Monday, 25 April 2011

Heart of Midlothian 1974

The Hearts squad lines up for a pre-season photo-call in the summer of 1974 - the club's centenary. Some players even look happy to be there...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Heart of Midlothian 3 Motherwell 3

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 23 April 2011 - Tynecastle

This being the Easter weekend there will be a fair amount of eggs of the chocolate variety being consumed around the country. Hearts supporters of my generation have something of an aversion to eggs and know only too well to never, ever count any subsequent chickens until they are hatched (yes, I know you don't get chickens from chocolate eggs but I'm trying to make an analogy here...)

Hearts contrived to throw away a three goal lead against Motherwell today as the 'race for Europe' as the stadium announcer kept saying - get well soon Scott Wilson, by the way - has turned into something of a struggle to reach the finishing line, never mind cross it.

Having said this, it was a quite superb game of football, one of the best I have seen this season. After a sprightly opening, Hearts took the lead after 26 minutes when Ryan Stevenson was fouled by Saunders and Craig Thomson, of all people, slotted home the resultant penalty to score his first goal in first team colours for Hearts. After the hard working Stevenson hit the post, Hearts went two goals up when Rudi Skacel played a one-two with Stephen Elliott before firing high into the net. Hearts two goals ahead at the break.

Early in the second half Stevenson showed a fine piece of skill to beat Craigan but the former Ayr United man's fierce effort on goal struck one post and then another before being cleared by a relieved Motherwell defence. Stevenson was not to be outdone, however. After 52 minutes, Suso delivered a superb cross which Stevenson headed past Randolph to put Hearts 3-0 ahead and in easy street. Or so some of the younger Hearts fans thought. Those of us who know better knew the game wasn't over yet. And it wasn't.

Motherwell immediately pulled a goal back through Sutton and when Tom Hateley's free kick sailed into the net with the Hearts defence casting admiring glances, alarm bells began to ring. Hearts could not respond and Frances Jeffers really should have equalised when clean through on goal but the former Everton and Arsenal striker ballooned his effort high into the Roseburn Stand. However, the visitors got the leveller they probably deserved when Sutton flicked a header past an aghast Marian Kello - great to see the keeper back - to end the scoring at 3-3.

While some Hearts fans booed at the end, credit should go to Motherwell for a fine comeback. Stuart McCall has the makings of a fine team here and I have a feeling they'll give Celtic a run for their money in the Scottish Cup Final next month. I wish them well (if you'll excuse the pun)

For Hearts the lead over Dundee United is now just seven points. However - there aren't many games left. Four to be precise - twelve points. Next weekend Hearts head to Rugby Park to face a Kilmarnock side with nothing to play for. The following day Dundee United go to Celtic Park. The 'race for Europe' could be over by the bank holiday Monday.

Hang on - what was I saying about chickens...?

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Indiscipline is Nothing New

I read a newspaper report the other day about how the S.F.A were making determined efforts to clean up Scottish football and threatening some players with lengthy suspensions because of their bad behaviour records. In a little over a month, sixteen players had been red-carded and the S.F.A’s Referee Committee was concerned about a lack of respect in the game. There were a couple of incidents of note - the sending off of a manager who had remonstrated with a referee during a league game and a Hearts game where seven players were booked - and six of them had launched an appeal against the decision. Now, dear reader, if you’re of my generation you may be shaking your head at this point and wishing some players would show more respect for authority like they did in football’s heyday in the 1960s. The more astute reader may read the above and think ‘hang on, this guy Smith is wrong - you can’t appeal against a booking, only a sending off’. However, before you write in, I should point out the newspaper report I was reading was dated September 9th - 1968.

This season has seen more than its fair share of unsavoury ‘incidents’ on and off the field of play. Celtic’s Neil Lennon and Rangers Ally McCoist literally went head to head at Celtic Park a few weeks ago. Earlier this month Aberdeen’s Craig Brown took obvious exception to something Motherwell chairman John Boyle said to him at the end of the game at Fir Park and chased him up the tunnel. Brown’s reaction may have been deemed unacceptable but I have to say I was more surprised by the speed he went after the Motherwell supremo - not bad for a 70 year old! Down south, Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney thought it smart to celebrate scoring against West Ham by aiming a foul-mouthed tirade towards a touch line cameraman. The England player was subsequently banned for two games and the former Evertonian who once displayed a tee shirt declaring ‘Always a Blue’ complained he was being treated unfairly. Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp opined he remembered United legend Bobby Charlton hitting the back of the net with ferocious shots yards from goal decades ago but couldn’t recall the man who helped United win the European Cup in 1968 ever celebrating by swearing on camera.

Many older supporters hark back to days when the game was less money-orientated and more respect was shown for those in authority. However, it’s easy to look back and believe football has always been a gentleman’s game. I’m loathe to mention the 1966 World Cup for obvious reasons but when England defeated Argentina their manager Alf Ramsay instructed his players not to shake hands or swap shirts at the final whistle, deeming the Argentine players ‘animals’ for what he perceived to be brutal behaviour during the game.

STV has recently shown an excellent documentary series called The Football Years. One of the programmes covered the infamous Celtic-Atletico Madrid European Cup semi-final first leg tie at Celtic Park in 1974 which ended in a goalless draw but was marked, if you’ll pardon the pun, by the disgraceful behaviour of the Atletico players, three of whom were sent off as they kicked anything that moved and left Celtic player Jimmy Johnstone covered in bruises. The ensuing brawl involving players and officials in the players tunnel at the end of the game was branded ‘disgraceful’ by the television commentator. 37 years later one of the Celtic players that night - John ‘Dixie’ Deans - spoke of how Strathclyde police had to restrain one of the Atletico players outside the away dressing room - while one or two Celtic players were ‘encouraged’ to dish out their own brand of retaliation on the way past. The Spaniards claim the following day of brutality in Glasgow doesn’t seem quite so incredulous now!

Football has always had its bad boys. Referees have always had their decisions questioned. It’s easy to think this is a modern phenomenon but as that newspaper report from nearly forty-three years ago showed, football’s governing body in Scotland was concerned about a lack of respect even during the swinging sixties. The amount of money in football nowadays means it’s a huge business with so much at stake - it’s no longer just a game. Perhaps it’s fanciful to think players and officials could show there is humorous side to this business.

Such as when a well known Scots player who once asked a referee what would happen if he called him a fecking idiot. The referee looked at him and replied he would have to send him off for foul and abusive language. The player then asked what would happen if he only thought the referee was a fecking idiot. The somewhat bemused ref retorted there was nothing he could do about that, as he wasn’t a mind reader.

‘In that case then’ said the player with a cheeky grin, ‘I think you’re a fecking idiot….’

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Lennon Refusing to Change

Although bans and backlash were levied at Neil Lennon to put the Celtic manager in check after a row on the touchline violation versus Hearts at Tynecastle in November, the young manager, back now in the dugout after a ban of five matches, states emphatically that his style will remain unchanged.

Citing bias in the Scottish Football Association’s handling of other managers’ infractions Lennon claims that he will keep a “close eye” on Aberdeen manager Craig Brown and Motherwell chairman John Boyle after a heated confrontation between the two. His goal: to see if the punishment falls as hard on others as it did—at least according to Lennon—on him.

Over the past couple of months, Lennon has stayed out of the public’s eye and has not addressed the media often at all. But when he came back, he came back with a vengeance, stating unequivocally that he feels he was singled out and punished harshly.

Lennon is on record multiple times stating that the initial six-match ban was a “gross over-reaction.” But just how much of that is actually true and how much of that is a guy crying foul for the sympathy vote?

Fan or not, the gusto shown by Lennon is appreciated to an extent. Footballers love the fiery, passionate manager in their corner, willing to tell things like they are – or at least how any football squad sees it (us against the world). However, the problem-child behaviour, which Lennon practically insists will not cease, can also be a distraction and can turn a well-performing club into a train wreck in no time at all.

Should Lennon grow up and take his licks? It may be true that Lennon’s hand is smacked with a ruler while others’ infractions earn only a stiff finger wave. But with two guys stranded in the woods, the wolves are going to surround the loudest. The quietest and calmest, well, he can get away with walking through the den while the pack is preoccupied with their loud, crying meal.

If we were to break this down into a betting formula, what are the odds that Neil Lennon gets into a confrontation or oversteps the line in criticisms and gets smacked with a fine or ban? If this statistic was found at the best online casinos and sports books out there, we’d probably be looking at 3:1 - maybe even lower if the firecracker can’t pluck his fuse in the coming days.

When asked about the “close eye” comment, Lennon stated that he was only “looking for fairness” and stated that other managers also “criticise referees.” As any Scottish Football fan knows, that’s true. Confrontations and criticisms are nothing new at all. Most managers, however, have a proverbial off switch and can avoid turning a molehill into a mountain.

If you’re begging for punishment, you’re going to get it. Lennon will be made a martyr off, sure enough, if he cannot curb that attitude. Whether he’s right or wrong is not the issue. It’s the time, place, and the limits the league is willing to accept before putting its collective foot down.

Maybe with blackjack online we’d be looking at better odds, but for Lennon, we’ll hold solid to that 3:1 that he ends up suspended for future games or ends up with his wallet a bit lighter as a result of his ranting.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Heart of Midlothian 0 Motherwell 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 9 April 2011 - (125 year old) Tynecastle

On a day when Hearts marked 125 years since the present Tynecastle Park/Stadium opened, it was perhaps inevitable the occasion would be marked with a goalless draw. However, in my view this was a decent game with some nice passing football from both sides - all it lacked, if I can resort to cliche mode for a moment, were goals.

In fact, despite the nice football on show there were very few chances. Hearts Ryan Stevenson forced 'Well keeper Randolph into action early on while strike partner Stephen Elliott blasted a shot over the bar. For Motherwell, Saunders hit the post shortly before half time and in the second half Forbes hit the crossbar when he should have scored. In the end a point apiece was probably about right.

The plus points from a Hearts point of view was the performance of Craig Thomson. The full back had Motherwell's Chris Humphrey  - whose pace is something else - in his pocket all afternoon while Andy Webster, as he had done at Easter Road six days ago, strolled through the game as if he had never been away from the centre of the Hearts defence. Webster captained the Hearts team in the absence of the suspended Zaliukas and I suspect 'Smokey' will be given the armband for keeps next season.

The negatives for the maroons is the worrying lack of a goal threat. Kevin Kyle's absence is keenly felt and while Skacel and Elliott are capable of scoring, when they are both off the pace - as they were today - there is no one else to threaten. With Dundee United continuing to edge closer to Hearts in the SPL - the gap is now eight points - this is something that may well be keeping Hearts boss Jim Jefferies awake at night.

On a positive note - happy 125th birthday, Tynecastle, one of Scotland's best football arenas. And, may I say what a pleasure it was to meet Vicky from Musselburgh at Tynecastle today. Vicky has made the odd comment or two on this blog and it was great to meet her at last (okay, Vickster, that's enough niceties for now...)

Finally, it was great to see Maroon View, a Hearts fanzine on the streets today. It's an excellent read - to get a copy contact

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Happy 125th Birthday Tynecastle

Contrary to what some of my so-called friends believe, I was not present when the present Tynecastle opened its gates for the first time 125 years ago. It just feels like it at times. I do wonder, however, what it must have been like coming here in 1886 and it’s a cause for reflection when one considers Hearts home was just 16 years old when Hibernian last won the Scottish Cup….

I’ve been coming to the old ground since 1968 and I’m sure Hearts award winning match day magazine will have a few tales about memorable games that have taken place there. The 5-1 triumph over Lokomotive Leipzig in 1976; the 3-2 win over Hibernian in 1983; the 4-2 Scottish Cup triumph over Rangers in 1995. All memorable Tynecastle occasions. There were two in particular, however, that I remember making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

First off was February 1989. Season 1988/89 had been a peculiar one for Hearts. It had begun with an unfamiliar Hearts line up as legendary striker John Robertson had left Tynecastle for Tyneside and wore the black and white stripes of Newcastle United. Iain Ferguson had been signed as his replacement but Hearts league form was patchy and inconsistent. In the UEFA Cup, however, it was a different story. After wins over St. Patricks Athletic, Austria Vienna and Velez Mostar, Hearts found themselves in the quarter-finals (no group stages to the forerunner of the Europa League then) Alex Macdonald’s side were paired with German giants Bayern Munich with the first leg at Tynecastle. I was living in Aberdeen at the time but there was no way I was going to miss Hearts biggest ever game in Europe so I headed for Tynecastle on a wet Tuesday evening - along with more than 26,000 other fans, mostly bedecked in maroon and white. Tynecastle in 1989 was quite different to the fine all-seated arena it is today and most of the huge crowd stood on the slopes of the terracing. My mate and I stood in what was affectionately known as The Shed and watched with pride as Hearts took the game to their illustrious opponents. A tense game was goalless ten minutes into the second half when Hearts, shooting towards the school end, were awarded a free kick twenty-five yards from the Bayern goal. Tosh McKinlay rolled the ball into the path of Iain Ferguson who smashed an unstoppable shot beyond the despairing arms of Bayern keeper Aumann into the net to give Hearts the lead. Tynecastle erupted in a way I had not witnessed before. We were sent sprawling down several steps of the terracing as grown men danced and leapt on each other in joyous bedlam. The cacophony of noise was quite deafening and one could sense the Germans were rattled. Bayern may have been old hands in the European game but it’s doubtful they had experienced anything like Tynecastle before where the fans were nearly on top of their highly paid players.

Hearts hung on for a famous 1-0 victory - it could even have been 2-0 had Dave Macpherson converted a glorious chance near the end - but, inevitably, lost 2-0 in the return leg in the Olympic Stadium in Munich a couple of weeks later to go out 2-1 on aggregate.

The second Tynecastle occasion to bring a lump to my throat was on 3 May 2006 when Aberdeen came to Gorgie for a SPL match. But this just wasn’t any old match. It was the tail end of a memorable season where Hearts, initially under George Burley then Graham Rix and then carried on by Valdas Ivanauskas had taken Scottish football by storm. Victory over The Dons meant Hearts would secure second place in the league - not only would this result in splitting the Old Firm but would elevate Hearts to the qualifying stages for the following season’s Champions League.

A full house of more than 17,000 packed into Tynecastle on a Wednesday evening and the atmosphere from start to finish was tumultuous. Expectant Hearts fans belted out the club anthems all evening but a determined Aberdeen side seemed intent on spoiling the party. The game remained goalless at half time and Hearts fans contemplated the prospect of having to go to Ibrox the following Sunday needing to avoid defeat to realise their dream of sitting at European football’s top table for the first time since 1960. However, like the aforementioned game against Bayern, Hearts made the breakthrough ten minutes into the second half when Zander Diamond handled Roman Bednar’s goal bound header. A penalty to Hearts that Paul Hartley duly converted. From my vantage point in the Wheatfield Stand, I thought the roof was going to come off such was the noise from jubilant Hearts fans. In fact, I felt sure I felt the stand sway as the delirious home support celebrated. There was no further scoring and Hearts duly took their place in the qualifying stages of the Champions League. I felt a lump in my throat that evening and, I don’t mind admitting, fought back the tears. I never thought I would witness such an occasion and it seemed neither did the majority of the ecstatic home support. Even some Aberdeen fans of my acquaintance commented that the atmosphere at Tynecastle that night was the best they had ever experienced.

As Tynecastle celebrates its 125th birthday, I hope there are more occasions like these to savour. When the old ground is full and Hearts triumph there is no more atmospheric stadium in the country - as fans of Aberdeen and Bayern Munich will testify!