Sunday, 31 July 2011

A Long Summer

Some people who know me are of the opinion I’m a miserable old so-and-so. Okay, that’s not strictly 100% accurate - it’s most people who know me. And this includes members of my family. In fact, particularly members of my family…My levels of grumpiness have been even higher than usual these last few weeks. You could argue this could be down to any number of things - the wet summer (and when the sun does make a rare appearance the high pollen count), pressure of work, not having a decent holiday until the end of August, the incessant natterings of the infamous Mrs Smith…all of these are factors. However, the biggest one is, I suspect, familiar to many people  the absence of fitba’.

Last summer we at least had the World Cup to fill the void, even though Scotland didn’t participate (as it turned out neither did England even though they were in South Africa) This year there’s been nothing. Until this afternoon's disappointing display against Dundee United, it had seemed like an eternity since Hearts played a competitive game at Tynecastle. However, even with season 2011/12 kicking off early the long summer weeks seemed to have dragged by.

The days of scouring the newspapers for little titbits about football have long gone. Now the internetFacebook and Twitter can give you information immediately in an age when we demand instant communication. Hearts themselves were offering a text messaging service to deliver first news of the fixtures for the new season. Those of us yearning for our football fix had already marked 17 June as a red-letter day. Mrs Smith has always struggled to understand the anticipation associated with the issue of the new fixture list. She is of the opinion that as Hearts have to play everybody in the Clydesdale Bank SPL at some point what does it matter when and where? That is the opinion of someone who doesn’t understand football.

Most Hearts supporters wasted little time in checking their text messages or various websites that morning in order to plan their lives for the next few months. First Edinburgh derby of the season? 28 August. Right, no going away for the weekend at the end of that month then. Fancy a nice wee trip to the Highlands? Hmm - 10 September would be nice. A relaxing couple of days on the banks of Loch Ness in late summer - just the thing to recharge the batteries. Oh, and Hearts are playing Inverness Caledonian Thistle. I suggested to Mrs Smith that, for a change, we could visit her family in Aberdeen a couple of days after Christmas. Well, she knows how fond I am of her mother…What’s that I hear you say? Hearts are playing at Pittodrie on 28 December? Well, what a remarkable coincidence (I know, dear reader, you won’t say a word to Mrs Smith)

This summer the anticipation of the domestic fixtures was surpassed by the draw for the third qualifying round of the Europa League on 15 July. Now planning for this was more of a challenge. At least with the domestic fixtures we knew where we would be heading in the months ahead - just not when. With the Europa League, there was any number of possibilities. A trip to Croatia to face Hajduk Split? Or Cyprus to face Omonia Nicosia? Or a trip to Ireland to face Sligo Rovers? It’s six years now since I took Mrs Smith to Dublin for a weekend in July. The presence of several passengers on the flight from Edinburgh wearing maroon and white scarves immediately alerted her to the real reason we were going - Hearts pre-season friendly against St. Patrick’s Athletic.

The release of the Clydesdale Bank SPL fixtures and the Europa League draw were the highlights of a long and far from hot summer that seemed to take an age to pass me by. Sad, I know, but I’ve felt pretty much the same way every summer since 1969. Apart from 1982 when I got married in the middle of June. Even then, Scotland were playing in the World Cup Finals in Spain…

Now fitba’ is back. All is right with the world again. Until ten months from now when we have to go through it all again…

Heart of Midlothian 0 Dundee Utd 1

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Sunday 31 July 2011, Tynecastle

There's something about Hearts whenever they're involved in European competition - league form seems to desert them. After an impressive showing eight days ago in the SPL opener at Ibrox where they shared a 1-1 draw with champions Rangers, Hearts secured the same scoreline five days later against Paksi - a decent result in the Europa League qualifer in Hungary. Today, however, it was a different story.

Hearts were missing Andy Webster, Mehdi Taouil, Kevin Kyle, Andrew Driver, Suso Santana and Jamie Hamill but still had a decent enough team on the park to do the business against a Dundee United team without striker David Goodwillie, believed to be joining Blackburn Rovers this week. However, the Maroons looked sluggish from the start and created few chances in a disappointing 90 minutes - well, 94 minutes to account for the ridiculous time wasting tactics of the visitors.

United posted their early intention when John Rankin's free kick from the edge of the penalty box smacked off the crossbar. Hearts only decent chance of the first half fell to Stephen Elliott who had time to turn in the United six yard box but he made a hash of his shot on goal that trundled wide. Shortly afterwards, Hearts paid the price for that miss when United's Jon Daly was given the freedom of Gorgie Road to bullet home Flood's excellent delivery. Quite what Hearts defender Marius Zaliukas was doing when Daly rose unchallenged is debatable.

Hearts huffed and puffed in the second half but never looked like getting the equaliser - not even when talisman Rudi Skacel was introduced with 20 minutes left. In the end, United deserved all three points for the simple fact they used the ball much better when they had possession. Far too often Hearts resorted to playing a long ball to an out of sorts John Sutton.

European football returns to Tynecastle on Thursday night. Despite having secured an away goal, Hearts will have to up the tempo against Paksi if they want to progress.

Top man: Danny Grainger

East Stirlingshire 0 Ayr United 3

Scottish Communities League Cup, 1st Round - Ochilview Park

With Hearts not playing until Sunday I took the opportunity to head to darkest Larbert - actually it was a very sunny and warm Larbert - on Saturday to watch my 'other team' take on Ayr United in the Scottish Communities League Cup. As was the case a year ago Shire have had numerous changes in personnel with only a handful of players remaining from last season. In addition, coach Jim McInally left at the end of last season and his replacement is the vastly experienced John Coughlin.

It was a decent game played in warm weather and there was much to entertain the shirt-sleeved crowd, in particular a noisy travelling support who gave Ayr United huge vocal encouragement from start to finish. Being something of an old punk (insert your own punchline here) I was quite impressed by their version of the Sex Pistols classic Anarchy in the UK...

Ayr United are two divisions higher than Shire - and it showed. Despite a spirited showing from the home team, Ayr had more skill and experience - Alex Burke and Mark Roberts showed some of the Shire youngsters a thing or two  - although after an opening five minutes when Shire could barely get out of their own half, the home side did come more into things. After the visitors passed up several chances to score, it was Shire who almost opened the scoring when Ally Love had an effort well saved by Cuthbert. Just when it seemed they might get to half time on level terms, Shire's good work was undone when Trouten took advantage of hesitancy in the home defence to poke the ball past Sorely to give the visitors the lead. Five minutes later the roof fell in on the hosts when Moffat tapped home after Sorely had saved well from Trouten.

Ayr United then put the issue beyond doubt five minutes after the break when Roberts was first to react in the six yard box to tap home and end the scoring at 3-0 to The Honest Men.

However, it was a decent game and while there is a lot of work for Shire manager John Coughlin to do there are some promising signs and some good young talent who work hard for each other. I sense a more passing style from Shire this season than was the case under Jim McInally. One thing that might become an issue, though - indiscipline. I sat just a few yards away from an incident in the second half when Love belied his surname by having a real go at the standside assistant referee in a manner that could easily have brought the Shire man a yellow card. The Scottish Communities League Cup has respect as a buzzword - something a few players should think about.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Hearts 1 Royal Antwerp 0

Friendly, Sunday 17 July 2011 - Tynecastle.

The highlights of this pre-season friendly were:

1) The impressive away support. Around 250 Royal Antwerp fans gave their team magnificent backing from start to finish.

2) Novikovas' run which resulted in a penalty for the home side converted by Jamie Hamill with 5 minutes to go.

Er....that's it.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

When Cruickie Beat Fergie...

A late goal from Donald Ford earned Hearts a 1-0 win over Rangers in this Scottish Cup quarter final replay at Tynecastle in March 1968. The maroons reached the final - only to lose to Dunfermline Athletic...

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Building for a New Season

Hearts supporters of my generation - trying to fend off the rapidly advancing half century - may ponder certain symmetry between this summer and the first half of 1973. Now before younger readers swiftly turn off, let me try to explain. 1974 marked Heart of Midlothian FC’s one hundredth birthday (no, I wasn’t around at the club’s inception, thank you) With the centenary season approaching, Hearts made some major moves into the transfer market as the importance of the season was recognised. As Hearts stumbled towards the conclusion of a disappointing 1972/73 campaign the manager at the time, Bobby Seith, signed diminutive winger Kenny Aird from St Johnstone and midfielder John Stevenson from Coventry before signing a player who would go on to attain cult status at Tynecastle - Airdrieonians attack-minded midfielder Drew Busby. Another new arrival at Tynecastle was winger Bobby Prentice from Celtic and it was a revamped Hearts side that began the 1973-74 season hoping to mark one hundred years with a long-awaited trophy.

I remember how excited we Hearts supporters were at the time and the keen anticipation felt as the new season commenced. Hearts hadn’t been as active in the transfer market for some years but the board of directors clearly wanted to push the boat out to mark the club’s centenary. The early signs were good as Hearts began the league campaign with a win at Morton - legendary striker Donald Ford hitting an historic hat trick of penalty kicks - and the fans travelling back from Greenock were hoping this was an omen in Hearts’ quest for glory. A week later Hearts avenged a certain New Years Day defeat by hammering Hibs 4-1 at Tynecastle. Buoyed by this impressive start Hearts embarked on an unbeaten run that lasted until the end of October - and took them to the top of the League. Ultimately, Hearts could not maintain such fine form but for a few weeks in the autumn of 1973, we were convinced our team were genuine title challengers once more.

38 years later, Hearts have again been actively recruiting to an already impressive squad of players that finished the best of the rest behind the Old Firm last season. On one memorable day towards the end of May and with the dust barely settling on season 2010/11, manager Jim Jefferies - who was a young Hearts defender during the maroon’s highly impressive start to the 1973/74 season - wasted no time in putting his plans in place for the new season by recruiting defender Danny Grainger, midfielder Jamie Hamill and centre forward John Sutton. He almost added a fourth player that day but the move to bring Aberdeen’s Zander Diamond to Tynecastle ultimately fell through. It was a day to take the breath away and signalled Hearts intention of building on last season’s success and challenging Rangers for their league championship. At one point last season Hearts looked to be giving the Old Firm a run for their money - an astonishing run midway through the campaign brought an remarkable 31 points from 11 games - and only injuries to key players such as Kevin Kyle brought the maroon express to a halt. It was with this in mind that the Hearts manager sought to strengthen the squad to ensure Hearts had the depth necessary to mount a serious challenge for honours.

A few weeks later, Jefferies did add a fourth player - the hugely talented Mehdi Taouil from Kilmarnock. Like the gaffer, I have been a huge admirer of the attacking midfielder and whenever Kilmarnock came to Tynecastle, I hoped the Moroccan wouldn’t be playing as he always caused Hearts problems. As with most Hearts supporters, I was thrilled to see him sign for the maroons and the prospect of Taouil and David Templeton in midfield is a mouth-watering one.

Like 1974, this year is a landmark year for Hearts. 2011 has seen the club celebrate 125 years of playing at Tynecastle and with season ticket sales already exceeding expectations there is an optimism and anticipation in Gorgie not felt for some time. Even if there are no further additions, Hearts are looking stronger than they have done for some years. As they did when season 1973/74 kicked off. It would great to think Jim Jefferies could go one step further than he did 38 years ago - and lead Hearts to silverware. Now that would be a landmark season!

Hearts Double Winners

The Hearts squad who won the League Championship and League Cup during season 1959/60.