It seems a strange thing to say but part of the allure of being a Hearts supporter is there are more downs than ups. Younger readers may think I’ve been at the brandy and lemonade again but I’d like to think those Hearts fans who have been worshipping the maroons since the days of Donald Ford, Jim Cruickshank and Alan Anderson would know what I mean. Success may be an infrequent visitor to Tynecastle but when it arrives we hard-pressed Jambos know how to appreciate it.
Witnessing Hearts Scottish Cup triumphs of 1998 and 2006 were dreams come true for me and thousands of others with maroon blood. However, there have been other occasions where success wasn’t measured so much in silverware but in triumphs that induced the great to be a Jambo factor. One of these came in November 2003. When the draw for the second round of the UEFA Cup paired Hearts with French giants FC Girondins de Bordeaux it was the pairing that watered the mouths of the Hearts support. Three thousand of us headed to the south of France seven weeks before Christmas and basked in temperatures in the low seventies and an unforgettable day camped outside an Irish pub in a French city. As Hearts were very much the underdogs against one of the best teams in France, an unforgettable day turned into an unforgettable night as Craig Levein’s men recorded a remarkable 1-0 victory thanks to Mark de Vries’ strike twelve minutes from the end. For those of us who literally made a flying visit there and back in less than twenty-four hours it was simply the perfect day - my best experience of being a Hearts fans in over forty years, outside the aforementioned Scottish Cup triumphs.
Levein may have been a rookie at managing in European competition but he got his tactics spot on that evening. Admittedly, I was somewhat bemused when I heard the Hearts starting eleven as I joined the thronging mass of the Hearts support behind the goal at the Stade Chaban-Delmas half an hour before kick-off. We all thought Hearts would adopt a less than cavalier approach, try to keep the scoreline respectable and bring the French back to Tynecastle for the return leg with a fighting chance of making it to the next round. When I heard that Dennis Wyness, Jean-Louis Valois and Mark de Vries were all starting I couldn’t understand it. Yes, like most of the three thousand Jambos present, I had consumed a fair amount of alcohol that day - the French hospitality was superb and we didn’t want to offend our hosts - but I couldn’t understand Craig Levein’s thinking. Then, when the game started it quickly became evident Hearts were playing an unheard of formation of 3-6-1 - with de Vries the lone striker and Wyness and Valois part of the plan to swamp the midfield.
Hearts fans had spent a not inconsiderable amount of money on the trip to see Craig Levein’s tactics of more or less telling his Hearts players not to cross the halfway line unless they had to. Now, of course, the reason Levein has progressed from club manager to Head Coach of the national side is that he knows infinitely more about football than the likes of I. Hearts attempts to go forward that evening were few but one attempt proved fruitful - when de Vries hooked home the only goal of the game towards the end there was bedlam in the Hearts end of the stadium and I lauded the Hearts manager as a master tactician.
Seven years later Levein is now in charge of Scotland. When he took the Scots to Prague to face the Czech Republic in a Euro 2012 qualifier on Friday, he obviously thought of that glorious evening in Bordeaux with Hearts and set out the Scotland stall accordingly. However, there were notable differences this time.
Against the Czech Republic Scotland played 4-6-0. No strikers. Yes, Levein had decided a goalless draw would be the target for his team. Now, I’m an old-fashioned kind of fella who still hankers for the days when football was considered entertainment. Ten thousand Scots headed for Prague and while I suspect not many thought Scotland would win, most would have expected their team to at least try to venture forward now and again. I watched the game on television and grimaced as the Scots remained camped in their own half. It was football, Jim, but not as we know it.
Yet it seemed at one point that Levein’s grim master plan would pay off. Until with twenty minutes to go the Czechs scored the one goal they needed. Levein resorted to Plan B and threw on Kenny Miller and Chris Iwelumo but the damage had been done. Of course, it’s easy to be critical with hindsight but if the Scots had had a go from the outset things might have been different. After all the Czech Republic are not the same side that was one of the best in Europe a few years ago. Lithuania showed how it could be done by beating the Czechs in their own back yard just a month earlier. It seems Scotland’s stock in world football has fallen to the extent we don’t think we should even be on the same field as some countries - this despite beating France home and away just a few seasons ago.
As I’ve said, Craig Levein knows more about football than most of us. But surely the purpose of playing football is to score goals? Having no strikers indicated the Scots had metaphorically thrown in the towel before the game had even started. Has Levein lost all faith in Scottish football? If he has he is sadly not alone.
I agree with fellow blogger Kenfitlike - Scottish football died in Prague on Friday evening. The funeral is scheduled to place at Hampden against Spain this Tuesday...