Sunday, 9 May 2010

East Stirlingshire - Hoping for Third Time Lucky

There was a feeling of deja vu for the loyal followers of East Stirlingshire on Saturday. The Shire drew 2-2 at Forfar Athletic in the second leg of their promotion play-off - but having lost the first leg 1-0 at Ochilview last Wednesday night it meant play-off disappointment for the second year in a row. This time last year Shire lost to Cowdenbeath, also losing the first leg at home before drawing away at Central Park.

Just a few short seasons ago, East Stirlingshire were something of a laughing stock, finishing consistently at the bottom of the pile of Scottish football, seemingly stuck forever at the foot of the Third Division. However, since Spencer Fearn put money into the club things have picked up. The appointment of former Dundee United and Scotland player Jim McInally as team manager has seen a transformation on the playing side. This season Shire may well have won promotion had it not been for the decision of the Scottish football authorities to place debt-ridden Livingston into the Third Division. The fact Livvy were still able to recruit the likes of Robbie Winters and Jim Hamilton meant they were always going to be favourites to win the league, thereby denying clubs such as East Stirlingshire and Forfar Athletic the chance of automatic promotion.

At least next season there will be a level playing field - unless the likes of Rangers and/or Hearts are punished for their well-publicised financial problems and end up in the lowest league in Scottish football. Assuming this won't be the case, I'm hopeful the Shirey Pirey will once again be challenging for promotion.

The Shire fans may be small in numbers but their support for their team is second to none. I look forward to heading back to Ochilview - or lesser Firs Park! - many times again next season.

C'mon the Mighty Shire - make it third time lucky!

Heart of Midlothian 1 Celtic 2

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Sunday 9 May 2010 - Tynecastle

This afternoon the curtain finally came down on a long and at times turbulent season for Hearts. That it ended with another defeat is hardly surprising but at least there were signs against Celtic that there will be an improvement next season.

With Hearts failing to win against Dundee United last Wednesday - meaning no European football for the maroons next season - and Celtic having lost the title some time ago, there was nothing at stake this afternoon. However, it was still a half decent game.

A mistake by Hearts captain Zaliukas let Robbie Keane through to open the scoring after twenty-three minutes. The Lithuanian made amends by scoring Hearts equaliser with a fine shot from just inside the penalty box just before half-time and it was no more than the home side deserved.

After young David Templeton came close to giving Hearts the lead early in the second half, Celtic took the lead on the hour mark when Chinese international Zhi volleyed home a fine effort which left home keeper MacDonald helpless. There endeth the scoring - and the season.

Jim Jefferies will spend much of the summer rebuilding the Hearts team. He's done this several times before, usually with success. Hopefully, Vladimir Romanov will back his judgement and we will see the departure of the likes of Christian Nade and others who have done little for the club.

Until August then...

Last Day Shenanigans

It’s the end of another season. A season that began full of promise - Hearts fans are the eternal optimists - but took a turn for the worse in early January. The return of Jim Jefferies has steadied what many believed was a sinking ship but few could blame Hearts supporters for putting this season behind them and looking ahead - with optimism once more - to the start of season 2010-11 in August. Hearts chances of qualifying for a place in next season’s Europa League were snuffed by their failure to defeat Dundee United at Tynecastle last week - on an evening when their Euro rivals were sharing an astonishing twelve goals at Fir Park - thus avoiding a do-or-die last day scenario. For that, I am almost thankful as such scenarios tend to put a shiver down my spine.

Now even though I have a third grandchild due this week I am too young (honest, guv) to recall the events of 1965. I was just three years old when Hearts faced Kilmarnock at Tynecastle on the final day of the 1964/65 league season. Remarkably, the destination of the league title was between these two clubs with the Old Firm nowhere to be seen. Now back in the black and white days of the mid 1960s, if teams were level on points at the top of the league at the end of the season, the Scottish League rules meant goal average, as opposed to goal difference, would determine the winners (don’t ask…) The upshot was that, after all the arithmetic was done, all Hearts needed to do to avoid handing the league title to Kilmarnock on a plate was to avoid losing by two goals. Even a 1-0 loss would be enough to give Hearts their first championship win in five years. However, older Hearts fans know the script. In front of nearly 40,000 fans at Tynecastle, Hearts proceeded to lose 2-0 and give the men from Ayrshire the championship. I am told that some Hearts fans were so devastated by the turn of events that they never returned to Tynecastle. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the last occasion where Hearts snatched despair from the jaws of triumph on the final day of the season…

Fast-forward seventeen years to 1982. Despite a truly awful season downstairs in the First Division – a campaign that saw Hearts lose to the likes of Queens Park and East Stirlingshire – the latter at Tynecastle, I kid you not younger readers – the maroons faced already promoted Motherwell in the final game at Tynecastle needing a win to secure promotion. The other team who could deny Hearts? You’ve guessed it – Kilmarnock. Nevertheless, they needed to beat Queen of the South by five clear goals as well as Hearts botching things up in Gorgie. More than 15,000 turned up at Tynecastle on a sunny May day to see the maroons do the business. However, Motherwell, inspired by youngsters Gary McAllister and Brian McClair, showed why they had won the First Division by a mile by winning 1-0. Still, at least there was no chance of Killie scoring the proverbial barrow load was there? Cue the half-time score from Rugby Park – Kilmarnock 6 (six as the teleprinter might report) Queen of the South 0. More final day heartache for the maroon hordes - we were doomed as early as half-time. The feeling of anguish I felt that day was even more acute than the despair I felt at Dens Park on the day of Jambo Armageddon - the last day calamity of 1986. Hearts had such a brilliant season in 1985/86 and no one thought they could win the league until the final few weeks. On that fated last day, Hearts needed just a single point against Dundee to secure their first league title in over a quarter of a century. Every Hearts fan knows what happened. Sure, we were all in tears when Albert Kidd scored twice in the last eight minutes to give Dundee a 2-0 win and so deny Hearts their first league title in over a quarter of a century, but we were immensely proud of our team that season.

Kilmarnock - aye, them again - were to deny Hearts again on the final day of season 2000/01. Hearts needed a win from their last game against Dundee at Tynecastle to qualify for a place in Europe - and hope that champions Celtic would take care of Killie at Rugby Park. However, Hearts fans flames of optimism were doused when they heard the Celtic team line-up. Their manager Martin O’Neill chose to use that game to field his reserve team. Although Hearts duly defeated Dundee 2-0, Killie notched a rare win over the Old Firm to secure their place in the UEFA Cup.

It’s not all been doom and gloom on the final day for Hearts of course – who could forget Juanjo’s great goal against Hibs at Tynecastle to secure UEFA Cup qualification in 2000? However, if you can forgive my natural pessimism, with Hearts having nothing to play for in today’s final action of the season against Celtic then at least it shouldn’t affect my blood pressure too much.

Then again…

Monday, 3 May 2010

That Day in 1986...

It’s the time of the year. Flowers blooming, bees buzzing, days getting longer….and football fans sobbing their hearts out in front of the television cameras. As another long campaign draws to a conclusion, the directors of sport at Britain’s growing number of satellite television broadcasters are rubbing their hands in anticipation of capturing the moment teams clinch the league championship or, as increasingly seems to be the case, teams suffer relegation. Or, perhaps more importantly in terms of increasing the height of drama, the reaction of the supporters who have followed their team throughout the season and now face the moment of truth. The agony etched on the faces of some fans is recorded for posterity and adds to the already dramatic nature of events. This is a relatively recent development to the game we all love. Call me an old cynic but I have a growing suspicion that more and more of these emotionally charged scenes among some of the fans are due more to the fact that the fans concerned realise they’ll be blubbing their eyes out on national television rather than out of any worrying concern about which league they’ll be watching their team next season – if they go to watch them at all.

Now being a Hearts supporter, I realise I’m laying myself open to a charge of hypocrisy here. Not that every season ends in tears for us, of course. But back in 1986 on the final day of the league season at Dens Park there were tears aplenty among the vast travelling support from Edinburgh as Hearts lost two goals in the final eight minutes to Dundee, thereby losing the league championship to Celtic on goal difference. The scenes of distraught Jambos sitting with heads in hands on the Dens Park terracing were beamed around the country as one of the most dramatic endings in league history was played out to a disbelieving nation. Hearts had been unbeaten in all competitions since the beginning of October but lost the game they needed to avoid defeat in most. Like most of the fifteen thousand Hearts fans at Dundee that day, I fought back the tears myself. But this was a genuine show of grief from the maroon army. In the mid 1980s only the BBC and ITV televised football and there was none of this ‘last day on a Sunday for live television coverage’ scenarios we have these days. That day at Dens Park was a Saturday with a normal three o’clock kick-off and there were only highlights on television late on Saturday evening (not that many Hearts fans were inclined to watch them) But in these days of satellite television coverage, with a multitude of cameras covering the game from almost every conceivable angle, the reaction of supporters is an important part of the coverage. And don’t some fans know it!

How often will we see pictures of fans chewing fingernails, or covering their faces, or wiping tears from their eyes in the days ahead? Quite often these are relatively young supporters who are still in the infancy of their football fan career. And some of the fans may be those who follow the bigger teams like Rangers, Manchester United or Chelsea. Now with all due respect if any of those clubs lose out on a league title or cup then, disappointing though that is for their fans, the floods of tears at the end of a game seem to me to be of the crocodile variety. The consistently successful clubs are never a season or two away from lifting silverware of some sort so the extreme emotion on display from some fans does irritate me somewhat. For the fans of those clubs who don’t regularly win trophies the agony of getting so close to victory is tangible but more often than not, they’re usually proud of their team for getting so close. It’s not so much tears on display as a show of pride that their team didn’t let them down.

This year’s Scottish Cup final promises to be a memorable occasion with Dundee United and Ross County battling it out for the famous old trophy. I suspect the television cameras will be hoping to hone in on either County or United fans sobbing at the end of the game. I doubt they will find any - there will just be immense pride for simply being there.

Much as there was for Hearts fans twenty four years ago. Hearts were unbeaten in league and cup games from October 1985 until that first Saturday in May 1986. They stood on the verge of a league and cup double. Needing just a point from their final game at Dundee to secure their first league championship since 1960, they lost out due to two goals in the last eight minutes from Dundee sub Albert Kidd. A week later a shell-shocked Hearts team lost the Scottish Cup final to Aberdeen.

Although the trauma suffered at Dens Park will never leave, looking back it was - until that fateful day - the best of times to be a Hearts supporter. Although it didn't feel like it on 3rd May 1986!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Great Scot

The other week saw the conclusion of a series of programmes on STV that sought to end countless arguments in homes, pubs and clubs throughout the land - who are the players who would make up Scotland’s greatest national team? Viewers were asked to vote on-line each week to select players from nominations drawn up from a panel of experts who included the now ex SFA Chief Executive Gordon Smith, Kilmarnock manager Jimmy Calderwood and commentator extraordinaire Archie ‘there’s a good looking ball’ Macpherson. No, I don’t know who chose the panel either but given the nominations they came up with for each position in the team, it was scarcely surprising that seven of Scotland’s ‘greatest team’ had connections with either Celtic or Rangers…

I chose not to vote, as I’m not sure what purpose there is in this particular exercise but I certainly didn’t argue with the inclusion of Jimmy Johnstone. ‘Jinky’ played a pivotal role in the greatest ever Celtic team and I remember as a child watching the great winger destroy Hearts at Tynecastle in the 1970s. I should add that Hearts weren’t the only team to succumb to the wee man’s outrageous skill although one can argue that Johnstone didn’t always replicate his form in the dark blue shirt of Scotland. The one notable exception was against England at Hampden in 1974. This was a couple of days after the infamous Largs incident when Jinky climbed aboard a rowing boat on the way back to the Scotland team hotel, having consumed one or two not so wee drams. He found himself cast adrift and had to get the coast guard to rescue him in the wee small hours. Nowadays he would have been immediately sent home and banished from the Scotland setup for life. In 1974 things were somewhat different to the extent the wee man was given a rollicking by Scotland manager Willie Ormond but played against England at Hampden - where he was instrumental in Scotland’s 2-0 victory. I say instrumental - he tore England apart.

Scotland’s ‘greatest team’ had as its goalkeeper Andy Goram. Former Hearts custodian Craig Gordon was among the nominees but the fact Goram played for Rangers (and to a lesser extent Hibernian) probably got him in. I can’t really argue with that either. One of the finest displays I’ve seen from a goalkeeper in my forty-two years following Hearts came at Tynecastle. Not, I have to say, from a Hearts keeper despite the fact that goalies par excellence such as Jim Cruickshank and Craig Gordon have played on the hallowed Tynecastle turf. Back in March 1991 Hibernian visited Tynecastle and, somewhat inevitably, were beaten by Edinburgh’s finest 3-1. However, the winning margin could and would have been much greater had it not been for the performance of Andy Goram in between the sticks for the Hibees. He was just magnificent that day - so much so that at the final whistle the celebrating Hearts fans standing in the old shed showed their appreciation to the man who would become known as The Goalie. I’m sure Goram thought the Hearts support were taking the Michael but Jambos are a discerning lot and know genuine talent when they see it.

STV decided, in their infinite wisdom, to choose Scotland’s ‘greatest team’ from 1967 onwards. This had to explain why there was no place in the team for Hearts legends Dave Mackay and Alec Young. Mackay, in particular, would have been a certainty to make any ‘greatest team’ and the fact the great man continued playing until 1971 - albeit this was the twilight of his career - suggests to me he should have at least been nominated. Perhaps Jimmy Calderwood et al might like to explain that one…

Despite this, it was an enjoyable series and the clips of great players and games from years gone by rekindled some special memories. And Sandy Jardine still looks fit enough to play today!

It might be something for the Hearts commercial team to consider. While there is the Hearts Hall of Fame, just who would make the final eleven of Hearts Greatest Team? The debate would go on and on. Jim Cruickshank - now there was a goalkeeper…!

Hibernian 1 Heart of Midlothian 2

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Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 1 May 2010 - Easter Road

It can be infuriating being a Hearts fan. Last week the team were, by all accounts, quite awful and looked to have thrown away their chances of playing in the Europa League next season after a dismal 2-0 defeat at home to Motherwell. Seven days later - and having had a few choice words thrown at them from manager Jim Jefferies - Hearts deservedly took the plaudits and three points from the latest Edinburgh derby.

After last week's defeat, Jefferies made four changes to the team - with Michael Stewart not only strippedof the captaincy but, it would appear, from the manager's plans for the boys in maroon. Certainly there was no sign of the former Manchester United player at Easter Road. Jefferies brought back Larry Kingston, Ryan Stevenson, Ian Black and David Templeton.

On a surface which wasn't the best, Hearts at least tried to pass the ball. Their most notable effort was a thirty yard rasping effort from Kingston which smacked off the post with home keeper Smith well beaten. Hibs played like a team that had lost their last five league games but a goalless first half was about right. However, the opening goal arrived ten minutes into the second period - and had controversy written all over it. Hibs Rankin ambled into the penalty area when Zaliukas went to challenge before thinking twice about tackling inside the box. As the Lithuanian moved back the former Caley Thistle player took a step forward before falling to the ground - penalty said referee Dougie MacDonald, a man who has been rumoured to have Hibernian tendencies. Stokes duly despatched the ball past Jamie MacDonald and the home team were ahead.

Spurred on by this obvious injustice, Hearts then took control of the game. On 72 minutes Hearts substitute Calum Elliot got on to a flick from Obua to lay the ball into the path of fellow sub Suso Santana and the Spaniard drilled the ball into an unguarded net to level the scores. Knowing only a win would do to keep their Euro ambitions alive, Hearts drove forward for the winner. It came with just two minutes left.

The impressive Templeton swung in yet another dangerous cross which the Hibs keeper flapped at. The ball fell at the feet of the unmarked Obua who lashed it home from four yards for the winner.

They may have left it late but Hearts thoroughly deserved the win which now moves them to within three points of Hibernian. Hearts final two games are at Tynecastle - against Dundee United on Wednesday and Celtic a week on Sunday. Hibs have to play Motherwell and Dundee United away. Getting fifth place in the SPL and the possibility of European football next season remains an uphill task for Hearts - but their hopes are still alive.

That's two wins and two draws for Hearts against the wee team this season - normal service has been restored in the Edinburgh derby!