Sunday, 27 February 2011

Willie Gibson

Hearts striker Willie Gibson scores a hat-trick against Celtic at Tynecastle in 1976. Hearts were 3-1 ahead  - but lost 4-3. It was a turning point in the season for the maroons - they were relegated for the first time in their history in 1977.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

On a Wing & a Prayer

Those who know me will tell you I can be difficult to please. Perhaps it’s an age thing. Being a year away from my half-century and being a grandfather to three aspiring Jambos (if my daughter reads this, I’ll explain later dear) I’m at that stage in life when one tends to look at some of the years gone by through rose-tinted glasses. Or, in my case, maroon ones. Hearts supporters of my generation will recall the days when teams played three players up front. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that Hearts had the 1980s version of the Terrible Trio - John Robertson, John Colquhoun and Sandy Clark - tormenting defences. In recent years, it seems the ability not to lose games - as opposed to going out to entertain and win games - has brought success. Csaba Laszlo’s time in charge of Hearts more often than not saw just one player up front - and Christian Nade was never going to terrorise defences with his lightning turn of speed.

Jim Jefferies return to Tynecastle has transformed Hearts and many supporters like me are gladdened to see, on occasion, Hearts play with three players going forward with Kevin Kyle, until his recent injury and Stephen Elliot supported by the latest in a long line of Hearts players to have fans on the edge of their seats over the years - David Templeton.

Hearts fans of my age have been brought up on players dancing down the wing in maroon. Back in the 1970s, I remember my delight at Hearts capturing Kenny Aird from St. Johnstone and the breakthrough to the first team of a young Bobby Prentice. Aird was one of those players whose commitment was never questioned and the fans appreciated his all action style. ‘Oh Bobby Prentice On The Wing’ was a chant that regularly emanated from the Tynecastle terracing as Rab would - on his day - torment defences across the land. Even in the dark days of the late 1970s, Prentice would have competition for his place in the first team from Malcolm Robertson, who sadly passed away last year.

Veteran winger Willie Johnston was perhaps past his best when he came to Tynecastle in the early 1980s but his replacement was young John Colquhoun, who, like Rab Prentice more than a decade earlier, left Celtic for Gorgie. JC could be equally effective through the middle as a strike partner for John Robertson. In the 1990s, we had Allan Johnston and the mercurial Neil McCann. ‘Terry’ McCann was, perhaps, the best winger I have seen in my years following Hearts. Those of us who were at the 1996 Coca Cola League Cup Final with Rangers at Celtic Park will never forget McCann tearing the Rangers defence to shreds that afternoon. Hearts lost an epic final 4-3 but McCann’s phenomenal display wasn’t forgotten by Rangers manager Walter Smith who took him to Ibrox two years later.

I have to say no one in a Hearts shirt has excited me in the same way Neil McCann did - until now. He’s still young and inexperienced but there’s something about David Templeton’s displays this season that is a throw back to the days when football was all about entertaining and not the results driven business it is today. ‘Temps’ has always been highly thought of at Tynecastle but it’s been Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown who have brought out the best in the 22 year old Glaswegian. His goal against Hibernian at Easter Road earlier this season was sublime. It reminded me in many ways of Archie Gemmill’s memorable goal for Scotland against The Netherlands in the 1978 World Cup, the way he left defenders trailing in his wake before finishing with style.

You can almost feel the anticipation from the crowd when Temps gets the ball and surges forward. Yes, he is prone to the odd mistake just like any other player but there can be no better tutors for the lad than Messrs Jefferies and Brown. It was the Hearts management duo who made the aforementioned Neil McCann the player he was.

Templeton undoubtedly has the skill and work rate to take him to the very top. I suspect there have already been a few scouts from over the border keeping a keen eye on him. It doesn’t come as a complete surprise to learn his middle name is Cooper - clearly, his family were paying homage to one of the finest wingers in Scotland, Davie Cooper, when their son arrived in the world in 1989.

I hope Temps sticks around Gorgie for at least a couple of more years. I don’t get a lot of excitement at my age but seeing the Glaswegian Wonder Boy fly down the wing takes me back to a bygone age when style and panache was king. Something David Templeton has in abundance!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Heart of Midlothian 2 Dundee United 1

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 19 February 2011 - Tynecastle

Hearts strenghtened their grip on third place in the Clydesdale Bank SPL today - and the place in next season's Europa League that goes with it - with a rather fortuitous win over Dundee United, themselves still having designs on repeating their third place finish of last season. Hearts were far from their best today but, to slip into cliche mode, it's the sign of a good team that doesn't play well but still wins - so I'm told.

Hearts, with Andy Webster making his homecoming, looked shaky from the start. David Goodwillie - given stick from the Hearts support all afternoon for the fact the striker has been charged with rape allegations - thought he had scored after just a couple of minutes but referee Calum Murray ruled the effort out for handball. However, when Barry Douglas gave the visitors the lead after just six minutes Tynecastle was stunned. United dominated the first half and Hearts cause wasn't helped when Lee Wallace hobbled off after half an hour but there was relief for the home fans when Rudi Skacel tapped the ball home on the stroke of half-time after a mix up in the United defence.

Hearts replaced the ineffectual David Obua with David Templeton at the start of the second half and began to look like their normal selves. Fellow substitute Andrew Driver really should have put Hearts ahead when he had three chances in quick succession  to score late in the game but after seeing his first two attempts on goal blocked his third effort flew across the goal as frustration grew.

Hearts scored what proved to be the winner when Marius Zaliukas headed home Craig Thomson's corner with just three minutes to go and the home support celebrated. The celebrations were cut short, however, when Ruben Palazuelos brought down Robertson in the penalty box. Red card for the Spaniard, a penalty for United and the chance for them to take a deserved point. However, for the third time this season Hearts keeper Marian Kello saved a penalty, this time from Goodwillie and bedlam ensued at Tynecastle. The final whistle blew soon after and Hearts fans headed home to look out their passports for next season. With nearest challengers Kilmarnock going down 5-0 at Aberdeen, Hearts will all but secure third spot if they beat Killie when they visit Gorgie in a fortnight.

Not the best of games today but a feature for me was the return of Andy Webster. Not every Hearts fan was pleased to see the former Arbroath player return to Tynecastle but he was impressive today after a shaky start and his influence on the young players in the Hearts team was there for all to see.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Neil Pointon

Jim Jefferies first spell in charge of Hearts in the mid 1990s saw him undertake a considerable rebuilding job. In particular, he looked at the defence and recruited goalkeeper Gilles Rousset and Italian no-nonsense defender Pasquale Bruno. Jefferies also brought in a left back who was to prove hugely popular in his three years at Tynecastle - Neil Pointon.

Mansfield born Pointon began his career at Scunthorpe United and his impressive displays caught the attention of Everton manager Howard Kendall who paid £75,000 in 1985 to bring him to Goodison - at that time the home of English league champions. Pointon was seen as defensive cover for the more established Everton stars and while The Toffees reached an all Merseyside FA Cup final with Liverpool in 1986, Pointon played no part in the showpiece game.

When Kendall departed for Spain, Pointon became more of a first team regular but in 1990, he linked up again with Kendall when he signed for Manchester City. Kendall had returned from Atletico Bilbao to Maine Road and he made Pointon one of his first signings. Two years later Pointon signed for Oldham Athletic and scored in their FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United in 1994.

At 31, Pointon accepted Jim Jefferies offer to join Hearts, making his debut in the 4-2 win over Raith Rovers at Tynecastle in October 1995. Pointon became a vital member of the Hearts team that season and was instrumental in helping to develop youngsters like Paul Ritchie and Alan McManus. He played in the Scottish Cup Final in 1996 but couldn’t prevent a 5-1 loss to Rangers. Pointon was never anything less than committed to the Hearts cause and his passionate style of play made him a favourite with the Gorgie faithful. However, with Gary Naysmith emerging as a full back of some talent, Pointon found his appearances in the Hearts first less frequent. While he was part of the squad that lifted the Scottish Cup in 1998, he didn’t feature on the day - other than cavorting around Celtic Park in his cup final suit! At the end of that month, ‘Disa’ as he was affectionately known, left Tynecastle for Walsall. After a spell at Chesterfield, Pointon managed non-league sides Hednesford Town, Retford United and Mossley.

Today, Neil Pointon is a youth team coach at FA Premiership high fliers Bolton Wanderers.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Money Talks

Politicians continually tell us that times are hard, the country is battling a recession and a very tough year lies ahead. However, no one, it seems, has mentioned this to football clubs in the obscenely rich English FA Premiership where the closing of the January transfer window a few days ago saw millions of pounds change hands - or rather bank accounts. Within minutes on the last day of January, not one but two British record transfer fees were created amid a buzz of helicopters and sports cars racing between Tyneside, Merseyside and London as Liverpool and Chelsea reached new levels of transfer madness.

At the beginning of 2011 Liverpool were adamant that star striker Fernando Torres would not be leaving Merseyside. The very fact the men in suits at Anfield made that statement indicated there were other forces at work and, sure enough, it emerged towards the end of the month that the Spanish striker had a clause in his contract that said he could leave Liverpool if the club didn’t qualify for the Champions League and a sizeable offer was made for his services. Step forward Chelsea with an astonishing offer of £50m - one that even Liverpool could not refuse. The Reds, in turn, made an arguably even more astounding offer of £35m to Newcastle United for the talented but far from the finished article that is England striker Andy Carroll. On the same day they bought Torres, Chelsea splashed out another £20m on Benfica defender David Luiz - and dripping in irony was the fact these two huge signings came in the same week the Stamford Bridge club posted a loss of nearly £71m for the financial year ending June 2010. Earlier in the month, Aston Villa had forked out £24m to bring another striker - Darren Bent - from Sunderland. Heaven knows what fans in Tyne & Wear thought at seeing two half-decent, but hardly world-beating centre forwards leave the north-east of England for a combined fee of nearly £60m.

Meanwhile, in Scotland fans could only look south with open mouths and mounting incredulity. No big money signings this side of the border. Celtic did sign Kris Commons from under the noses of their arch-rivals Rangers who, in turn, displayed an element of tit-for-tat by bringing Blackburn Rovers striker El Hadji Diouf on loan from Ewood Park - this the player who infamously spat at a Celtic fan at Parkhead while playing for Liverpool in an UEFA Cup tie in 2003. Other clubs were looking mainly at loan deals and/or players few supporters had heard of.

In my view, players such as Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll have only one ambition - to make as much money from football as possible. With the vast sums of money available in the English game, no one could really blame them. However, when Torres nets for Chelsea and Carroll eventually breaks his Liverpool duck there may well be the now customary run towards their newly smitten supporters and the quite sickening kissing of the club badge on their new team shirt. Given his much-quoted love for Liverpool and his apparent admiration for all things Scouse when he was a kid growing up in Madrid, what does it now mean to Torres to play for the Red’s bitter rivals Chelsea? Probably not a lot but it does mean a lot to his bank balance. Similarly, Andy Carroll who has replaced Torres in the red and white of Liverpool. Three years ago, few people outside of Newcastle had heard of him. Now, one full season in the Championship and half a season in the FA Premiership, a huge amount of money has made him forget his north-east roots and become a mercenary on Merseyside.

In an age of financial austerity such transfer madness sticks in the throat of the working classes who will find it more difficult than ever to meet the cost of going to watch football. Scottish football learnt the hard way a few years ago when the likes of Rangers spent £12m on Tore Andre Flo and Celtic tried desperately to keep up. Now the Glasgow duo - and others - are paying the price and are left to scurry around Poundstretchers rather than waltz arrogantly like their English counterparts through Harrods. And in a way that might not be a bad thing. Young talent such as David Templeton at Hearts, Chris Maguire at Aberdeen, Jamie Ness at Rangers and James Forrest at Celtic will be given their chance to make an impression in their respective first teams - and in the long term this will benefit Craig Levein as he attempts to make Scotland a half decent football nation again. Most Scots fans will be able to relate better to young talent in their clubs, particularly those coming through the youth set-ups, than over-paid and over-rated fly-by-nights…

The English game has never had as much money as it has now. Conversely, Scottish football has seldom been so financially embarrassed. You might think I’ve been at the brandy but, honestly, I’d rather see a committed Kevin Kyle in a Hearts shirt than a here today, gone tomorrow Spaniard who only has eyes for pound signs. And I’m not talking about Suso Santana!