Sunday, 20 November 2011

Heart of Midlothian Nil

On Saturday, Hearts played Dundee United at Tannadice. Being five weeks before Christmas and looking at an already stretched budget, I didn’t venture to Tayside. Instead, I spent a rare Saturday afternoon on front of the television and watched the excellent BBC’s Final Score. It was Scottish Cup afternoon and Airdrie United thrashed Gala Fairydean 11-0.

It was one of those scorelines that the teleprinter deems it appropriate to spell out, almost as if it patronisingly doesn’t think you’re smart enough to read ‘11’ without thinking it’s a mistake. The teleprinter has been part of the football results service for years now and in the age of cutting edge technology, you know if your take your eyes off the screen for a few minutes you risk the chance of missing an update on your team.

I’m old enough to recall the days when the BBC had Grandstand as its Saturday afternoon sports showcase and in the early 1970s there would be the legendary sports commentator/presenter David Coleman displaying a knowing grin as the final scores began to roll in at twenty minutes to five (in those days the half time interval lasted just ten minutes) I lived in Aberdeen 40 years ago and as a child at this time of year would be prone to being trailed round the shops with my mother in a last minute attempt to complete the Christmas shopping. I recall a couple of days before Christmas 1972 standing in Aberdeen’s Union Street outside a branch of Radio Rentals (ask your parents, young ‘uns) An array of television sets beamed at me from the display window - some were even in colour - and the old typewriter style printer would tap Heart of Midlothian 1.….Dundee……..then nothing but a flickering star symbol. The tension felt while waiting for the teleprinter to complete the job was quite unbearable. I crossed my fingers and hoped the next character would be ‘0’. When, after what seemed an eternity, the teleprinter typed out ‘2’, my heart sank. Being just ten years old, I wasn’t really into conspiracy theories but I harboured a suspicion about the BBC that day that has surfaced all too regularly ever since - usually at quarter to five on a Saturday. I can’t remember for sure if it was David Coleman on duty that afternoon but I can envisage his smug grin and uttering the words ‘Hearts unbeaten in four - until today’.

Even worse was the odd occasion when the teleprinter got the result wrong. I can’t remember exact details when it came to Hearts games but believe me dear reader, it did. For example Celtic…2 Hearts….3. Much dancing and leaping for joy on the streets of Aberdeen invoked looks of contempt from the locals, which turned to mirth a few moments later when the blasted teleprinter typed Corr. Celtic 2 Hearts 0. The emotional damage that could cause a young Hearts fan is incalculable.

Today, the internet and smart phone technology means we no longer have to rely on ‘Final Score’ to tell us about the fortunes of our team. However, it’s good to see the BBC have retained at least one piece of Saturday afternoon tradition. And it would be fun to see the teleprinter have a sense of humour to lift the gloom of those who are being constantly reminded of their team getting beat. For example, a few weeks ago it could have typed out Deveronvale 4 Berwick Rangers 0 (a bloody long way to go to see your team get knocked out the cup by non-league opposition); Culter 1 Partick Thistle 1 (ha-ha, Smith, that’s your fixed odd coupon busted and it’s only half time in the other games); QPR 2 Man City 3 (uh-oh, that will mean another post match rant by Neil Warnock); Newcastle United 2 (Ameobi 88) Tottenham Hotspur 2 (hah! Quick, let’s have a shot of Garth Crook’s face on camera 1 - see, not so smug now, eh Crooksy?!)

I know this is quite a juvenile way of thinking but Hearts are causing me and many others a lot of pain just now. The fella who has read the football scores on BBC1 for the last 40 odd years retired on Saturday and I was thinking how he usually gave Hearts their full name - Heart of Midlothian. Although even Tim Gudgin has now resorted to Hearts Nil...

My pain isn't eased by the crass pre Christmas period that has set in, even earlier it seems this year. However, my spirits would be lifted if the teleprinter begins 2012 on 2 January by flashing across the screen Hibs 0...Hearts… 8 (eight)

That would make it a Happy New Year...

Twitter @Mike1874

Saturday, 12 November 2011

I'd Like to Know Who the Alligators Are

A few weeks ago Dunfermline Athletic manager Jim McIntyre spoke after his side’s Clydesdale Bank SPL encounter with Hearts. ‘I don’t think we were ever in danger of losing the game’ he said, ‘but for all we didn’t look like conceding we needed to threaten more’. An interesting analysis from the Pars boss, particularly when one considers Hearts won the game 2-0. Although the match statistics seemed to back up his need to threaten more - attempts on target 0; attempts off target 1.

Now the bold Jim was merely doing what any manager worth his salt does - he was backing his players and trying to accentuate the positive. However, losing two goals without reply does make his assertion that he didn’t think Dunfermline was ever in danger of losing the game a tad inaccurate.

The following weekend, Manchester United were giving something of a shock when their city neighbours gate crashed Old Trafford and trashed the place, City cruising to a 6-1 win. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said afterwards that it was the worst result of his career, as either a manager or a player. Naturally, this had many football anoraks out there trawling the record books for the last 50 years to see if Fergie was right. And, sure enough, it emerged that when Ferguson played as a bustling centre-forward for Falkirk, he was part of the team that lost 7-1 to Airdrieonians on the final game of season 1971/72. To be fair, you couldn’t really blame a shell-shocked Fergie overlooking a meaningless, end of season result from nearly 40 years ago, although it’s doubtful he’ll forget the Manchester derby hammering - no matter how hard he tries.

When Ferguson was a player, the managers he played under at Falkirk, Rangers, Dunfermline Athletic etc. didn’t have television cameras and microphones stuck under their noses five minutes after the end of a game. Sure, they spoke to journalists after the game but it was a much more informal arrangement in those days, perhaps a glass of beer in the boardroom and the knowledge that not everything would be reported. Nowadays, with television covering every top flight game and instant communication a necessity thanks to the internet and the advent of instant news, websites and blogs, a manager only has to look at someone the wrong way and it’s reported for the whole world to see.

McIntyre’s words after the defeat from Hearts brought to mind some other quotes from football managers from years gone by that are filed under ‘we know what you mean’ drawer. Former Aston Villa manager Ron Saunders was once asked about unrest in the dressing room and supposedly replied, 'Allegations are all very well but I would like to know who these alligators are.' A snappy response in some ways.

Former England manager, the late Ron Greenwood, once remarked that ‘playing with wingers is more effective against European sides like Brazil, than English sides like Wales’. Unsurprisingly, these comments didn’t go down particularly well with the Welsh nationalists. Another former England manager, Kevin Keegan, once said ’I came to Nantes two years ago and it's much the same today - except that it's totally different.’  Sunderland manager Steve Bruce has come under a fair bit of pressure recently. Bruce is one of those managers who is always good to listen to because he has a passion for the game that is admirable. Particularly when he says things such as ‘If you are in the six-yard box, standing in an offside position, then you are offside’.

Back in the 1960s, a Welshman, Ivor Powell, who successfully managed Bradford City and Carlisle, allegedly uttered these words after a good season on the field, 'Without doubt, one of the secrets of our successful season was the harmonium in the dressing room.' After a celebratory dinner, he was heard to say, 'We had a lovely meal. Lovely. We had a big steak with all the tarnishings.'

I’ll leave the final quote from the manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Terry Butcher is another who has the gift of getting people to listen whenever he talks. His passion for the game and for his country is second to none (even if it is England…) Back in January 2010, during the week when the top flight clubs came into the Scottish Cup, Terry was quoted as saying ‘The beauty of Cup football is that Jack always has a chance of beating Goliath.’

I hope Jack isn’t a happy boy in a couple of weeks when the Highlanders visit the capital city...

Twitter @Mike1874 

Thursday, 3 November 2011

1976 Remembered - Motherwell 1 Hearts 4

Scottish football restructured its league set up in the mid 1970s and the clubs in the top flight knew they had to finish in the top ten to be included in the new-look Premier Division. Hearts made such an awful start to season 1974/75, not only were they not in the top ten in the early weeks of this crucial season - they were 18th in a league of eighteen! When Hearts lost 5-0 to Dundee United at Tannadice on 12 October 1974, they slumped to the foot of the table, having not won a league game all season. Before the Tannadice torment, Hearts had lost 4-1 at Aberdeen and by the same scoreline at Partick Thistle. Although they were only four points off the crucial tenth place in the league, the Hearts board of directors knew action had to be taken sooner rather than later and they dismissed manager Bobby Seith, replacing him with coach John Hagart.

The results were immediate. Hagart’s infectious enthusiasm for the game rubbed off on previously demoralised players and they defeated Airdrieonians to record their first win of the season before grabbing a 1-1 draw against Rangers at Ibrox the following week. There was still the odd rogue result but slowly Hearts began to climb the table. The improvement was such that the maroons ended season 1974/75 in eighth place in the league - and would therefore be part of the top ten Premier League of clubs for 1975/76. Their recovery was laudable but they were only four points away from not making it and being relegated for the first time in their history. The cracks had been papered over - for now.

Hearts fared only slightly better in the first season of the Premier Division and ended in fifth place in the table - their best league finish in six years but, again, perilously close to the drop, finishing just three points ahead of relegated Dundee. The league set up wasn’t without its critics. Many observers said the league was too tight, teams playing each other four times a season would be a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt; safety first would be the order of the day in order to survive this new cut-throat league rather than trying to entertain the fans. It was difficult to argue with these assertions.

Away from the intensity of the Premier Division, Hearts had at least reached the Scottish Cup Final in May 1976 where they faced treble-chasing Rangers at Hampden. Hearts path to the final was laboured to say the least and involved replays over Clyde, two replays over Montrose (Graham ‘Shuggie’ Shaw’s scrambled last minute equaliser in the first game at Links Park remains a vivid memory) and a semi-final replay over Dumbarton where a certain Walter Smith helped Hearts reach the final by scoring an own goal for the Sons of the Rock. Sadly, Hearts luck ran out in the final itself. The omens weren’t good when referee Bobby Davidson blew for kick off at two minutes to three - and Rangers scored in the opening minute. Thus Hearts were a goal behind before the official kick off time. Rangers won 3-1 and with Hearts about to enter some dark days, it would be another decade before the maroons would grace another Scottish Cup Final.

The summer of 1976 was a long, hot one. While most of us enjoyed the baking heat the country was affected by a serious drought. I was 14 years old in 1976 and, as usual during the summer months, I looked forward to the end of the football drought. Hearts began season 1976/77 with a friendly - or challenge match as the marketing people like to call them - at Tynecastle against Southampton. It was a considerable coup to get the Saints to Edinburgh as Lawrie McMenemy’s side had sensationally lifted the FA cup just weeks before, defeating much fancied Manchester United in the final. However, Hearts won 3-0 and followed this up two days later by winning the East of Scotland Shield thrashing Meadowbank Thistle 8-0 in the final at Tynecastle (I can’t recall what happened to Hibs but then I don’t really care) These two wins might not have meant that much but they did put the Hearts players in a confident frame of mind for the start of the League Cup a week later.

Hearts recent record in this competition was nothing to write home about and they were drawn in a tricky section with Dundee, Partick Thistle and Motherwell. Hearts, though, made a brilliant start and won their first three games before sharing six goals with Partick Thistle at Tynecastle. John Hagart’s men then travelled to Fir Park for the return fixture with Motherwell and this seemed the most difficult fixture in the section as The Steelmen, with striker Willie Pettigrew one of the most feared strikers in Scottish football. Alongside Pettigrew was the former Celtic striker Harry Hood so the Hearts defence were prepared for a difficult afternoon. Or so they thought…

Motherwell: Hunter, Millar, Wark, Farrell, McVie, Stevens, Hood, Pettigrew, Graham, McLaren, Marinello

Hearts: Wilson, Brown, Kay, Jefferies, Gallacher, Clunie, Park, Busby, Gibson, Callachan, Prentice.

Referee: C. Hutton

In bright late August sunshine it was the home team who started the more impressively and it was no surprise when Hood put them ahead with a close range effort after sixteen minutes. Despite Hearts impressive start to the season, one suspected it was going to be a long afternoon for the maroons. However, within a couple of minutes they drew level. Jim Brown delivered a long ball towards the Motherwell penalty box. Well’s keeper Hunter and centre half McVie both went to clear the ball and then decided to leave it to each other. Hearts Drew Busby didn’t hang around and he nipped in to drill the ball into the net for the equaliser.

One could almost see the confidence drain from the home side after gifting such a goal and it took just another four minutes for Hearts to go in front. Ralph Callachan, the impressive young midfielder, was given plenty room on the edge of the Motherwell penalty box and he fired an unstoppable shot past Hunter to put Hearts 2-1 ahead. Two minutes later, the home side should have made it parity when Jim Jefferies handled the ball inside his own penalty area and referee Hutton blew for a penalty kick. Former Hibs and Arsenal star Peter Marinello - once dubbed the new George Best - took the kick and struck it well but Hearts keeper Brian Wilson produced a brilliant save to keep Hearts ahead. It was all happening and only two further minutes were played when Hearts increased their lead. Little Donald Park was causing the home defence plenty of problems and he set off on a run that took him away from McVie and full back Wark. Within shooting range of goal, wee Parky’s fierce effort left Hunter without an earthly and Hearts were 3-1 ahead before half an hour was played.

It had been a remarkable transformation in such a short period of time and with Park and Rab Prentice wreaking havoc down the flanks, Ralph Callachan orchestrating the midfield and Willie Gibson and Drew Busby looking threatening up front, Hearts were now in total control and looking like they could score at will. Most impressive, though, was the way this Hearts team worked for one another. Park and Prentice would double up as extra defenders as Motherwell tried desperately to try and come back into the game and if defender Jim Jefferies would lose out in a tackle he knew there was the likes of John Gallacher or Dave Clunie on hand to help out. Hearts looked worthy of their 3-1 half time lead.

It was inevitable Motherwell would come out with all guns blazing at the start of the second half. They knew they had to win to keep alive their hopes of progressing to the knock out stages of the competition and Pettigrew and Hood tried their best to get on the end of deliveries by Marinello and Graham. Hearts were pinned back for a spell at the beginning of the second half but in the 52nd minute the maroons broke forward to devastating effect. Rab Prentice collected the ball from a clearance from his defenders and ran into the Motherwell penalty box. The mercurial skills of the ebullient Prentice could cause any defender problems when was on form and Rab was on fire that afternoon. As he danced into the penalty box home defender Millar brought him down and Hearts were awarded a penalty kick. Unlike Marinello in the first half, Drew Busby made no mistake to end the game as a contest at 4-1 to Hearts. There endeth the scoring and a quite superb Hearts performance that put one of the best teams in Scotland to the sword in their own patch. Curiously five of that defeated Motherwell team - Willie McVie, Peter Marinello, Stewart McLaren, Gregor Stevens and Willie Pettigrew - would later play for Hearts at some stage in their career.

Hearts duly progressed to the quarter finals of the League Cup and were again in fine form as they defeated First Division Falkirk 4-1 in the first leg at Tynecastle - although they did lose the return leg 4-3. In the semi final Hearts faced Celtic at Hampden Park on a Monday evening in October. John Hagart’s men again played well and in an incredible final five minutes of the first half took the lead through Jim Brown only for Kenny Dalglish to equalise seconds before the break. In the second half Hearts were than holding their own before s shocking challenge on Graham Shaw incredibly went unpunished. As the Hearts players waited in vain for the referee Hugh Alexander’s whistle, Celtic raced up the park and Dalglish fell theatrically in the penalty box after a challenge by John Gallacher. Penalty said the referee, Dalglish converted and Celtic were 2-1 ahead. Both these decisions - not to award a free kick to Hearts and to award a penalty kick to Celtic - angered the Hearts players and Rab Prentice in particular. The winger brought down Celtic’s Doyle in a chalenge that was certainly no worse that the one minutes earlier on Shaw. However, Prentice was sent off and with him went Hearts chances of reaching the League Cup Final. An incensed Shaw very nearly joined Prentice for an early bath, captain Jim Brown succeeding in calming the former Dunfermline player down.

It was to Hearts immense credit they continued to take the game to Celtic, even with ten men. Full back Roy Kay forced Celtic keeper Latchford into a fine save but the Hoops held on for a narrow and extremely fortunate win.

Hearts had already played in the European Cup Winners Cup this season - this is covered in the next chapter. However, their season would be defined the next time they played Celtic four weeks later in the Premier Division at Tynecastle. A Willie Gibson hat trick had Hearts 3-1 ahead after a tremendous first half display. However, the roof fell in on the home team in the second half and the visitors won 4-3. It was a defeat that altered the course of Hearts season. Confidence drained, they never recovered their early season sparkle and struggled thereafter. I’ll draw a veil over the rest of the season, suffice to say Hearts slump resulted in a ninth place finish in the top ten Premier Division - and with two clubs being relegated, Hearts, agonisingly, found themselves demoted for the first time in their long and proud history.

A sad state of affairs that would have seemed unthinkable that August day in Motherwell when an impressive Hearts team looked like they were good enough to actually win the League Cup. How things changed in such a short space of time…