cup and the winners of the all Edinburgh semi-final would be hot favourites to lift the trophy as Second Division Gretna awaited in the final. The tension in the month leading up to the game was unbearable and a Sunday lunchtime kick-off at the National Stadium added to the discomfort. After a nervy start, Hearts soon stamped their authority on the game and ran out 4-0 winners - former Hibby Paul Hartley grabbing a memorable hat trick. It was the final before the final and we knew when Edgaras Jankauskas put Hearts three goals ahead in the latter stages of the game that victory was complete and we would be back at Hampden the following month to see the maroons lift the famous old trophy.

For the most part, however, the Edinburgh derby can be ninety minutes of high anxiety. I don’t doubt this Saturday will be any different - and for many supporters of Hearts and Hibernian a fraught Saturday lunchtime lies ahead!

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Wembley 1953

Hibernian's Lawrie Reilly scores a last minute equaliser for Scotland against the Auld Enemy at Wembley Stadium in 1953. England's Alf Ramsey's challenge is in vain.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Dundee United 1 Heart of Midlothian 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Sunday 7 March 2010 - Tannadice

Like Hearts last fixture, away at Aberdeen eight days ago, I didn't attend this game in person. I chose to watch it on ESPN even though this meant having to endure the 'expert analysis' - and I use this term loosely - of Craig Burley. He is the nephew of George Burley who was sacked as Hearts manager by Vladimir Romanov in 2005 - not that Craig lets that affect his judgement as far as Hearts are concerned. Oh, no....

Hearts had so many players missing through injury and suspension it was difficult to try and figure out what starting eleven manager Jim Jefferies would put out. Things got worse before the game even kicked off when skipper Michael Stewart had to withdraw minutes before the game was due to begin following a calf injury. Things were so bad that defender Jose Goncalves was brought in from the cold, so to speak, and it was hard to see how such a patched up Hearts team would take anything from the game.

It was all the more surprising then, that Hearts should start the game so brightly and for the opening twenty minutes they were well on top. The best chance fell to youngster Paul Mulrooney who intercepted a loose pass and fired in an effort that went just wide. However, for all their dominance Hearts had no cutting edge - where have we heard this before?

At the start of the second half Christian Nade replaced the ineffective Jamie Mole for Hearts but made little difference. United dominated the second period and deservedly took the lead when a shot from Gomis deflected off Hearts Lee Wallace past Balogh for the game's only goal.

Given Hearts injury crisis, the team in blue did well under the circumstances. Hopefully a few more familiar faces will return for Hearts next game at Motherwell.

Newcastle United 6 Barnsley 1

Coca-Cola Championship, Saturday 6 March 2010 - St. James Park

I visited St. James Park on Saturday in the company of a fellow part-time aficionado of Newcastle United. Unusually for me, I picked possibly the best game of the season to witness The Toon Army continue their march back to the FA Premiership.

Newcastle United huffed and puffed for much of the first half against their Yorkshire opponents - who still have an outside chance of making the promotion play-offs. However when Barnsley goalkeeper Luke Steele tripped home striker Peter Lovenkrands and therefore denied him a clear goalscoring opportunity a minute before half-time there was only one outcome. A red card for the keeper and a penalty for the home side which Lovenkrands himself duly converted. Barnsley's replacement keeper was Dave Preece formerly of Aberdeen although they had to sacrifice the attacking talents of De Silva to make way for the back up keeper.

Predictably, the second half was one way traffic. It took just four minutes for United to double their lead when Andy Carroll delivered a sublime cross to the head of Lovenkrands and the former Rangers player dispatched a fine header beyond the reach of Preece. Two minutes later Danny Guthrie's free-kick flew past a startled Preece for the third. Then, arguably, the highlight of the afternoon. Jonas Gutierrez - aka Spiderman - set off on a mazy run leaving a trail of Barnsley defenders in his wake before firing in a shot which crashed in to the goal off the cross bar. It was a magnificent effort and the talisman duly celebrated by donning his Spiderman mask in front of an adoring home support.

With twenty minutes left Guthrie delivered a tantalising free kick from wide on the left which eluded everyone for Newcastle's fifth goal although Andy Carroll maintained he got the final touch - as most strikers do. Kevin Nolan added a sixth minutes later and only the post denied Lovenkrands his hat-trick and Newcastle's seventh. To their credit, a now demoralised Barnsley kept going and substitute Bogdanovic punished a defensive slip by the home team. It didn't really matter, however, and emphatic victory for Newcastle United was further rewarded with the news that promotion rivals West Bromwich Albion had lost at Queens Park Rangers.

There were over 44,000 fans at St. James Park and they made a cracking atmosphere. There's no doubt in my mind that Newcastle United will be back in the FA Premiership next season - a league from which they should never have departed.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Get Intae Them? Not Any Longer

Perhaps it’s an age thing. Perhaps it’s just me. I was watching BBC One’s Match of the Day programme on Saturday evening. Much was made of Manchester City’s Wayne Bridge’s refusal to shake his former Chelsea team mate John Terry's hand just before kick off. However, I understand he did send him a text after the game - which City won 4-2 - which read 'Now that's how to play away from home...

However, the incident that had me shaking my head wasn’t at Stamford Bridge. It came during the Stoke City-Arsenal game when the home team’s Ryan Shawcross made a tackle on the visiting team’s Aaron Ramsey. The Stoke man was late on the young Welshman to the extent Ramsey suffered a broken leg. Shawcross’s challenge was mis-timed and clumsy but it wasn’t malicious. Nevertheless the reaction from the Arsenal players was of collective fury - how dare the Stoke player make such a challenge on such a talented young player? Didn’t they know they were playing against The Arsenal? Born again Gooner Sol Campbell led the indignation and almost pleaded with the referee to send Shawcross off. Not that the referee needed any persuasion - he showed the Stoke player a red card.

The BBC, ultra cautious these days for fear of causing offence, didn’t show a replay of the incident until the highlights of the game were over and host Gary Lineker was able to warn ‘those of a squeamish nature’ to look away as messrs Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer analysed the tackle. The camera then scanned to a waiting ambulance as a distraught Ramsey was stretchered off and straight on to the emergency vehicle for immediate transportation to hospital. The consensus of feeling was that ‘all our thoughts are with young Aaron Ramsey’.

Now I may be accused of looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. But in years gone by such an incident would be barely worthy of a mention, especially north of the border where such challenges were made on a weekly basis. I have mentioned before on these pages about Hearts legend Drew Busby who was fully committed in every challenge he made three decades ago. Indeed, there is an iconic image of the aforementioned Alan Hansen in the days when he played for Partick Thistle, cowering from a Busby shot at Tynecastle. Dreadful defending as Hansen himself might say, but no one got in the way of a Drew Busby pile driver! In the 1960s and 70s almost every team had at least one player who thrived on the ‘meaty challenge’. It was a more physical game in those days but the fans who stood on the terraces appreciated the more physical side of the game and expected their players not only to contest fifty-fifty balls but to win them.

On the same day as the Shawcross incident at Stoke, Hearts had taken three points at Pittodrie on a pitch more suitable for donkey riding than professional football. Larry Kingston went for a fifty-fifty ball with Aberdeen's Fraser Fyvie. Both had their feet high and there was an inevitable collision. Referee Willie Collum showed Kingston a red card when a yellow would have been more appropriate. Kingston’s challenge would have been the norm a few years ago but was now worthy of a straight red card.

I have a fair degree of sympathy for referees (honest!) FIFA bring in so many changes - for example does anyone totally understand the offside rule nowadays? - and there are phrases used such as 'active' and 'inactive' meaning there is far more probability of refs getting things wrong than was the case in years gone by. A couple of others things that have changed since the 'good old days' of Tom Tiny Wharton and his ilk. Firstly, players are now far more likely to try and con the referee to gain an advantage. Behaviour such as diving, faking injury and over reacting to challenges are commonplace no matter where you go. The waving of an imaginary card from some players really irritates me. Sadly this is a sad reflection on society in general and youngsters watch players feigning injury etc. and think it's acceptable.

Secondly, the pace of the game now is far quicker than in days gone by. Referees can get decisions wrong simply because they're not up with play - and not many assistant referees dare to suggest the man in charge has got it wrong (although it has happened on occasion as Hearts fans can testify!) I think everyone in football has a duty to improve the game - including refereeing standards. Full-time referees, more honesty from players and a simplication of the rules would help.

But don’t hold your breath…