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!