Friday, 30 December 2011

Aberdeen 0 Heart of Midlothian 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Wednesday 28 December 2011 - Ice Station Zebra (aka Pittodrie)

I ventured to the frozen wasteland that is Aberdeen on Wednesday to see if Hearts could extend their recent good run over Aberdeen. The salient points of the evening were:

It was fecking cold (as it always is at Pittodrie)

There was what appeared to be a force ten gale howling in from the North Sea

The game was a farce and should never have been played. Credit to both teams for at least trying to play football.

Hearts fans were charged £2.10 for a steak pie. Nice as it was, I later discovered from an Aberdeen fan that they are charged just £1.80...

Summer football has never seemed so attractive...

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Heart of Midlothian 2 Motherwell 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 24 December 2011 - Tynecastle

Two impressive performances from Hearts within a week - it must be Christmas. After last week's hammering of Dunfermline Athletic at Tynecastle, Hearts recorded a well deserved win over third placed Motherwell in Gorgie this afternoon.

The Maroons played well throughout and if there are those who believed the not so behind the scenes problems with the players wages would have an adverse affect on the team, then, on the evidence of the last couple of weeks, they are mistaken.

After early efforts from the overly physical Higdon and young David Templeton, it was the Hearts winger who created the opening goal after 16 minutes. After leaving Hateley for dead, Temps shot was deflected into the path of Ian Black who finished with a superb shot that gave visiting keeper Randolph no chance.Templeton was back to his best and he tormented the Motherwell defence throughout the first half. After 28 minutes, the wee man went on a mesmerising run which tied Hateley in knots before crossing to give Stephen Elliott the simplest of chances to double Hearts lead.

There endeth the scoring but Hearts dominated the game from start to finish. They lost a wee bit of impetus when Templeton was replaced by Andrew Driver after an hour. A curious one this, as Temps didn't look injured and one had to surmise this was a decision from Kaunas in order to put Driver in the shop window with a January transfer in mind.

Motherwell have impressed many this season - but not this afternoon. Hearts now have the Steelmen in their sights for third place in the Clydesdale Bank SPL and on this form there's no reason why they can't catch up. However, much depends on which players depart Tynecastle in January.

And so to Pittodrie Stadium on Wednesday and Easter Road a week on Monday. Six points from that will make it a very Happy New Year for Hearts supporters.

See you in Aberdeen!

Top man: David Templeton  only played an hour but he was back to his best today.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Heart of Midlothian 4 Dunfermline Athletic 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 17 December 2011 - Tynecastle

Hearts recorded their biggest win for over a year with this comprehensive gubbing of Dunfermline Athletic. The Maroons have struggled to score goals all season so it was pleasing to see striker Stephen Elliott given a rare starting place and the former Sunderland man took just three minutes to show he was worth his place in the starting eleven when he turned home Ryan McGowan's wayward effort across the Pars penalty box.

Keddie then had a chance for Dunfermline but drove his effort wide before Hearts Marius Zaliukas really should have done better with a free header at goal which soared over the crossbar. Then, the gifted Mehdi Taouil doubled Hearts lead in the 21st minute, again after work from McGowan. The ball fell to the Moroccan just inside the penalty box and while his shot on goal wasn't the most powerful he's ever struck, the ball trundled past Pars keeper Gallacher.

Early in the second half, Hearts keeper Marian Kello produced a brilliant save to deny Buchanan. It was a missed chance the visitors would soon regret as David Templeton increased Hearts lead further with 20 minutes left when he dispossessed Hardie before driving home for Hearts third goal. Home substitute Rudi Skacel put the icing on the cake in stoppage time when he headed home Hearts fourth after Gallacher couldn't hold a fierce effort from fellow substitute Ryan Stevenson.

Rumours abounded before the game that Hearts Andrew Driver had refused to take his place on the substitutes bench and this was confirmed afterwards when Hearts manager Paulo Sergio said Driver no longer wished to play for the Portuguese coach. It seems a near certainty Driver will be one of the many players leaving Tynecastle next month.

At least those who did want to play on Saturday produced a performance that pleased the home fans. McGowan, Black, Robinson and the always impressive Taouil were a cut above the rest. Dunfermline looked dangerous on the counter attack but I fear their porous defence may be their undoing in their attempt to remain in the SPL. I reckon it's between them and Edinburgh's wee team for demotion - I wish the Pars well!

Top man: Mehdi Taouil

Friday, 16 December 2011

Managing on a Par

It’s not been the greatest of seasons for Scottish football. However, a few weeks ago a result lit up the gloom like a shooting star across the black November sky. Scotland’s Under 21 team defeated their Dutch counterparts 2-1 in Nijmegen in the Netherlands in a European Championship qualifying tie. It was an unexpected but most welcome result for coach Billy Stark’s side and one that made the rest of Europe sit up and take notice. The scorer of Scotland’s opening goal was striker Jordan Rhodes, who had taken his international bow, albeit briefly, for the senior side three days earlier in the friendly win over Cyprus. Much as I take a fair bit of stick for my advancing years, I like to think I’m not the only one who remembers Jordan’s father Andy keeping goal for Dunfermline Athletic two and more decades ago.

Andy was a decent keeper who moved to Fife from Oldham Athletic in 1990. I recall he displayed heroics against Hearts, helping to secure a 1-1 draw for the Pars at Tynecastle in November 1990. Now, I realise I should really have better things to do but a quick look at the teams for that game reveals names who would make names for themselves years later in managerial circles.

Hearts centre-half was a big strapping defender - from Fife, ironically. Craig Levein would, of course, go on to manage Hearts before heading to Leicester City and Dundee United before taking the job of national coach in December 2009. And selecting the son of a Dunfermline goalkeeper from two decades ago for international duty. Sadly, few of Levein’s team mates that day did anything of note in the managerial field. However, for some of the Dunfermline team, it was a different matter.

Defender David Moyes marshalled the Pars defence that afternoon. Moyes would go on to make a name for himself as one of the top managers in the Barclay’s FA Premiership, conducting minor miracles at Everton with a budget only a fraction of some of the top clubs. In midfield, was Dunfermline’s new signing - former Rangers player Billy Davies. He signed from Leicester City and spent three years at East End Park before moving to Motherwell where he became player-manager. A successful spell at Preston North End followed before Davies took Derby Country into the FA Premiership. Davies was manager at Nottingham Forest until the end of last season.

David Irons was approaching the end of his playing career but was clearly taking on board what was required to be a decent manager. Irons would go to become part of the Gretna fairy story and played against Hearts in the Scottish Cup Final of 2006 at Hampden Park. A year later, he was manager of the club and he led them to promotion to the Bank of Scotland Premier League. Sadly, things turned sour for Irons and for Gretna thereafter.

Another member of the Dunfermline team from that afternoon 21 years ago - Ian McCall - would also forge himself a reputation as a manager of some standing with successful spells at Airdrieonians and Falkirk leading to the former Rangers player being appointed manager of Dundee United. Things didn’t work out for McCall at Tannadice and after leaving Tayside, he took over at Queen of the South and then Partick Thistle.

Paul Smith was alongside McCall in that Dunfermline team. Smith would later join Hearts for a brief spell in 1995 under the short managerial reign of Tommy McLean. Jim Jefferies then sold him to Ayr United but he was then appointed manager of Berwick Rangers for seven years from 1997. Indeed, he was manager of the English side when they held Craig Levein’s Hearts to a goalless draw in a Scottish Cup tie at Shielfield Park in January 2001.

It says a lot for that Dunfermline team that drew at Tynecastle more than two decades ago that so many of them made a decent stab at the managerial game. The side was fairly workmanlike - their star player was Hungarian Istvan Kozma who sensationally signed for Liverpool for £300k two years later - but the studious nature of their manager at the time, Ian Munro, clearly rubbed off on some of the players.

One of whom in particular - Andy Rhodes - must feel his heart swell with pride at seeing his son now being touted as the next Scots scoring sensation!

Twitter @Mike1874

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Lawrie Tierney

1977 was a wretched year for Hearts supporters. Years of selling our best players to keep the financial wolves from the front entrance of Tynecastle had resulted in relegation from the top flight of Scottish football for the first time ever. I was just 15 years old but had already experienced nearly a decade of being a Jambo and learning that disappointment was never far away from the streets of Gorgie.

Willie Ormond left his post of manager of Scotland to take the Hearts job in the summer of 1977 and he was charged with getting the Maroons back into the Premier Division at the first time of asking. Season 1977/78 would prove to be a difficult one and there were times when many Hearts fans wondered if promotion would be achieved. Ormond turned to some of the younger players for salvation with Eammon Bannon and Walter Kidd given their opportunity to shine. As was a young midfield player called Lawrence Tierney.

I first saw 'Lawrie' play for Hearts against Montrose on a cold Wednesday evening in October 1977. These were dark days for anyone associated with Heart of Midlothian FC and the Maroons struggled from start to finish against their more spirited opponents. Montrose won 3-1 that evening, Drew Busby grabbing Hearts goal. However, there was a shining light in the gloom - the performance of the teenage Lawrie Tierney who gave a performance above his years in midfield.

Tierney became a first team regular that season, making 30 league appearances. He scored the winner against Queen of the South at Tynecastle in January 1978 in what proved to be a crucial victory as Hearts gained promotion back to the top league by the skin of their teeth. However, it proved to be a brief respite as Hearts struggled again the following season and Tierney made just 14 league appearances as Willie Ormond struggled to put together a team good enough to compete in the cut-throat Premier League.

Tierney's appearances in maroon became fewer and in 1980 he left Hearts for six unhappy months at Hibernian before a spell at Wigan Athletic. Lawrie ended his playing career in the United States.

Today, came the news that Lawrence Tierney has passed away at the tragically young age of 52. Those of us who remember Hearts dark days of the late 1970s knew that Tierney may not have been the greatest player ever to wear maroon but his commitment, work-rate and dedication to Hearts cause could never be questioned.

May I pass my condolences to his family and those who knew him.


Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Real Mackay & Thru'penny Bits

Like many other Hearts supporters, I sat in awe at Tynecastle in the middle of August as Tottenham Hotspur ripped the Jambos apart with a devastating display in the first leg of the final qualifying round of the Europa League. It seems Harry Redknapp’s side have got even better since then and have surged up the Barclay’s FA Premiership table. Last month, ‘Arry was waxing lyrical about a player he brought to White Hart Lane shortly after his side demolished Hearts - Scott Parker. After a sublime display against Queens Park Rangers, Redknapp likened the midfielder to the legendary Dave Mackay. The day after the Spur manager’s comments, the BBC Sports website saw it fit to run a feature called ‘Who is Dave Mackay?’ Granted, this was likely aimed at younger readers but I have to say my heart sank when I read that the country’s principal national broadcaster felt it had to clarify who one of the greatest players this country has ever produced is.

I reach the half century next year and I must confess to feeling my age, particularly when I discover the BBC feels it has to explain to the world about Dave Mackay. Now, I never saw the great man play in a Hearts shirt, the player having joined Tottenham Hotspur three years before I was born. However, like thousands of other Hearts fans, I didn’t need to see him play to understand what a great talent and a huge influence he was on the Hearts team of the 1950s and the Spurs team of the 1960s.

Perhaps I‘m at that stage in life. I’m presently writing a book on Hearts 50 Greatest Games and doing the huge amount of research required is something of a labour of love. There’s no doubt that football has changed so much over the past 40 years or so - and not all for the better.

Something that has vastly improved from decades gone by is the match programme. When I mentioned to a fellow Hearts fan several years my junior, that buying a Hearts match day programme in 1970 cost just a shilling he gave me a look of pity that suggested he was looking for a nurse to assist in coming to rescue me. Talk of ‘old money’ from before 1971, i.e. shillings, sixpences and thru’ penny bits went way above the lad’s head. When I further ventured that Tommy Murray, the Hearts player of the early 1970s, was a tanner ba’ player who could turn on a sixpence, my younger Jambo associate ran away. Perhaps it was something I said.

I attended the excellent Billy Bragg gig in Edinburgh last month, which was hugely enjoyable. However, when I purchased the tickets from the Queens Hall box office in the capital city, the pleasant and well-meaning young lady placed her hand on my lower arm and said ‘you do know it’s mostly standing at this show’. Clearly, she felt I wouldn’t be able to last two hours or so standing up. I was tempted to launch into a tirade about how I used to stand on the Tynecastle terracings every home game, probably before she was born. However, I realised this would merely come across as the ramblings of someone who should know better and would likely increase her pity shown towards me.

I have to confess I stand guilty as charged at looking at decades gone by through rose - or should that be maroon-tinted spectacles. Much as I enjoyed watching Tommy Murray, Rab Prentice, Drew Busby and Donald Ford strut their stuff in the 1970s, I can’t forget the pain endured when Hearts suffered relegation for the first time in their history in 1977. Or the trouble on the terracings when Hearts visited the likes of Dumbarton, Alloa and Queen of the South during their sojourns ‘downstairs’. But part of me does hanker for more simpler times when one didn’t have to buy a ticket to go to the game; when fans swarmed on to the terracings ten minutes before kick-off; when Tommy Murray sat on the ball at Ibrox before passing to Jim Brown who delivered a cross for Donald Ford to score a goal; when Hearts played Hibernian on a Saturday afternoon at three o’clock (ask yourself, dear reader, when did that last happen?) A time when the media didn’t have to explain to its audience who Dave Mackay was.

One thing is for sure - nostalgia ain’t what it used to be!

Twitter @Mike1874

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Heart of Midlothian Nil

On Saturday, Hearts played Dundee United at Tannadice. Being five weeks before Christmas and looking at an already stretched budget, I didn’t venture to Tayside. Instead, I spent a rare Saturday afternoon on front of the television and watched the excellent BBC’s Final Score. It was Scottish Cup afternoon and Airdrie United thrashed Gala Fairydean 11-0.

It was one of those scorelines that the teleprinter deems it appropriate to spell out, almost as if it patronisingly doesn’t think you’re smart enough to read ‘11’ without thinking it’s a mistake. The teleprinter has been part of the football results service for years now and in the age of cutting edge technology, you know if your take your eyes off the screen for a few minutes you risk the chance of missing an update on your team.

I’m old enough to recall the days when the BBC had Grandstand as its Saturday afternoon sports showcase and in the early 1970s there would be the legendary sports commentator/presenter David Coleman displaying a knowing grin as the final scores began to roll in at twenty minutes to five (in those days the half time interval lasted just ten minutes) I lived in Aberdeen 40 years ago and as a child at this time of year would be prone to being trailed round the shops with my mother in a last minute attempt to complete the Christmas shopping. I recall a couple of days before Christmas 1972 standing in Aberdeen’s Union Street outside a branch of Radio Rentals (ask your parents, young ‘uns) An array of television sets beamed at me from the display window - some were even in colour - and the old typewriter style printer would tap Heart of Midlothian 1.….Dundee……..then nothing but a flickering star symbol. The tension felt while waiting for the teleprinter to complete the job was quite unbearable. I crossed my fingers and hoped the next character would be ‘0’. When, after what seemed an eternity, the teleprinter typed out ‘2’, my heart sank. Being just ten years old, I wasn’t really into conspiracy theories but I harboured a suspicion about the BBC that day that has surfaced all too regularly ever since - usually at quarter to five on a Saturday. I can’t remember for sure if it was David Coleman on duty that afternoon but I can envisage his smug grin and uttering the words ‘Hearts unbeaten in four - until today’.

Even worse was the odd occasion when the teleprinter got the result wrong. I can’t remember exact details when it came to Hearts games but believe me dear reader, it did. For example Celtic…2 Hearts….3. Much dancing and leaping for joy on the streets of Aberdeen invoked looks of contempt from the locals, which turned to mirth a few moments later when the blasted teleprinter typed Corr. Celtic 2 Hearts 0. The emotional damage that could cause a young Hearts fan is incalculable.

Today, the internet and smart phone technology means we no longer have to rely on ‘Final Score’ to tell us about the fortunes of our team. However, it’s good to see the BBC have retained at least one piece of Saturday afternoon tradition. And it would be fun to see the teleprinter have a sense of humour to lift the gloom of those who are being constantly reminded of their team getting beat. For example, a few weeks ago it could have typed out Deveronvale 4 Berwick Rangers 0 (a bloody long way to go to see your team get knocked out the cup by non-league opposition); Culter 1 Partick Thistle 1 (ha-ha, Smith, that’s your fixed odd coupon busted and it’s only half time in the other games); QPR 2 Man City 3 (uh-oh, that will mean another post match rant by Neil Warnock); Newcastle United 2 (Ameobi 88) Tottenham Hotspur 2 (hah! Quick, let’s have a shot of Garth Crook’s face on camera 1 - see, not so smug now, eh Crooksy?!)

I know this is quite a juvenile way of thinking but Hearts are causing me and many others a lot of pain just now. The fella who has read the football scores on BBC1 for the last 40 odd years retired on Saturday and I was thinking how he usually gave Hearts their full name - Heart of Midlothian. Although even Tim Gudgin has now resorted to Hearts Nil...

My pain isn't eased by the crass pre Christmas period that has set in, even earlier it seems this year. However, my spirits would be lifted if the teleprinter begins 2012 on 2 January by flashing across the screen Hibs 0...Hearts… 8 (eight)

That would make it a Happy New Year...

Twitter @Mike1874

Saturday, 12 November 2011

I'd Like to Know Who the Alligators Are

A few weeks ago Dunfermline Athletic manager Jim McIntyre spoke after his side’s Clydesdale Bank SPL encounter with Hearts. ‘I don’t think we were ever in danger of losing the game’ he said, ‘but for all we didn’t look like conceding we needed to threaten more’. An interesting analysis from the Pars boss, particularly when one considers Hearts won the game 2-0. Although the match statistics seemed to back up his need to threaten more - attempts on target 0; attempts off target 1.

Now the bold Jim was merely doing what any manager worth his salt does - he was backing his players and trying to accentuate the positive. However, losing two goals without reply does make his assertion that he didn’t think Dunfermline was ever in danger of losing the game a tad inaccurate.

The following weekend, Manchester United were giving something of a shock when their city neighbours gate crashed Old Trafford and trashed the place, City cruising to a 6-1 win. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said afterwards that it was the worst result of his career, as either a manager or a player. Naturally, this had many football anoraks out there trawling the record books for the last 50 years to see if Fergie was right. And, sure enough, it emerged that when Ferguson played as a bustling centre-forward for Falkirk, he was part of the team that lost 7-1 to Airdrieonians on the final game of season 1971/72. To be fair, you couldn’t really blame a shell-shocked Fergie overlooking a meaningless, end of season result from nearly 40 years ago, although it’s doubtful he’ll forget the Manchester derby hammering - no matter how hard he tries.

When Ferguson was a player, the managers he played under at Falkirk, Rangers, Dunfermline Athletic etc. didn’t have television cameras and microphones stuck under their noses five minutes after the end of a game. Sure, they spoke to journalists after the game but it was a much more informal arrangement in those days, perhaps a glass of beer in the boardroom and the knowledge that not everything would be reported. Nowadays, with television covering every top flight game and instant communication a necessity thanks to the internet and the advent of instant news, websites and blogs, a manager only has to look at someone the wrong way and it’s reported for the whole world to see.

McIntyre’s words after the defeat from Hearts brought to mind some other quotes from football managers from years gone by that are filed under ‘we know what you mean’ drawer. Former Aston Villa manager Ron Saunders was once asked about unrest in the dressing room and supposedly replied, 'Allegations are all very well but I would like to know who these alligators are.' A snappy response in some ways.

Former England manager, the late Ron Greenwood, once remarked that ‘playing with wingers is more effective against European sides like Brazil, than English sides like Wales’. Unsurprisingly, these comments didn’t go down particularly well with the Welsh nationalists. Another former England manager, Kevin Keegan, once said ’I came to Nantes two years ago and it's much the same today - except that it's totally different.’  Sunderland manager Steve Bruce has come under a fair bit of pressure recently. Bruce is one of those managers who is always good to listen to because he has a passion for the game that is admirable. Particularly when he says things such as ‘If you are in the six-yard box, standing in an offside position, then you are offside’.

Back in the 1960s, a Welshman, Ivor Powell, who successfully managed Bradford City and Carlisle, allegedly uttered these words after a good season on the field, 'Without doubt, one of the secrets of our successful season was the harmonium in the dressing room.' After a celebratory dinner, he was heard to say, 'We had a lovely meal. Lovely. We had a big steak with all the tarnishings.'

I’ll leave the final quote from the manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Terry Butcher is another who has the gift of getting people to listen whenever he talks. His passion for the game and for his country is second to none (even if it is England…) Back in January 2010, during the week when the top flight clubs came into the Scottish Cup, Terry was quoted as saying ‘The beauty of Cup football is that Jack always has a chance of beating Goliath.’

I hope Jack isn’t a happy boy in a couple of weeks when the Highlanders visit the capital city...

Twitter @Mike1874 

Thursday, 3 November 2011

1976 Remembered - Motherwell 1 Hearts 4

Scottish football restructured its league set up in the mid 1970s and the clubs in the top flight knew they had to finish in the top ten to be included in the new-look Premier Division. Hearts made such an awful start to season 1974/75, not only were they not in the top ten in the early weeks of this crucial season - they were 18th in a league of eighteen! When Hearts lost 5-0 to Dundee United at Tannadice on 12 October 1974, they slumped to the foot of the table, having not won a league game all season. Before the Tannadice torment, Hearts had lost 4-1 at Aberdeen and by the same scoreline at Partick Thistle. Although they were only four points off the crucial tenth place in the league, the Hearts board of directors knew action had to be taken sooner rather than later and they dismissed manager Bobby Seith, replacing him with coach John Hagart.

The results were immediate. Hagart’s infectious enthusiasm for the game rubbed off on previously demoralised players and they defeated Airdrieonians to record their first win of the season before grabbing a 1-1 draw against Rangers at Ibrox the following week. There was still the odd rogue result but slowly Hearts began to climb the table. The improvement was such that the maroons ended season 1974/75 in eighth place in the league - and would therefore be part of the top ten Premier League of clubs for 1975/76. Their recovery was laudable but they were only four points away from not making it and being relegated for the first time in their history. The cracks had been papered over - for now.

Hearts fared only slightly better in the first season of the Premier Division and ended in fifth place in the table - their best league finish in six years but, again, perilously close to the drop, finishing just three points ahead of relegated Dundee. The league set up wasn’t without its critics. Many observers said the league was too tight, teams playing each other four times a season would be a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt; safety first would be the order of the day in order to survive this new cut-throat league rather than trying to entertain the fans. It was difficult to argue with these assertions.

Away from the intensity of the Premier Division, Hearts had at least reached the Scottish Cup Final in May 1976 where they faced treble-chasing Rangers at Hampden. Hearts path to the final was laboured to say the least and involved replays over Clyde, two replays over Montrose (Graham ‘Shuggie’ Shaw’s scrambled last minute equaliser in the first game at Links Park remains a vivid memory) and a semi-final replay over Dumbarton where a certain Walter Smith helped Hearts reach the final by scoring an own goal for the Sons of the Rock. Sadly, Hearts luck ran out in the final itself. The omens weren’t good when referee Bobby Davidson blew for kick off at two minutes to three - and Rangers scored in the opening minute. Thus Hearts were a goal behind before the official kick off time. Rangers won 3-1 and with Hearts about to enter some dark days, it would be another decade before the maroons would grace another Scottish Cup Final.

The summer of 1976 was a long, hot one. While most of us enjoyed the baking heat the country was affected by a serious drought. I was 14 years old in 1976 and, as usual during the summer months, I looked forward to the end of the football drought. Hearts began season 1976/77 with a friendly - or challenge match as the marketing people like to call them - at Tynecastle against Southampton. It was a considerable coup to get the Saints to Edinburgh as Lawrie McMenemy’s side had sensationally lifted the FA cup just weeks before, defeating much fancied Manchester United in the final. However, Hearts won 3-0 and followed this up two days later by winning the East of Scotland Shield thrashing Meadowbank Thistle 8-0 in the final at Tynecastle (I can’t recall what happened to Hibs but then I don’t really care) These two wins might not have meant that much but they did put the Hearts players in a confident frame of mind for the start of the League Cup a week later.

Hearts recent record in this competition was nothing to write home about and they were drawn in a tricky section with Dundee, Partick Thistle and Motherwell. Hearts, though, made a brilliant start and won their first three games before sharing six goals with Partick Thistle at Tynecastle. John Hagart’s men then travelled to Fir Park for the return fixture with Motherwell and this seemed the most difficult fixture in the section as The Steelmen, with striker Willie Pettigrew one of the most feared strikers in Scottish football. Alongside Pettigrew was the former Celtic striker Harry Hood so the Hearts defence were prepared for a difficult afternoon. Or so they thought…

Motherwell: Hunter, Millar, Wark, Farrell, McVie, Stevens, Hood, Pettigrew, Graham, McLaren, Marinello

Hearts: Wilson, Brown, Kay, Jefferies, Gallacher, Clunie, Park, Busby, Gibson, Callachan, Prentice.

Referee: C. Hutton

In bright late August sunshine it was the home team who started the more impressively and it was no surprise when Hood put them ahead with a close range effort after sixteen minutes. Despite Hearts impressive start to the season, one suspected it was going to be a long afternoon for the maroons. However, within a couple of minutes they drew level. Jim Brown delivered a long ball towards the Motherwell penalty box. Well’s keeper Hunter and centre half McVie both went to clear the ball and then decided to leave it to each other. Hearts Drew Busby didn’t hang around and he nipped in to drill the ball into the net for the equaliser.

One could almost see the confidence drain from the home side after gifting such a goal and it took just another four minutes for Hearts to go in front. Ralph Callachan, the impressive young midfielder, was given plenty room on the edge of the Motherwell penalty box and he fired an unstoppable shot past Hunter to put Hearts 2-1 ahead. Two minutes later, the home side should have made it parity when Jim Jefferies handled the ball inside his own penalty area and referee Hutton blew for a penalty kick. Former Hibs and Arsenal star Peter Marinello - once dubbed the new George Best - took the kick and struck it well but Hearts keeper Brian Wilson produced a brilliant save to keep Hearts ahead. It was all happening and only two further minutes were played when Hearts increased their lead. Little Donald Park was causing the home defence plenty of problems and he set off on a run that took him away from McVie and full back Wark. Within shooting range of goal, wee Parky’s fierce effort left Hunter without an earthly and Hearts were 3-1 ahead before half an hour was played.

It had been a remarkable transformation in such a short period of time and with Park and Rab Prentice wreaking havoc down the flanks, Ralph Callachan orchestrating the midfield and Willie Gibson and Drew Busby looking threatening up front, Hearts were now in total control and looking like they could score at will. Most impressive, though, was the way this Hearts team worked for one another. Park and Prentice would double up as extra defenders as Motherwell tried desperately to try and come back into the game and if defender Jim Jefferies would lose out in a tackle he knew there was the likes of John Gallacher or Dave Clunie on hand to help out. Hearts looked worthy of their 3-1 half time lead.

It was inevitable Motherwell would come out with all guns blazing at the start of the second half. They knew they had to win to keep alive their hopes of progressing to the knock out stages of the competition and Pettigrew and Hood tried their best to get on the end of deliveries by Marinello and Graham. Hearts were pinned back for a spell at the beginning of the second half but in the 52nd minute the maroons broke forward to devastating effect. Rab Prentice collected the ball from a clearance from his defenders and ran into the Motherwell penalty box. The mercurial skills of the ebullient Prentice could cause any defender problems when was on form and Rab was on fire that afternoon. As he danced into the penalty box home defender Millar brought him down and Hearts were awarded a penalty kick. Unlike Marinello in the first half, Drew Busby made no mistake to end the game as a contest at 4-1 to Hearts. There endeth the scoring and a quite superb Hearts performance that put one of the best teams in Scotland to the sword in their own patch. Curiously five of that defeated Motherwell team - Willie McVie, Peter Marinello, Stewart McLaren, Gregor Stevens and Willie Pettigrew - would later play for Hearts at some stage in their career.

Hearts duly progressed to the quarter finals of the League Cup and were again in fine form as they defeated First Division Falkirk 4-1 in the first leg at Tynecastle - although they did lose the return leg 4-3. In the semi final Hearts faced Celtic at Hampden Park on a Monday evening in October. John Hagart’s men again played well and in an incredible final five minutes of the first half took the lead through Jim Brown only for Kenny Dalglish to equalise seconds before the break. In the second half Hearts were than holding their own before s shocking challenge on Graham Shaw incredibly went unpunished. As the Hearts players waited in vain for the referee Hugh Alexander’s whistle, Celtic raced up the park and Dalglish fell theatrically in the penalty box after a challenge by John Gallacher. Penalty said the referee, Dalglish converted and Celtic were 2-1 ahead. Both these decisions - not to award a free kick to Hearts and to award a penalty kick to Celtic - angered the Hearts players and Rab Prentice in particular. The winger brought down Celtic’s Doyle in a chalenge that was certainly no worse that the one minutes earlier on Shaw. However, Prentice was sent off and with him went Hearts chances of reaching the League Cup Final. An incensed Shaw very nearly joined Prentice for an early bath, captain Jim Brown succeeding in calming the former Dunfermline player down.

It was to Hearts immense credit they continued to take the game to Celtic, even with ten men. Full back Roy Kay forced Celtic keeper Latchford into a fine save but the Hoops held on for a narrow and extremely fortunate win.

Hearts had already played in the European Cup Winners Cup this season - this is covered in the next chapter. However, their season would be defined the next time they played Celtic four weeks later in the Premier Division at Tynecastle. A Willie Gibson hat trick had Hearts 3-1 ahead after a tremendous first half display. However, the roof fell in on the home team in the second half and the visitors won 4-3. It was a defeat that altered the course of Hearts season. Confidence drained, they never recovered their early season sparkle and struggled thereafter. I’ll draw a veil over the rest of the season, suffice to say Hearts slump resulted in a ninth place finish in the top ten Premier Division - and with two clubs being relegated, Hearts, agonisingly, found themselves demoted for the first time in their long and proud history.

A sad state of affairs that would have seemed unthinkable that August day in Motherwell when an impressive Hearts team looked like they were good enough to actually win the League Cup. How things changed in such a short space of time… 

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Heart of Midlothian 0 Kilmarnock 1

Clydesdale Bank SPL- Saturday 29 October 2011, Tynecastle

Almost a year to the day since Kilmarnock coasted to a 3-0 win over Hearts at Tynecastle, the Ayrshire men were at it again on Saturday as they took all three points against an aimless home team. Hearts weren't helped by the foolish sending off of tempestuous midfielder Ian Black after just 15 minutes. The former Caley Thistle man lunged in on former Hibby Dean Shiels, leaving referee Alan Muir little choice but to flash a red card. Being a man short for 75 minutes would always mean an uphill task for the home team to take anything from the game but, curiously, they continued to dominate the first half. Skacel and Stevenson both had chances before a decent shout for a penalty when the ball hit the arm of Pursehouse was ignored by referee Muir, some of whose decisions were, shall we say, questionable to say the least.

Unsurprisingly, given their numerical advantage, Killie came more into the game in the second half and scored the game's only goal after 55 minutes, when Hefferman ran through on goal only to be fouled by Marius Zaliukas. From my vantage point in the Wheatfield Stand, I thought the foul was committed outside the penalty box. Referee Muir consulted with his assistant before awarding a penalty kick to Killie - Dean Shiels duly converted. For reasons known only to himself, referee Muir showed only a yellow card to Zaliukas for his indiscretion when it seemed to me he clearly denied the Killie man a goalscoring opportunity. But then, the referee had a bizarre afternoon, something Hearts manager Paulo Sergio seemed to agree with when he was sent to the stand by the official in the second half.

For the second game in succession, Hearts have been left empty-handed from a game they deserved to take something. Black's dismissal didn't help and the home players visibly tired towards the end of the game. However, it's perhaps time for changes to be made to this Hearts team. Ian Black is a talented player but he is fast becoming a liability. Quite what he was thinking of when he lunged in on Shiels, one can only guess. At the back, Zaliukas is another who can hardly be described as dependable - how many times has the Lithuanian cost Hearts dear?  Again, Hearts began the game with no recognised strikers although I thought Sergio had taken a nose bleed when he brought on both Stephen Elliott and Gordon Smith late in the game in an effort to salvage a point.

It would be nice to think this might change at St. Mirren next week. Black will be suspended so there should be a welcome return for the gifted Mehdi Taouil. A front two of Elliott and Smith with, perhaps Darren Barr in defence? Probably not...

Top man: David Templeton - looking back to his best before he tired in the second half

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Fergie's Worst Defeat...

Sir Alex Ferguson described Manchester United's 6-1 hammering from rivals City last Sunday as 'the worst result in his history' Apparently, he had never lost by such a heavy score even as a player.

The above team photo is Falkirk from season 1970/71. On 26 April 1971, the Bairns lost 7-1 to Airdrieonians. Pictured front right is a player who who played that afternoon - 29 year old Alex Ferguson...

Monday, 24 October 2011

Mario Balotelli

The Manchester City striker is now the face of a firework safety campaign - days after his house caught fire after someone let off a firework in his bathroom. There are some things you just can't make up...

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Heart of Midlothian 0 Rangers 2

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Sunday 23 October 2011

Having seen their team dispose of Celtic three weeks ago, Hearts fans held high hopes their heroes could complete an Old Firm double at Tynecastle this afternoon. But we older Hearts supporters know only too well what happens when we get high hopes...

Hearts certainly began the game brightly and dominated the opening 20 minutes. David Templeton was in the mood to cause problems and Rangers defender Whittaker was cautioned after just ten minutes for a lunge at the winger. The hard working Ryan Stevenson had a chance to open the scoring but failed to take it and there was an inevitability about Rangers taking the lead on 20 minutes. The aforementioned Whittaker was allowed to run at length through a far too accommodating Hearts defence and the former Hibby set up Naismith who slotted the ball beyond Marian Kello. It was a lead the visitors scarcely deserved and it took the wind out of Hearts sails. Gradually, they got a head of steam once more. Stevenson got on the end of a through ball from Ian Black but he was denied by the combined effort of former Hearts player Lee Wallace and Bocanegra. The best chance, though, fell to Rudi Skacel who fired in a great effort from 20 yards which brought a brilliant save from Rangers keeper McGregor.

Hearts began the second half the same way they began the first with Templeton causing problems. On 64 minutes, Temps danced his way into the Rangers penalty box and crossed for Adrian Mrowiec. It seemed certain the Pole would score but he needed more than one touch and his effort trundled wide of the goal when it seemed easier to score. Inevitably, Rangers took full advantage and substitute Jelavic scored Rangers second when he steered home a Bocanegra cross and that was that.

Despite flashes of skill from David Templeton and the industry of Ryan Stevenson and Ian Black, it was a poor showing from the home team. Both full backs - Jamie Hamill and Danny Grainger - had days to forget while Rudi Skacel, his effort on goal apart, looked off the pace. Worryingly, Hearts look clueless up front - perhaps this is not surprising given manager Paulo Sergio's penchant for not playing any recognised centre forwards. John Sutton wasn't even on the substitute's bench today.

And, man, Hearts could have done with a presence up front.

Top man: Ryan Stevenson

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Matchstick Men (and women)

The above photograph of deeply troubled souls departing Aberdeen's Pittodrie Stadium is the banner of Kenfitlike's excellent blog Whale Oil Beef Hooked

As Ken says, if the artist LS Lowry was still around today, he would surely have taken inspiration from this image.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Pride & Passion Counts Too

There was a fair bit of hoo-ha the other week about Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez apparent refusal to come on as a second half substitute during the UEFA Champions League game with Bayern Munich. The Argentine playmaker was subsequently banned for two weeks for his actions (or lack of action)

It added further weight to the theory that some of today’s highly paid footballers in the Barclays FA Premiership have inflated egos and are in a world far removed from the working class origins that started football a century and a half ago. Many fans opined, quite rightly, that those players earning upwards of £150k per week should, at the very least, be carrying out instructions from their manager.

Those of us lucky enough to have jobs in today’s rapidly downtrodden economic climate would certainly think long and hard before refusing to carry out an instruction from our bosses. When my manager stomps towards my desk on Monday morning demanding I produce that report that should have been on his desk on Friday afternoon, I harbour a sizeable suspicion that he won’t take kindly to my response of ‘sorry, boss, I’m unable to produce that report as I’m not mentally attuned’. Like Tevez, I could run to the press and tell them my side of the story - I have personal problems, my wife has ran off with my best mate…and I miss him terribly - but a) the tabloid press wouldn’t be in the least bit interested and b) I would be handed my P45 before I made it out the office. Some footballers in today’s money laden football world think they can do whatever they please.

However, Carlos Tevez isn’t the first player to disobey an instruction from his manager. Back in season 1997/98, Dutch striker Pierre Van Hooijdonk went on strike at Nottingham Forest, apparently over the lack of signings at the club. The former Celtic player was unhappy at what he perceived to be a lack of ambition and asked for a transfer. Having just paid £4.5m for the player, Forest quite understandably, didn’t agree to his request and so the player went on strike. The Forest manager at the time, Dave Bassett, was furious and the affect it had on team morale was considerable as the team slumped to the bottom of the FA Premiership. Bassett was sacked following the team’s poor start and when Van Hooijdonk eventually returned to the team and scored against Derby County, very few of his team mates celebrated with him. He had been metaphorically sent to Coventry although even if you leave the metaphor aside it’s doubtful if City would have taken him anyway…

A surprising aside to this story emerged a couple of days later when former Manchester United player Paul Scholes revealed he once refused to play for the Red Devils in a League Cup tie ten years ago. He had been dropped by Sir Alex Ferguson for United’s previous game against Liverpool, Scholes went in, what we Scots call ‘the huff’ with his manager - a dangerous ploy given Fergie’s notorious temperament. However, Scholes soon realised the error of his ways and apologised to the manager soon after - perhaps realising his lucrative career at Old Trafford would be flushed down the pan if his foolhardy attitude persisted.

Player power can have its positive side with players bonding and showing a unity that can help a team through periods of adversity. However, selfish actions such as those displayed by Carlos Tevez are a kick in the teeth to the fans who help pay towards his considerable wages. One of the many good things about grass roots football is that such attitudes rarely exist at this level and while the football may not reach the standard of skill of Tevez and co. there’s a lot to be said for good, honest endeavour.

There’s also a lot to be said for local lads representing their local team, something supporters can associate far more easily than the here today, gone tomorrow, badge-kissing mercenaries of top-flight football. Hearts have been lucky in recent years to have had the likes of Gary Mackay and current assistant coach Gary Locke wear the Hearts shirt with pride. Perhaps they weren’t as skilful as Tevez but they played with a passion that couldn’t be matched.

I have to go now, as I’ve just received a text message from my best mate. Do I want the missus back…?

Twitter @Mike1874

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Does it Go All the Way?

I suspect not. Someone at Lothian Buses with a sense of humour!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Heart of Midlothian 2 Celtic 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Sunday 2 October 2011

A recurring theme in a book I'm working on - Hearts 50 Greatest Games (book plug number 94)  - is the inconsistency that has blighted Hearts throughout the years. It seems season 2011/12 is proving to be just like any other. After poor performances against Ayr United in the Scottish Communities League Cup and St. Johnstone in the Clydesdale Bank SPL, Hearts at last gave their long-suffering supporters something to cheer with a well-deserved victory over Celtic.

Heavy overnight rain in Edinburgh - a couple of days after temperatures in the capital were in the mid 70s - cast some doubt as to whether the game would go ahead but the Tynecastle pitch passed a 10.45am pitch inspection and battle commenced two hours later.

Hearts manager Paulo Sergio made some changes with David Templeton and Rudi Skacel coming in to give the team some much needed width. Just four minutes had gone when the hugely impressive Ryan Stevenson was left unmarked in the Celtic penalty area and the former Ayr United man's header was saved by Forster. Marius Zaliukas then hit the post with a shot from the edge of the penalty box as Hearts began to believe in themselves. However, Celtic should have taken the lead after 20 minutes but Bangura's header was not strong enough to beat Hearts keeper Jamie MacDonald.

The game swung from end to end but it seemed a goal would not arrive - until the 58th minute. David Templeton struggled to control a cross from Jamie Hamill but the ball fell to Rudi Skacel who drilled it home for the opening goal. The Czech Republic star was about to be substituted but his well taken goal gave him a stay of execution. Minutes later, Celtic's Kris Commons was shown a straight red card by referee Craig Thomson after a lunge on Mrowiec and the game ran away from the visitors.

Hearts clinched a fine win ten minutes from the end when David Templeton chased a ball inside the Celtic penalty box before cleverly back-heeling a pass to Ryan Stevenson. 'Stevo' showed great composure as he took the ball round Forster before firing into the net to seal Hearts victory.

Hearts are now fourth in the Clydesdale Bank SPL. Under Paulo Sergio, The Maroons have won four games at Tynecastle and have yet to concede a goal. It's a different story altogether away from Gorgie - something the manager knows he has to address if Hearts are to make anything of this season.

Top man: Ryan Stevenson. He may not be the most gifted player ever to wear maroon, but no one works harder or is more committed. And he took his goal well.

Not Hearts v Celtic

Things you might not hear at Tynecastle this afternoon...

I love coming to Tynecastle. I have such a high regard for Hearts as a club and its supporters - Neil Lennon.

I thought the referee was immense today, he didn't put a foot wrong. He's a credit to his profession - Neil Lennon.

Right, John Sutton - you'll be the target man with Stephen Elliot and I want you, David Templeton and you, Arvydas Novikovas to stretch the Celtic defence down the wings - Paulo Sergio.

And Ian Black pulled out of that 50-50 challenge at the last minute - Sky Sports commentator.

David Obua beat four Celtic defenders before superbly lobbing the keeper for his hat-trick and Hearts fourth goal of the afternoon - Sky Sports commentator.

I'm going to run and run for 90 minutes until my lungs burst - Rudi Skacel.

I feel a bit of a twinge in my hamstring but, hey, it's nothing I won't be able to run off and I'll be fine - Andy Webster.

Okay, lads, I'm expecting a quiet afternoon with no hostility, so let's keep a low profile. Help yourself to tea and biscuits in the police commander's room as I don't think you'll be too busy - Lothian & Borders Police Chief to his officers.

Ah, Paulo. You're doing a brilliant job. I'm going to give you a five year contract and you can pick whoever you want for the team. I trust you - Vladimir Romanov.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Paul Hartley

Having been out for a couple of shandies on a Friday evening three weeks ago, I didn’t venture north for Hearts Clydesdale Bank SPL clash with Inverness Caledonian Thistle. I figured my delicate constitution, in its post-alcoholic state, would struggle with a three and a half hour train journey to the beautiful capital of the Highlands. Instead, I headed to Larbert to see East Stirlingshire take on a side now managed by a man still hugely popular with supporters of both Hearts and Celtic - one Paul Hartley (as used to be chanted at Tynecastle)

The man who destroyed Hibernian with a hat-trick in the Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden five and a half years ago is now player-manager of Third Division Alloa Athletic and while he opted to remain in his suit, collar and tie for the short trip to Ochilview, there’s no doubt Hartley is already exerting considerable influence over The Wasps. Alloa played a neat, passing game which some may say might prove their undoing in the hurley burley of the basement league, although it didn’t stop Livingston powering their way to the Third Division title a couple of seasons back. With former Aberdeen players Darren Young and Robbie Winters providing experience, The Wasps won 1-0 and it was interesting to see Hartley, a rookie manager, continually encouraging his players from the touchline.

It was Craig Levein who brought Paul Hartley to Tynecastle in 2003 after the former Hamilton and Millwall winger came to the end of his contract at St. Johnstone. Hartley’s 18 months at Hibernian meant he would never become an immediate pin-up hero with Hearts supporters and it’s fair to say it took a couple of years before the Glasgow born player began to make a major impact at Tynecastle. Under George Burley’s tutelage, Hartley was an essential part of Hearts midfield alongside Rudi Skacel, Julien Brellier and, later during season 2005-06, Bruno Aguiar. Hartley’s performances that season were immense, his pace with lung bursting runs from midfield causing havoc with opposition defenders. His three goals against Hibernian in that cup semi-final were, arguably, the apex of his career and the memory of him despatching a penalty kick to complete the four-goal rout before running to the adoring Hearts support with three fingers in the air remains vivid. Hartley, of course, also scored the penalty kick that defeated Aberdeen before tumultuous acclaim at Tynecastle in the penultimate league game of the season - a win that ensured Hearts finished second in the SPL and therefore clinched a place in the qualifying stages for the following season’s UEFA Champions League.

Six months later, Hartley signed for the team he supported as a boy - Celtic - in a deal worth more than a million pounds to Hearts. Perhaps even the man himself would agree that he wasn’t quite as effective during his time at Celtic Park and, after a spell back in England with Bristol City, he returned to Scotland with Aberdeen where he was made club captain. Sadly, injury meant he had to give up top-flight football at the end of last season and he accepted the opportunity to become Alloa Athletic’s player-manager during the summer.

I had hoped to see the great man in action against East Stirlingshire but, with his 35th birthday just a few weeks away, he believed the players in his team would do the business without his influence on the field. And he was right. The Wasps won the game by a solitary goal but they were never in any danger of losing and it was to their great credit they tried to play a passing game with the studious Paul Hartley analysing almost every move.

Having been relegated to the Third Division following a play-off defeat by Annan Athletic at the end of last season, Alloa are among the favourites to bounce straight back up again. Led by a man who remains a hero to thousands of Hearts supporters, I would be very surprised if The Wasps didn’t live up to expectations. Similarly, in the Irn Bru Second Division, another former Jambo, Colin Cameron - who scored the opening goal in Hearts 1998 Scottish Cup Final triumph over Rangers - is doing a fine job at Cowdenbeath.

The likes of Craig Levein, John Robertson and, of course, Jim Jefferies before them made the transition from Hearts player to Hearts manager. Given the early impression both Hartley and Cameron have made as coaches, one couldn’t rule out the possibility of a Hearts Scottish Cup hero returning to Tynecastle one day in a managerial role!

Twitter @Mike1874


Saturday, 17 September 2011

Heart of Midlothian 2 St. Mirren 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 17 September 2011 - Tynecastle

Hearts continued their renaissance under manager Paul Sergio with a comfortable win over St. Mirren in Gorgie. The Maroons have been unbeaten since Tottenham Hotspur put them to the sword at Tynecastle a month ago but, it has to be said, this was a tedious affair in the autumn sunshine.

I wrote in my column for the Hearts programme about how there are few stadia that can match the atmosphere of a full house at Tynecastle. That appeared to be the kiss of death. There wasn't a full house today and the atmosphere was muted and most unlike Tynecastle. Whether this had an effect on the players, it's difficult to tell but lethargy dominated proceedings, certainly in the first half.

There's a running joke  - if you'll excuse the pun - among Hearts fans about how long the perennially injured Andy Webster will last each match. Webster was listed in the starting line up today but didn't even make it to kick-off - he was injured in the warm up and was replaced by Eggert Jonsson. Webster is a decent defender but there has to be questions asked about his fitness for top class football - okay, then, the SPL...

The only moment of note in the opening 40 minutes was a long range effort from the impressive Mehdi Taouil - himself returning from injury - which brought a fine save from Saints keeper Samson. Just as it seemed the game would be goalless at half time, Hearts Marius Zaliukas ventured forward into the visitors penalty box and was tripped by Haddad. Penalty said referee Charlie Richmond and despite the best efforts of keeper Samson to put him off, Jamie Hamill drilled the ball home for the opening goal. Moments later, David Obua should have doubled Hearts lead when he burst into the penalty box but his effort on goal was saved by Samson when the Ugandan really ought to have buried the opportunity.

Hearts were in command in the second half and secured victory with a second goal 20 minutes from the end when Ryan Stevenson dived to head home Danny Grainger's cross although some reports are stating it was an own goal from Lee Mair. 'Stevo' certainly took the acclaim. There endeth the scoring.

Hearts are now a point off third place in the Clydesdale Bank SPL. A victory is most welcome but Paulo Sergio's mission to change Hearts style of play will be a long-term project - and managers at Tynecastle don't tend to be there long enough for such a transition. Certainly today, it seemed like the game lasted far longer than 90 minutes...

Top man: Mehdi Taouil, who just oozes skill.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

David Francey

Sad news today about the passing of one of the great football commentators in Scotland - David Francey. The man who commentated on hundreds of Scottish football games for more than two decades until he retired in the late 1980s had been ill for some time.

I grew up listening to David Francey on the radio. He was the voice of football. There was a great story about him commentating on a Scotland game in Romania in the 1970s when he turned, off microphone, to summariser Ian Archer and asked 'Who's that Romanian number 4?' Archer replied 'F*cked if I know!'

Francey then told the listeners 'And Romania clear through Fuctifino...'

Francey said later this was a myth but it's still a great story. There was something almost comforting about listening to the great man on the radio. He sounded like a loveable grandad who would never criticise players or managers and his knowledge of the game was legendary.

A sad loss to football and to Scottish broadcasting.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

East Stirlingshire 0 Alloa Athletic 1

Irn Bru Scottish League Third Divison, Saturday 10 September 2011 - Ochilview

Having been out for a couple of shandies on Friday evening, I didn’t venture north for Hearts clash with Inverness Caledonian Thistle. I figured my delicate constitution would struggle with a three and a half hour train journey to the beautiful capital of the Highlands. Instead, I headed to Larbert to see my other team, East Stirlingshire, take on a side now managed by a man still hugely popular with  Hearts supporters - one Paul Hartley (as used to be chanted at Tynecastle)

The man who destroyed Hibernian with a hat trick in the Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden five and a half years ago is now player-manager of Third Division Alloa Athletic and while he opted to remain in his suit, collar and tie for the short trip to Ochilview, there’s no doubt Hartley is already exerting considerable influence over The Wasps. Alloa played a neat, passing game which some might say will prove their undoing in the hurley burley of the basement league although it didn’t stop Livingston powering their way to the Third Division title a couple of seasons back. With former Aberdeen players Darren Young and Robbie Winters providing experience, The Wasps won 1-0 and it was interesting to see Hartley, a rookie manager, continually encouraging his players from the touchline.

Shire played some decent football at times and manager John Couglin has the team playing more of a passing game. However, as has been proved so far this season, Shire have nothing up front and their decent play counts for nothing when they get to the final third of the field. Chances are few and far between so when they do come along they really have to take them. After half an hour, Ally Love had a glorious chance to open the scoring when he pounced on a mistake from Ben Gordon but the Shire man, having rounded the goalkeeper, then contrived to place his shot wide of the post. Inevitably, Alloa scored just before half time when the aforementioned Gordon diverted McCord's cross for the only goal of the game.

I had hoped to see Paul Hartley in action but, with his 35th birthday just a few weeks away, he believed the players in his team would do the business without his influence on the field. And he was right. Having been relegated to the Third Division following a play-off defeat by Annan Athletic at the end of last season, Alloa are among the favourites to bounce straight back up again. Led by a man who remains a hero to thousands of Hearts supporters, I would be very surprised if The Wasps didn’t live up to expectations.

As for Shire, they may be bottom of the league but they won't be there for long. If only they could unearth a striker who knows where the goal is...
Twitter @Mike1874

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Death of a Football Ground

         A highly emotive video for devotees of East Stirlingshire FC...

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Laced Up Boots and Paulo Sergio

Money may be changing football in a way many of us find disconcerting but while the rich clubs get stronger and stronger as others struggle for survival there remains one constant that has almost become a tradition in the game - certainly from when I first began following Hearts as a six year old in 1968. Namely, the adaptation of popular songs into football chants. Last week, as Hearts celebrated yet another Edinburgh derby victory over Hibernian, Tynecastle Stadium announcer extraordinaire Scott Wilson played a song that has quickly become adapted by the Maroon Army following the recent appointment of Paulo Sergio as Hearts manager. Unlikely as it may seem but the chorus of KC and the Sunshine Band’s 1982 hit ‘Give it Up’ was belted out with some gusto by Hearts fans, their arrangement being Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na - Paulo Sergio, Sergio, Paulo Sergio! (forgive me if I’ve missed out a Na or two there!) As I departed the atmospheric Section G of the Wheatfield Stand, Hearts fans were gleefully chanting this little ditty in the direction of those Hibs fans still left in the Roseburn Stand by the time the game ended. Why it has taken nearly 30 years for this song to be adapted is not entirely clear but it’s the latest in a long line of songs to be adapted by Hearts fans for football purposes.

It wasn’t that long ago that another song from that era - Culture Club’s ‘Karma Chameleon’ - was sung by Hearts fans in homage to legendary striker John Robertson (Robbo, Robbo, Robbo - well, you get the picture) However, there are songs from even further back that have become Tynecastle anthems. The legendary Frank Sinatra passed away just a few weeks before Hearts Scottish Cup triumph in 1998. His most famous song - My Way - has been adopted almost exclusively by Hearts supporters as their proclamation they are heading to foreign shores as in ‘So Make a Noise, We’re the Gorgie Boys, We’re Going to Europe’

It’s incredible to think that another Hearts song - ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’ (we’re the boys in maroon) - dates back to 1909, the Edwardian era when football was played in black and white and it had been just seven years since Hibs had last lifted the Scottish Cup. More recently, although I’m still going back four decades, is a song by The Beatles. The chorus of ‘Hey Jude’ has long been belted out by Hearts fans - Na, Na, Na, Na Jam Tarts - and the song is still played today by the aforementioned Scott Wilson as the team runs out on to the Tynecastle field.

Another song from the 1960s by another legendary band has become a relatively recent addition to the football anthems. The chorus from The Beach Boys classic Sloop John B has been re-arranged by supporters of clubs other than Hearts - and some, it has to be said, rather distastefully - but the Maroon Army used it to good effect when Hearts went 2-0 up against Hibs in the derby. ‘Your season is over - why don’t you go home?’ When Tottenham Hotspur came to Gorgie last month their fans were greeted with 'Your city's on fire - why don't you go home?

There have been numerous other songs modified by supporters for the purpose of lending their support to their heroes. ‘When the Saints go Marching in’ began as an American gospel hymn but has been chanted at most football grounds in Britain, including Tynecastle.

One of my personal favourites from a few years ago was Hearts fans rendition of ‘Hersham Boys‘, a classic from punk legends Sham 69. Hearts fans used to chant on the Tynecastle terracing Gorgie Boys, Gorgie Boys, Laced Up Boots and Corduroys - although admittedly this had more sinister connotations in an age when violence on the terracings was commonplace. I seem to recall this being chanted frequently during Hearts sojourn in the First Division when the Gorgie Boys would announce their arrival at places such as Dumbarton, Dumfries and Dundee.

I’ve written before about how there are few stadia that can match the atmosphere of a full house at Tynecastle. Money may be influencing football like never before but thankfully, the fans and their songs of devotion to their team will ensure the game will never stray too far from its working class roots. And with any luck, Scott Wilson will be belting out Jeff Beck’s Hi Ho Silver Lining at Tynecastle at the end of the season!

Twitter @Mike1874

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Heart of Midlothian 2 Hibernian 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Sunday 28 August 2011 - Tynecastle

As I took my seat in the Wheatfield Stand this afternoon, I have to confess I felt uneasy. Edinburgh derbies are always tense occasions (at least until Hearts inevitably open the scoring) but when I heard the Hearts team announced by the always excellent Scott Wilson my anxiety increased. David Templeton, Rudi Skacel, Arvydas Novikovas and Eggert Jonsson were all on the subsitutes bench. John Sutton, Mehdi Taouil and the youngster who was so impressive at White Hart Lane on Thursday - Ryan McGowan - didn't even get on to the bench. The much-missed Kevin Kyle, who had targeted the Edinburgh derby as his comeback game, was nowhere to be seen.

Ryan Stevenson, who knows a thing about scoring in Edinburgh derbies, partnered Stephen Elliott up front. Full backs Jamie Hamill and Danny Grainger were encouraged to make forward runs. I wasn't convinced this would work but, in the end, I need not have worried.

It wasn't the greatest Edinburgh derby ever played but Hearts won comfortably after dominating the proceedings. There was a slight delay to the kick-off after some lout in the Hibs end thought it smart to lob a smoke bomb on to the pitch. A flare then appeared on the corner of the field but it was unclear where this was thrown from. What can be done about these idiots?

Hearts enjoyed plenty possession but a lapse in concentration in defence allowed O'Connor a header at goal which, thankfully, went wide. Six minutes before half time Hearts took the lead their domination deserved when fine play from Jamie Hamill on the right wing found Ryan Stevenson in the penalty box and former Ayr United man calmly stroked the ball past Hibs keeper Stack.

The second half followed the same pattern as the first with Hearts on top. Stephen Elliot hit the post before forcing a fine save from Stack who then saved well from Andrew Driver. Hearts doubled their lead with 20 minutes left when a brilliant cross from Hamill was headed home by Andy Webster. Hibs Sodje hacked the ball off the line but it seemed the ball had crossed for a goal. Jonsson blasted the rebound into the net to make sure but the goal was Webster's.

There endeth the scoring and a good week for Hearts who restored some pride with a goalless draw with Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane during the week and continued their domination of the Edinburgh derby. It was pointed out after the game that Hearts have won 276 Edinburgh derbies to Hibs 200. Even if Hibs were to win four derbies a season from now it would take them 20 years just to catch up.

Hearts are now fourth in the SPL. Hibs are bottom...

Top man: The quite brilliant Jamie Hamill

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Believe in Better?

Sky TV's marketing catchphrase is currently 'Believe in Better'. The billions of pounds the satellite broadcaster has thrown at English football in the past two decades illustrated this adage to devastating effect at Tynecastle last Thursday evening.

Hearts Europa League qualifying round opponents, Tottenham Hotspur, even without several first team regulars, still had a team full of multi-million pound talent that was simply streets ahead of Hearts who, it has to be said, seemed in awe of their illustrious opponents. It's become something of a cliché that Scottish football lacks the technical ability of the more successful countries but tries to make up for this with fight, determination and an 'up-and-at-'em' attitude. This has worked for Hearts in the past as the likes of Bayern Munich, Vfb Stuttgart, Atletico Madrid and Bologna - who have all lost at Tynecastle in European competition - would testify. Sadly, even this commendable trait was lacking from the Maroons last week. The only good thing from the night was the truly magnificent Hearts support who gave their team tumultuous backing all through the evening - even as the goals were raining in. Hearts fans were hanging on at the end hoping there wouldn't be a sixth goal. Indeed, when the Spurs fans demanded 'we want six' the Hearts support retorted 'we want one...'

The following statistics perhaps highlight why no one should be surprised at the scale of the difference between Hearts and Spurs. Sky TV’s current deal with the Barclay’s FA Premiership is for around £1.3 billion over three seasons.

In Scotland, the current deal with Sky TV and its satellite rival ESPN is worth £65 million - over five seasons. You don’t have to be Einstein to work out why the London side won as easily as they did in Gorgie last week.

Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was moved to say how impressed he was with the Hearts support and 'how fans like these deserve success'. They do, but success has to be measured against reality. Hearts will not win a European trophy and although they may occasionally challenge for the SPL title, reality dictates they will not win it. More than a quarter of a century has passed since a team other than Celtic and Rangers were champions of Scotland - and this was an era before money influenced even the Old Firm.

For clubs like Hearts, ‘success’ is achieving third place in the SPL, getting to a cup final with a half-decent chance of winning it, and the occasional decent result in the Europa League although Scotland’s rapidly diminishing co-efficient in Europe means even qualifying for the group stages of this competition is an achievement in itself.

Despite protestations from Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist - whose Old Firm sides also failed to win their Europa League first leg ties against much weaker opposition than Spurs - the standard of Scottish football is as poor today as it has ever been. Money talks in football like never before and it's clear that thanks to television companies such as Sky the strong are getting even stronger while the weak are facing oblivion. The more successful the Barclays FA Premiership becomes, the more people will subscribe to Sky TV to watch exclusive live matches; thus, the more Sky will throw millions of pounds at clubs to keep it going. English, Spanish and Italian clubs feast at the top table of European football, laden with hugely expensive fine cuts. Scottish football doesn't get near the top table to feed off the scraps - in fact, it currently doesn't even get in to the dining room.

As impressive as Spurs were last Thursday, they are unlikely to win the Barclays FA Premiership because of the even larger resources of the four or five clubs ahead of them - and this was underlined by Manchester United’s 3-0 win over Harry Redknapp’s team at Old Trafford on Monday. This underlines how the allocation of TV money, along with the extra money it attracts e.g. big investors at Chelsea and Manchester City, has influenced football - and made success less achievable for the majority of clubs.

The top four in England - who qualify for the UEFA Champions League - get a larger slice of the massive FA Premiership cake, because they are on television more than other clubs. The same argument applies on a smaller scale in Scotland where provincial Scottish clubs get a reduced slice of much smaller Scottish cake because the Old Firm are always on the box. The outcry last week that Scottish football is in a bad way was not unexpected but it is so because it does not have the resources to be any better.

Yet, there are some Scottish players doing quite well in the money-laden English league. Charlie Adam at Liverpool and Steven Fletcher at Wolves are cases in point. A quick look at the Scotland side that defeated Denmark the other week tells you the number of players in Head Coach Craig Levein’s thoughts who are plying their trade south of the border. This suggests that there are more problems with the way that Scottish football is managed and coached.

Last year former First Minister Henry McLeish published the recommendations of the Scottish football think tank. Various ideas were discussed including league reconstruction, a pyramid system to enable ambitious non-league clubs to compete for league status, a winter break and a possible merger of Scottish football’s three governing bodies. There were some decent recommendations in Mr McLeish’s report - yet, still nothing has happened

The average football fan can see what needs to be done. Television money needs to be fairly distributed, a larger league where teams play each other twice each season, and a change to the season from August to May to March to December. This would see the close season take place during January and February when the Scottish winter is usually at its most severe. As an added incentive, I would have the League Cup winners play-off against the fourth placed team in the SPL to decide who would play in the following seasons Europa League.

I would also scrap the SPL and SFL and have just one governing body running Scottish football - perhaps a revamped SFA where the Chief Executive makes decisions rather than the plethora of outdated committees we’ve had for decades. The Chief Executive could be part of an elected board that require being re-elected every four years.

The way Tottenham Hotspur dismantled Hearts last week was yet another wake up call for Scottish football. Few Hearts fans expected their team to beat Spurs over two legs although some harboured a vain hope they might win the home leg. That faint hope was cruelly destroyed at Tynecastle last Thursday evening. Nonetheless, hope is all that Scottish football has to cling on to. There is a great line in that classic film The Shawshank Redemptionsays 'hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and good things never die’.

Those of us who love Scottish football and mourn its present state can only cling on to this thought. Or as Sky TV likes to tell everyone - believe in better.

Twitter @Mike1874

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Heart of Midlothian 0 Tottenham Hotspur 5

Europa League Play-off Round 1st leg, Thursday 18 August 2011 - Tynecastle

Sky TV's marketing catchphrase is currently 'Believe in Better'. The billions of pounds the satellite broadcaster has thrown at English football in the past two decades illustrated this adage to devastating effect at Tynecastle on Thursday evening.

Spurs, even without several first team regulars, still had a team full of multi-million pound talent that was simply streets ahead of Hearts who seemed in awe of their illustrious opponents. It's become something of a cliche that Scottish football lacks the technical ability of the more successful countries but tries to make up for this with fight, determination and an 'up-and-at-'em' attitude. This has worked for Hearts in the past as the likes of Bayern Munich, Vfb Stuttgart, Atletico Madrid and Bologna - who have all lost at Tynecastle in European competition - would testify. Sadly, even this commendable trait was lacking from the Maroons on Thursday as Harry Redknapp's gifted side ripped Hearts apart.

Hearts seemed in awe right from kick off. It took the hugely impressive van der Vaart just four minutes to open the scoring before Defoe and Livermore added further goals in an embarrassingly one-sided first half. Hearts manager Paulo Sergio doubtless had a few words to say to his shell-shocked troops at half-time and the home side at least threatened for a ten minute period at the beginning of the second half. However, further goals from Bale and Lennon completed the rout and Hearts fans were hanging on at the end hoping there wouldn't be a sixth goal. Indeed, when the Spurs fans demanded 'we want six' the Hearts support retorted 'we want one...'

The only good thing from the night was the truly magnificent Hearts support who gave their team tumultuous backing all through the evening - even as the goals were raining in. Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was moved to say how impressed he was with the Hearts support and 'how fans like these deserve success'.

Despite protestations from Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist - whose Old Firm sides also failed to win in the Europa League against much weaker opposition than Spurs - the standard of Scottish football is as poor today as it's ever been. Money talks in football like never before and it's clear that thanks to television companies such as Sky the strong are getting even stronger while the weak are facing oblivion. The more successful the English FA Premiership becomes, the more people will subscribe to Sky TV to watch exclusive live matches; thus, the more Sky will throw millions of pounds at clubs to keep it going. English, Spanish and Italian clubs feast at the top table of European football, laden with hugely expensive fine cuts. Scottish football doesn't get near the top table to feed off the scraps - in fact, it currently doesn't even get in to the dining room.

Few Hearts fans expected their team to beat Spurs over two legs although some harboured a vain hope they might win the home leg. Those faint hopes were cruelly destroyed at Tynecastle on Thursday evening. There is a great line in that classic film The Shawshank Redemption that says 'hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and good things never die'.

I can only hope, for Scottish football's sake, this is so.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Heart of Midlothian 3 Aberdeen 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 13 August 2011 - Tynecastle

Hearts recorded their first win in the SPL for several months with a comfortable victory over Aberdeen. The game was fairly even for the opening 20 minutes and the Dons could have opened the scoring when Arnason - who was on trial with Hearts during the summer before then manager Jim Jefferies decided against him - hit the crossbar with a header. Craig Brown's side were made to pay for that miss when Arvydas Novikovas opened the scoring after 24 minutes. The Lithuanian winger collected the ball inside the Aberdeen penalty box before rifling a a left shot foot into the corner of the net.

Hearts doubled their lead ten minutes later when David Templeton hared past a bemused looking Aberdeen defence before crossing for John Sutton who tapped home from six yards to open his account in a maroon shirt. Hearts could have had more in the first half but it remained 2-0 to the home side at half time.

Hearts began the second half the way they ended the first and secured the win when Sutton capitalised on slack defensive play to steer the ball home for Hearts third goal. Thereafter the game petered out somewhat with the visitors appearing to give up the ghost and the home side looking like they were keeping something in reserve for the undoubtedly far greater challenge of Tottenham Hotspur in the Europa League. Spurs boss Harry Redknapp clearly doesn't think Hearts will pose much of a threat as he sent his assistant Clive Allen on a 'spying mission' and I have to say on the evidence of the the first 25 minutes he's probably right.

It should still be a grand night at Tynecastle on Thursday. At least until Spurs score...

Top man: Scott Robinson - redeployed to midfield he was a revelation

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Seasons in the Sun

It didn’t really work, did it?’ bemoaned a Rangers supporter to me the other week. ‘Next season we’ll need to start the season in February…’ The despairing bluenose was referring to the early start to this season’s Clydesdale Bank SPL with the league kicking off on 23 July, ostensibly to support Scots clubs campaigns in Europe. However, before July was over, Dundee United had already gone out of the Europa League and Rangers were hurtling towards the exit door the UEFA Champions League having lost the first leg of their third qualifying round tie with Swedish champions Malmo at Ibrox. There may have been a strong element of sarcasm in that Ranger’s man’s assertion but, on reflection, perhaps he had a point.

A few months from now, we’ll be heading to Tynecastle in the depths of winter. If last winter is anything to gauge, you will require several layers of clothing, a couple of Hearts scarves and the thermal socks you got from Auntie Betty at Christmas for the eighth year in a row (for which you will be nonetheless grateful for come the trip to Easter Road on 2 January) I sincerely hope I’m wrong, particularly from a Hearts perspective, but by then there will be a fair chance there will be no Scots clubs left in European competition and the excitement of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League will be a distant memory. And as we huddle from the howling wind, driving rain and snow, Scottish football pundits will be asking how things can improve.

When Rangers played Malmo the consensus was that the Swedes were no better than Ally McCoist’s side but were much fitter, having already played eight games in their domestic season. Now, summer football has been debated more times in this country than stamps in David Obua’s passport but the traditionalists always seem to win the argument. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no more traditionalist than me. In fact, if it were down to me teams would still be playing each other just twice a season and Rab Prentice would still be playing on the wing (even if he is now in his fifties - God bless you, Rab!) However, one of the many changes in football in recent years has been the expansion of both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League to reflect the changes in the European continent over the last quarter of a century ago.

In 1983, Aberdeen won the European Cup Winners Cup (defeating Real Madrid, no less, in the final) A year later Dundee United reached the semi-finals of the European Cup before reaching the final of the UEFA Cup in 1987. Three rounds of preliminary qualifiers beginning in mid July were unheard of for Scots. However, the break up of the Soviet Union and then the former Yugoslav and Czechoslovakian states, added to the admittance to FIFA of the likes of the Faroe Islands saw a sea change in European football. More clubs in European competition meant more preliminary rounds starting earlier and earlier and as Scottish football stock has fallen in Europe so it has become much tougher for our clubs to make an impact. True, both Celtic and Rangers have reached the former UEFA Cup final in recent years but the underlying story of Scots clubs in Europe in the last decade or so is of being out before the end of the various trades fortnight summer holidays around the country.

It’s clear that when Scots clubs are drawn against sides from those countries that play the majority of their football during the summer months, they struggle to match their opponents’ fitness levels. In my view starting the domestic season a couple of weeks earlier than usual doesn’t really help that much. A more radical approach would be for Scotland to change the season from August to May to March to December.

I would suggest starting with the Scottish Cup and play it over successive Saturdays in spring with the final remaining in its traditional May date. Then the Clydesdale Bank SPL could take over and, to keep things fresh for clubs and supporters alike, the season could end with the League Cup just before Christmas (it wasn’t that long ago that League Cup finals were held in November) As an added incentive I would have the League Cup winners play-off against the fourth placed team in the league to decide who would play in the following season’s Europa League. This would see the close season take place during January and February when the Scottish winter is usually at its most severe.

As I’ve said this would be a radical approach but surely something has to be done to reverse the trend of Scots clubs crashing out of European competition so early. At least when the preliminary rounds begin in mid July, the Scots would be prepared like never before. Add in the pleasure of watching football during the warm sunny months (okay, I’ve used poetic licence here given the weather in recent summers) and the potential of a television deal with one of the satellite companies then the idea of summer football might even be lucrative.

Yes, there might have to be a mid-season shutdown when there is a World Cup or European Championship finals to be played. However, as it’s been 13 years since Scotland last played in the finals of a major tournament then that’s an obstacle that can be jumped on approach.

Would it work? Sadly, I suspect we may never know…

Twitter @Mike1874