Sunday, 7 August 2011

Out With the Old at Tynecastle

A week ago, I was at Tynecastle to watch Hearts lose 1-0 to Dundee United. As the score line indicates it wasn’t the greatest game I’ve ever witnessed as a Hearts fan and while the home side had plenty possession of the ball they didn’t use it particularly well, opting for the all too familiar tactic of hitting long towards the increasingly forlorn looking figure of striker John Sutton. United, no longer with the potent goal scoring threat of David Goodwillie, defended well and, more importantly, used the ball far better than Hearts. The game was a succinct summary of Hearts in the calendar year of 2011 - plenty of effort but becoming rather predictable.

The day after Hearts defeat, manager Jim Jefferies was sacked along with his assistant Billy Brown. While Hearts say it was a board decision there’s no doubt that majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov calls the shots and fires the bullets at Tynecastle. His decision wasn’t a reaction to the loss from United; the fact Romanov appointed Paulo Sergio as Jefferies’ replacement just hours later is evidence the Russian had been thinking about a change for some time. In fact, he alluded to his unhappiness at the end of last season when he publicly questioned Hearts form in the last quarter of the season where they nearly relinquished third place in the SPL to Dundee United after having a substantial lead over the Tannadice team at the start of the year.

The decision to dismiss Jefferies didn’t go down well with many Hearts supporters and much of those in the media. Romanov has little respect for those in the press, a notion enhanced when he issued a statement the day after the sacking of Jefferies referring to the ‘media monkeys’. Hearts supporters laud Jefferies as a legend in Gorgie. He is afforded this status by way of the memorable season of 1997/98 when he created a Hearts team that played the best football seen at Tynecastle since the halcyon days of the 1950s when the Maroons won every domestic honour going and were the dominant force in Scottish football. The class of 1997/98 with the likes Neil McCann, Colin Cameron, Stephane Adam and Stevie Fulton produced some sparkling football and ran the Old Firm close for the league championship until a dip in form at a crucial stage in the league campaign cost Hearts dear. Jefferies did, however, lead Hearts to a Scottish Cup triumph thus ending 36 barren years without a trophy. It wasn’t just ending the long wait for success; it was the exorcising of so many Tynecastle ghosts after numerous near misses, particularly in 1986 when Hearts came within eight minutes of winning the league and lost the Scottish Cup Final a week later.

Jefferies devotees tend to overlook the season after Hearts 1998 Scottish Cup triumph when the club flirted dangerously with relegation and, having to contend with the club’s decision to sell Neil McCann to Rangers and David Weir to Everton and the long-term injury absence of Colin Cameron, the manager appeared to press the panic button with some bizarre signings in a bid to prevent the ship from sinking. Remember Mohammed Berthe, Derek Lilley and Leigh Jenkinson?

Jefferies left Hearts for Bradford City in 2000, shortly after a horrendous 6-2 hammering from Hibernian at Easter Road. It’s fair to say some Hearts fans had turned against the manager although there remained those who were steadfastly loyal. I wrote at the time when Craig Levein was appointed Jefferies’ successor at Tynecastle that the former Hearts and Scotland centre half had the team playing a more studious, passing game that was pleasing on the eye.

Ten years later, I cannot help a feeling of déjà vu. For the first half of last season Hearts played some decent stuff under Jim Jefferies although I don’t believe I’m the only person who feels the remarkable run of results towards the end of 2010 when Hearts took 31 points from a possible 33 papered over the cracks somewhat. There was talk of Hearts challenging the Old Firm for the title but this was more wishful thinking than a serious consideration. Given his physical presence, striker Kevin Kyle was the understandable target for much of Hearts play but when the former Scotland man suffered a serious injury in January there was no Plan B for the team to adapt to. It didn’t seem to matter too much as Hearts were so far ahead in third place in the SPL, 13 points ahead of fourth place Kilmarnock and 20 points ahead of Dundee United. However, Jim Jefferies’ side them embarked on a run of just one win in 12 games and in the end clinched third place in the SPL by just one point from a resurgent Dundee United.

Hearts began the 2011/12 with an impressive opening 45 minutes at Ibrox and led defending champions Rangers 1-0 at half time. However, Jim Jefferies’ side sat back in the second half and the feeling persisted that Hearts had handed the initiative back to Rangers and were perhaps lucky to leave with a draw - when all three points were there for the taking. In the Europa League 3rd round qualifier against Paksi, Hearts secured a 1-1 draw but against Dundee United three days later appeared lacking in ideas.

Vladimir Romanov was at Tynecastle for the United game. History tells us he has never been the most patient of men and he clearly had enough after watching Hearts huff and puff for 90 minutes. Romanov is not a man who backs away from making difficult decisions - in fact, it would seem he relishes doing so. He would have lost no sleep over what the fans might think about dispensing with the services of a man hugely respected by the majority of the Hearts support. He would care even less about the diatribe directed a him by the press, many of whom condemned his decision without considering the reasons behind it. My own concern was with the timing of the decision, just three days before an important European game. That aside, I feel I’m not the only Hearts supporter who felt a change was required. One journalist, Graham Spiers, described Hearts as a ‘ludicrous fiasco’, which I found mildly amusing, given the scribe in question works for News International…

The new man charged with delivering a winning Hearts team is Paulo Sergio whose last job was as manager of Sporting Lisbon. They sacked him after Rangers knocked Sporting out of last season’s Europa League. Given Scottish clubs abysmal record in European competition in recent years, one could perhaps understand that decision. The 43-year-old Portuguese will bring a different perspective to Hearts. Already there were signs of Hearts playing more of a passing game in the return leg against Paksi at Tynecastle, which the Maroons won 4-1 - their first win in a competitive fixture since a fortuitous 3-2 win over St. Mirren on 19 March.

Romanov has said he expects the new man to deliver the league title. Again, this brought smirks from some in the media who said such an expectation was wholly unrealistic. However, what’s the point of clubs such as Hearts competing in the SPL if they don’t feel they can win it? Are clubs really asking supporters to shell out small fortunes for season tickets to watch their team lose? I admired Sergio’s response to Romanov’s statement - give me the money to strengthen the team and I will get Hearts the title.

As with all things concerned with Heart of Midlothian FC these days, you cannot rule anything out….

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