Friday, 28 December 2012

Fergie's Latest Rant

See if you put that in yer report, ye bawheid...

Bobby Prentice

The mercurial Bobby Prentice in action for Hearts gainst Dundee in the mid 1970s. A brilliant player on his day.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Five Star Show at Pittodrie

I blame Scott Wilson. Three weeks ago, there was a near full house at Tynecastle for Hearts vital 1-0 win over St. Mirren. This, alluded to a near full house at Murrayfield for Scotland’s rugby union international with South Africa, meant severe crowd congestion in the Edinburgh’s west end and Scott suggested fans might like to stagger their journey home as they would inevitably encounter delays. Now, as Scott is Scotland’s top stadium announcer by some distance, I took the legendary broadcaster to his word - and headed for the pub.

It was meant to be a quick pint but I got into a discussion with another Hearts supporter and we discussed what was the best Hearts performance we had seen over the years. The 2012 William Hill Scottish Cup Final was up there with the most memorable result but I have to say I’ve seen Hearts play better over the years - after all, we only won 5-1 that day…

One game that did spring to mind was back in 1999 against Aberdeen. Hearts had endured a difficult season in 1998/99 - the break up of the Scottish Cup winning team of the season before had a considerable impact - and the maroons were, at one stage, fighting relegation.
Hearts lost hugely influential midfielder Colin Cameron to an injury serious enough to keep him out until March. With other players suffering from injury and loss of form, manager Jim Jefferies moved to strengthen the squad. He signed midfielders Vincent Guerin and Juanjo respectively and former Rangers striker Gary McSwegan on a free transfer from Dundee United. Midfielder Lee Makel, signed the previous season from Blackburn Rovers as cover for Colin Cameron, was given the chance to make the midfield position his own. No one was harder working than the Englishman, but he lacked the goalscoring prowess of Cameron and with John Robertson now having left Tynecastle for pastures new and with players losing form, there became a real concern about where the goals would come from.

After a miserable run of games at the beginning of 1999 during which they could hardly score a goal let alone win a game, Hearts slumped to the bottom of the SPL in February. Less than a year after Scottish Cup glory, Hearts were staring relegation in the face. Then, three things happened that turned Hearts season around.

Firstly, Jefferies signed Celtic attacking midfielder Darren Jackson for £300k. Secondly, Gary McSwegan scored Hearts first competitive goal for eight weeks in a 2-2 draw against Kilmarnock - and then couldnt stop scoring. Thirdly, Colin Cameron returned from injury. Hearts then won 3-1 at Dundee United and the season had turned.

By the time they headed to Aberdeen for the final game of the season they were safe from relegation - and proceeded to put on a five star show at Pittodrie.

Just two minutes were played, when Gary McSwegan fired a low right-foot shot past keeper Warner to give the visitors the lead. However, Aberdeen equalised just five minutes later, when Buchan unleashed an effort from 25 yards that whistled past Roddy McKenzie in the Hearts goal. This was the cue for Aberdeen to have a period of dominance, with Mayer and Jess coming close, although Hearts always looked dangerous when McSwegan had the ball. Half time came with the teams level - but that was a situation that didn’t last long when the second half got underway. And it was a carbon copy of the first half, when McSwegan was given all the time in the world to control the ball, turn and hit a magnificent effort past Warner to restore Hearts lead. Two minutes later, McSwegan completed his hat-trick when he tapped home from close range following a fine sweeping move that involved Darren Jackson and Colin Cameron. Hearts were 3-1 ahead. Three minutes later, a now rampant Hearts surged forward again with Jackson and McSwegan this time providing the link up play for Cameron to make a trademark run into the visitor’s penalty box. ‘Mickey’ was tripped by Buchan but dusted himself down before sending keeper Warner the wrong way to slot home the penalty to put Hearts 4-1 ahead - with just seven minutes played in the second half. Jess did pull a goal back for the Dons with half an hour to go, but two minutes later, Hearts French striker Stephane Adam - the cup final hero from 12 months and a week earlier - delivered a superb cross into the Aberdeen penalty box where Thomas Flogel nonchanently flicked the ball past the despairing Warner. There were still 35 minutes left and Hearts were, astonishingly 5-2 ahead and looking hungry for more. It was only a combination of good luck and fine goalkeeping by Warner - this might seem a strange thing to say given, he lost five goals - that kept Hearts to five. Nonetheless, the final score of Aberdeen 2 Hearts 5 was the Tynecastle side’s biggest win at Pittodrie for 49 years.

It had been a magnificent end to a rollercoaster season and one of the best Hearts performances I had seen since my first game in 1968. A similar result today would be an ideal early Christmas present!
Mike Smith
Hearts Greatest Games still available at all good bookshops and on amazon.

Friday, 16 November 2012

It Ain't Over Til...

I have to confess I didn’t go to Tannadice last month for Hearts Scottish Communities League Cup victory over Dundee United. Work commitments meant I couldn’t make it to Tayside in time for the earlier than usual kick-off time of 7.15pm (thank you, BBC Scotland) so I opted for sitting in front of the television at home with a couple of cans of ale (well, perhaps more than a couple…) My joy at Calum Paterson’s opening goal - the big man seems to relish playing at Tannadice - was tempered by United’s equaliser against the run of play soon after. When Darren Barr was sent off ten minutes before the end of the regulation ninety, I feared the worst. However, the boys in white and maroon were immense as they held out during extra time to take the tie to a penalty shoot-out. And here’s where I must make another confession (that’s two already)

When Danny Grainger and then John Sutton missed Hearts first two penalties, I switched off the television - and headed for bed. My better half tried to console me when I told her Hearts had lost on penalty kicks. Her remark of ‘at least you won’t have to pay to go to the semi-final in January’ was well meant if somewhat ill-timed.

When I arose somewhat bleary-eyed the following morning I switched the television on to see the lovely Catriona Shearer announce Hearts had won 5-4 on penalties. Thinking standards were falling at the BBC, I tut-tutted before checking the excellent Hearts website. Catriona was, of course, spot -on (see what I did there?) Hearts had indeed won the penalty shoot-out. My better half was concerned for my mental well-being but when I explained what I had done, she quite rightly questioned my faith in the team I have followed for 44 years. And here’s yet another confession - it’s not the first time I’ve not waited until the fat lady has sung at a Hearts game.

Nearly a decade ago, on 2 January 2003, I was at Tynecastle watching an epic Edinburgh derby. Hibs were 3-2 ahead with a minute to go when they got a penalty kick. The eternal pessimist in me led me to head for the exits even before the penalty was taken. I was heading out as Grant Brebner slotted the rebound from Hearts keeper Roddy McKenzie’s save from Paatelainen’s penalty to make it 4-2 to the Hibees. My mate and I were well along Wheatfield Street when we heard the cheers from those Hearts fans still inside Tynecastle celebrating Graham Weir’s goal to make it 4-3; and on Gorgie Road when Weir scored again to snatch a sensational equaliser. That 4-4 game is etched in the annuls of Tynecastle folklore - just a pity I wasn’t brave enough to stay to the bitter end.

My defence is that this damned team we support has a regular habit of kicking us in the teeth so, in my view, there isn’t much to be gained by prolonging the agony. I was 14 years old when I first decided to head for the exits rather than watch my beloved team succumb to defeat. Back in March 1976, I watched in disbelief with 8,000 other fans, mostly Jambos, Premier Division Hearts trail First Division Montrose 2-1 in the Scottish Cup quarter final at a packed Links Park. I was almost at the exit gates, having walked away from the proceedings, when suddenly there was an almighty roar and thousands of Hearts supporters leapt for joy on the crumbling terracing. Graham ‘Shuggie’ Shaw had scrambled home a last gasp equaliser - well, I say scrambled home, for all I know he could have unleashed a forty-yard screamer - to dramatically keep Hearts in the cup and force a replay. Hearts required two replays to get the better of the Angus side but eventually went all the way to the final against Rangers at Hampden. Being still in my teenage years, I found the emotion of such a reprieve all too much and fought back the tears. It wasn’t the first time I had cried at a Hearts game - and it certainly would not be the last. Similarly, it wouldn’t be the last time I would leave a Hearts game early in the mistaken knowledge the game was all over. You might think someone of my age and Hearts supporting experience would know better.

Sadly, as my actions in retiring to bed on Halloween before Jamie MacDonald and company performed heroics proved, I haven’t learned my lesson.

As the legendary John Robertson once famously quipped - it ain’t over til the fat striker - or Lithuanian captain - scores!

Twitter @Mike1874




Friday, 9 November 2012

30 Years On - Time To Save Hearts Once More

Your average Scot is not renowned for showing emotion. There is almost a built in trait that we should, to use an old and recently rekindled adage, keep calm and carry on. However, when I use the term ‘your average Scot’ when describing this perception, I am not including a sizeable proportion of our nation’s population - for I exclude supporters of Heart of Midlothian Football Club from this analysis.

My early primary school years were spent in Cumbernauld, just outside Glasgow. In the late 1960s, my father didn’t want me to follow Celtic or Rangers with all the sectarian nonsense associated with these clubs and shepherded me to Brockville Park, where his intention was to raise me as a Falkirk Bairn.

The first game he took me to, in October 1968, was Falkirk versus Hearts. I was only six years old and was overwhelmed by the passion, the fervour and commitment shown - not by the home fans but of the Hearts support that day. It’s a feeling that has never left me. The Maroons won 3-1 and my life changed forever. I was bitten by the Jambo bug and there was to be no antidote.

It’s nearly 40 years since I cried for the first time at a football match. I was a month away from my 11th birthday when I stood on the Tynecastle terracing on New Years Day 1973 watching Hibernian score seven fortuitous and, in my child’s mind, blatantly offside goals to win what was a meaningless league game. I asked my father if we could leave at half time with the score at 5-0 to the visitors but he steadfastly refused, citing that I chose to be a Hearts fan so I must endure the consequences.

18 months later, I watched on television Scotland draw 1-1 with Yugoslavia in the World Cup Finals in West Germany. Needing a win to progress, the Scots dominated but could not find a way through the Yugoslav defence. When Karasi scored towards the end to put Yugoslavia ahead, I felt tears trickle down my face. I suspect legendary television commentator Arthur Montford did the same, particularly when Joe Jordan equalised for ‘brave, brave Scotland’ in the final minute. The Scots came home as the only undefeated country from the 1974 World Cup Finals but came home nonetheless on goal difference.

Supporting Hearts in the 1970s would bring more tears. I’m not talking about the two relegations we suffered towards the end of that decade. That brought anger and resentment at how the club had got itself from a position of dominating Scottish football 20 years earlier to playing against, with all due respect, Arbroath, Alloa Athletic and Montrose. It was at Montrose in the spring of 1976 - pre relegation - that I let my emotions get the better of me when I was heading for the exits at tiny Links Park. Hearts were losing 2-1 to the Gable Endies in a Scottish Cup quarter final tie with seconds to go when Graham ‘Shuggie’ Shaw scrambled in a late equaliser to force a replay at Tynecastle. I was, by that time, living in Aberdeen after the break up of my parents’ marriage and sheer relief helped me along the relatively short journey back home up the road.

Adulthood, marriage and children followed in the ten years that followed the great escape at Montrose but in May 1986, the emotional battering ram broke down the Smith defences again -twice in the space of 8 days. Losing the league thanks to two Albert Kidd goals in the last 8 minutes of the league season at Dundee shattered the 15,000 strong Hearts support at Dens Park that day. I didn’t cry when Kidd’s efforts flew into the net and a stunned and silent Hearts support shuffled for the exits. I cried when I got home to Aberdeen later that night. Hearts had been undefeated for 8 months and needed just a point from their final game to win their first league title for more than a quarter of a century. I doubt if any other club has suffered such cruel luck at the end of a season. Hearts then lost the Scottish Cup Final to Aberdeen a week later. More tears at Hampden that day as 40,000 Hearts supporters refused to leave the National Stadium at the end of the game. They wanted to stay and pay tribute to a magnificent Hearts side who had defied all expectations that memorable season. As Gary Mackay and John Robertson came back on to the Hampden turf to salute the fans, I too experienced their failure to hold back the tears. A week further on, my first child, Laura, was born. Three consecutive Saturdays in May 1986 - three of the most emotional days of my life.

12 years later when Hearts finally landed silverware by defeating Rangers in the 1998 Scottish Cup Final, I was too numbed by disbelief to cry tears of joy at Celtic Park. The lump in my throat came when I arrived back at the Haymarket that Saturday evening. The scenes in Dalry and Gorgie, the outpouring of emotion and joy will remain with me for the rest of my days. As will the Scottish Cup victories of 2006 and, of course, the greatest ever Edinburgh Derby in May of this year.

Now, there are tears once more. Sadly, not because of what has happened on a football pitch. But because of what has happened - or not happened - off it. Heart of Midlothian FC, one of Scotland’s greatest football clubs, an Edinburgh and indeed Scottish institution, are facing the real prospect of closure. Just typing those words brings a lump to the throat. We feared the club might fold in 1981 when Hearts were in similar desperate financial straits. Wallace Mercer came to the rescue then with a cheque for £350k and transformed the club from First Division also-rans to a club that came within a whisker of landing a league and cup double within five years.

Sadly, of course, Wallace Mercer is no longer with us. The sum required now to avoid the immediate threat of the winding up order - £450k - is not that much more than the amount that Mr. Mercer spent to save the club more than 30 years ago. The club has urged Hearts supporters to help bail the club out and, to their immense credit, many Jambos have answered the ‘call to arms’ as legendary striker John Robertson put it. As a forward, ‘Robbo’ was always in the right place at the right time; now it seems his words have also had the desired effect.

I have no doubt the magnificent Hearts support will help the club stave off the taxman initially. My fear is what will happen with the £1.7m case HMRC are bringing against HMFC later this month. Hearts fans may collectively clear the taxman’s first effort off the line - but the Treasury may well be about to hit home the rebound.

Vladimir Romanov has been looking to sell Hearts for a year now. My understanding is there have been interested parties but no agreement has been able to be reached. It’s time to put differences aside. Time to put personal agendas away. The blame game as to how Hearts have got themselves into this situation can be played out later. What counts more than anything is saving this great club of ours. Rangers recent demise has been well documented but if Hearts go out of business all together - without having the opportunity to start again a la Sevco in the Third Division - the implications will be devastating for Edinburgh. Many Hibs fans, to their credit, have signalled their support for the Save Our Hearts campaign, as well they might. No Hearts and no Edinburgh derby will have ramifications for Hibernian too.

There will be many Hearts supporters like me who recall the all too frequent lows over the years - that game in 1973; two relegations, losing at home to East Stirlingshire in the First Division, Dens Park 1986, leading Celtic 1-0 with two minutes to go in the Scottish Cup semi final in 1988 and still losing; watching Neil McCann tear Rangers to shreds in the 1996 League Cup Final - and still losing; two cup semi final defeats to Airdrieonians and so much more.

And we will look back fondly at the all too infrequent highs over the years - defeating Hibs 4-1 at Tynecastle 6 months after that game in 1973; thrashing Lokomotive Leipzig in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1976; the pride restored when Hearts came so close to winning the league and Scottish Cup in 1986; defeating Bayern Munich in 1989; winning the Scottish Cup in 1998, 2006 and 2012; winning in Bordeaux in 2003 and Basle in 2004 and thrashing Hibs 5-1 not only this year but in 2002; Graham Weir’s two stoppage time goals to secure an astonishing 4-4 draw with Hibs in 2003 and so much more.

Bobby Prentice on the wing; Drew Busby; Cruickshank is the goalie; John Robertson; Gary Mackay; Wayne, Wayne Super Wayne; Henry, Henry Gie Us A Wave; So Mark De Vriesy; Stephane Adam’s winner in the 1998 Cup Final; Ruuuudi Skacel……all great players who gave us all so much pleasure.

It’s upsetting in the extreme to think such moments and players of that calibre will never happen again. Yet, it’s a very real threat. The memories will always be there - no one can take those away from us - but we need Heart of Midlothian to be there today and in years to come. Generations of people in Edinburgh and beyond have been brought up on nothing else.

I urge anyone who has the financial capability to save this great football club to come forward. Not once Vladimir Romanov has gone or HMRC get serious and go ahead with their threat to liquidate the club. Now. Please. If Heart of Midlothian FC is allowed to die then so does part of Scotland’s capital city.

Please Save Our Hearts before it is too late.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

50 Years Ago

When the draw was made for the sectional stage of the 1962/63 League Cup, it was doubtful if Hearts could have had a tougher group. Section A saw them grouped with both Dundee clubs and Celtic. Dundee now had Gordon Smith in their ranks, the great man having left Tynecastle for Dens Park. Despite Hearts impressive record in the League Cup - as well as their three triumphs, the Maroons lost the 1961 final to Rangers after a replay - there were those who doubted if an evolving Hearts team would make it past the group stages. Many of the players who played their part in Hearts dominance of Scottish football in the latter half of the 1950s such as Dave Mackay, Alex Young and the ‘Terrible Trio’ of Alfie Conn, Jimmy Wardhaugh and Willie Bauld were now no longer at Tynecastle.
Manager Tommy Walker was rebuilding his team and made a significant signing for season 1962/63 when he bought inside forward Willie Hamilton from Middlesbrough for the princely sum of £5,000. The term used nowadays for teams undergoing this process is ‘transitional’ and it certainly looked that way when Hearts lost their opening game in the League Cup, 3-1 away to Celtic. However, they then defeated both Dundee clubs and when Celtic came to Gorgie for the return game at Tynecastle, Hearts chances of qualifying from the section were very much alive. More than 31,000 spectators watched Hearts race into a three goal lead, including two goals from centre-forward Willie Wallace. However, this being Hearts, things are never straightforward and Celtic stormed back into the game with goals from Murdoch and Hughes, the latter being near the end of the game, thus ensuring an uncomfortable final three minutes for Hearts supporters. Hearts hung on for a memorable 3-2 win and, after losing their next game at Tannadice, defeated Dundee in their final group game to progress to a two-legged quarter final meeting with Morton. In the first leg at Cappielow, a Norrie Davidson double added to an own goal put Hearts in easy street and they duly completed the job in the return leg at Tynecastle 3-1 to go through 6-1 on aggregate. This meant a semi-final clash with St. Johnstone at Easter Road where a Willie Wallace hat-trick helped Tommy Walker’s men to a 4-0 win - and a fifth League Cup final appearance in eight years.
Their opponents in the final were Kilmarnock who was in the process of building a fine team of their own. A crowd of 51,280 headed to Hampden Park on 27 October 1962 to see if the Ayrshire team could break their League Cup duck - or if Hearts could win the trophy for a fourth time.
Hearts: Marshall; Polland; Holt; Cumming; Barry; Higgins; Wallace; Paton; Davidson; W, Hamilton; J. Hamilton
Kilmarnock: McLaughlan; Richmond; Watson; O’Connor; McGrory; Beattie; Brown; Black; Kerr; McInally; McIlroy
Referee: T. Wharton (Glasgow)

There was a pre-match blow for Killie when the hugely influential Davie Sneddon was ruled out with injury. However, this didn’t seem to affect them too much in the early stages when they dominated play.
Hearts made a nervous start. In the opening minutes, keeper Gordon Marshall tangled with Killie forward Black and ‘Iron Man’ John Cumming cleared the danger. Black threatened again shortly after and it seemed the Hearts players were struggling with the heavy Hampden pitch. It took the Maroons some time to make an impression with Norrie Davidson creating Hearts first real chance with a rasping 20 yard shot which Killie keeper McLaughlan tipped over. This encouraged Tommy Walker’s men and the enigmatic Willie Hamilton began to revel in the huge space that Hampden had to offer. In the 27th minute, Willie Hamilton produced a piece of magic befitting a major cup final. Collecting a long ball from Willie Wallace, Hamilton deftly controlled the ball, skipped past Killie defender Jackie McGrory and raced in on goal. He looked up and delivered a glorious pass into the penalty box where Norrie Davidson thrashed the ball past McLaughlan to give Hearts the lead.

It was a brilliant goal, created by the magic of Hamilton and finished by the guile of Davidson. Against the run of play, it may have been, but it transformed the game and ’Hammy’ tormented the Killie defence thereafter, although Gordon Marshall had to save brilliantly from Frank Beattie, while Davie Holt made a crucial tackle on McIlroy following a slip from Roy Barry just before half time. Killie’s Jackie McInally – father of future Celtic and Bayern Munich player Alan – was injured during that first half. This was the era before substitutes, so McInally limped bravely on. Hearts took advantage, dominated much of the second half, and could – indeed should – have added to the one goal they had. Then, with just seconds remaining and the Hearts fans whistling at referee Tom ‘Tiny’ Wharton, urging him to blow for full time, Kilmarnock launched one last desperate attack. Richmond floated a free kick into the Hearts penalty box. Frank Beattie rose above everyone to head the ball past the flailing arms of Gordon Marshall and into the net. It appeared Kilmarnock had tied the game at the death. Blue and white shirted players forgot their tiredness and danced for joy. Hearts players slumped to the sodden Hampden pitch. However, referee Wharton was not signalling towards the centre circle. He was giving a free kick to Hearts. The referee had spotted an infringement that no one else appeared to have noticed. Furious Killie players urged the official to consult his linesman, which, to his credit, he did. Nevertheless, his decision remained the same. Free kick to Hearts. Wharton believed Beattie had handled the ball as the cross came in.

Seconds later, Wharton blew his whistle for the end of the game. Hearts had won the Scottish League Cup for the fourth time in eight years, their seventh major trophy since 1954. Triumphant Hearts headed back to the capital for a night of celebration. It had been mighty close but Hearts had proved they were winners once again!

Twitter @Mike 1874

Hearts 50 Greatest Games, is available in all good books

Saturday, 29 September 2012


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Saturday, 22 September 2012

A Complex Scenario

Earlier this month, English champions Manchester City announced that building work was about to commence on a new training complex which is estimated to cost £100m. The new complex, expected to open in time for season 2014/15, will be a state of the art facility with 16 pitches and a 7,000-capacity stadium for the reserve and youth teams. I also read somewhere that the complex will have a state of the art facility to recreate different atmospheres from different grounds. For example if City are due to play at Liverpool, the stadium will be adapted to try and re-create the atmosphere of Anfield presumably with replicated crowd noises of You’ll Never Walk Alone while a trip across Manchester to Old Trafford might mean the reproduction of 70,000 Cockney accents…

It’s a novel concept and it set me thinking (there’s a first time for everything) Hearts may not have £100m to spend on such a luxury facility but just imagine if they did. I can see the present Riccarton campus being transformed and Hearts having their own mini stadium with the provision to recreate conditions experienced at other grounds in Scotland.

A trip to the Highlands is always an enjoyable experience. Recreate the atmosphere at Ross County and Inverness by replicating the sound of a combine harvester and a recording of a former England centre half bawling about the injustice of Maradona’s handball against his compatriots at the World Cup in 1986. A forthcoming fixture at Aberdeen, for example, could see the reconstruction of a force ten gale, ice-cold conditions and a crowd urging people to stand free while still declaring their team is famous. Preparation for a trip 60 miles further down the east coast to Tannadice could see a look-alike of BBC Scotland’s Jim Spence leading the singing of ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’. For the trip across the road at Dens Park Hearts could engage the services of Rent a Crowd and arrange for a few fans with 1980s style perms and moustaches chanting ‘There’s Only One Albert Kidd’.

Facing a Sunday afternoon fixture at St. Johnstone? No problem. Get a farmer to bring his flock of sheep to Riccarton to recreate the rural atmosphere at McDiarmid Park.

For future fixtures in the west of Scotland, there may be more of a challenge. To prepare for a game at Celtic Park, for example, the hiring of an Irish accordion band might prove problematic but if this fails then blasting out the old Depeche Mode number ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and recreating the sound of 60,000 fans howling for a penalty every time a Celtic player falls down in the penalty box might be sufficient. Of course, there’s no SPL fixtures at Ibrox for the foreseeable future but playing Tina Turner’s ‘Simply The Best’ might be an idea (although as I write this Rangers are in fourth place in the Irn Bru Third Division so perhaps this might not be appropriate)

I don’t think we would need to bother too much about recreating the atmosphere from St. Mirren Park - just get someone to dress up as a panda (and it shouldn’t be difficult to get a panda outfit in Edinburgh) and play a recording of BBC Scotland’s Chick Young’s incessant chatter. Similarly, Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park - if anyone has an old Subbuteo set they could just take in the grandstand along with a record of Marie Osmond singing ‘Paper Roses’...

For a trip to the home of Motherwell, we could get BBC's Off the Ball presenter Tam Cowan to crack a few gags at Riccarton along with the reconstruction of one giant stand to dwarf three others.

Which just leaves our city neighbours. This might prove the most difficult test of all as it’s the Hearts fans who create most of the atmosphere at Easter Road and it can prove difficult to hear what the handful of fans in the home end are trying to say. Some were boasting to me today about how their team were about to beat Inverness Caledonian Thistle and go top of the Clydesdale Bank SPL. When they went two goals up, I received more than one gloating text from Hibby associates. Then the Highlanders spoiled the party by storming back for a 2-2 draw and the ‘Top of the League’ chants were silenced. So perhaps the sound of bottles crashing may recreate the atmosphere of Easter Road.

Although after the events of 19th May at Hampden, perhaps a more apt sound would be a constant beeping sound - recreating the sound of an empty open top bus reversing back into a garage…
Twitter @Mike1874

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Dark Blues Destroyers!

This weekend sees the visit of a team who haven’t been to Gorgie since season 2004/05. Dundee take to the Tynecastle pitch on Sunday, having taken the place of Rangers in the Clydesdale Bank SPL. However, for Hearts supporters of a certain vintage, the name Dundee still invokes painful memories from more than 26 years ago.

When the final day of the league season arrived on 3 May 1986, Hearts were two points clear at the top of the table. The only team who could catch them were Celtic - but even then, Hearts were four goals to the good on goal difference. Hearts needed just a draw, a single point from their final game at Dundee. Celtic needed a goals avalanche at St. Mirren - and hope Hearts would lose their first competitive game in eight months. I won’t dwell on what happened - more than a quarter of a century on, it’s still painful to write about. Suffice to say Hearts lost 2-0 at Dens Park - Dundee substitute Albert Kidd writing his name into Scottish football folklore by scoring his first - and second - goals of the season in the final eight minutes at Dens Park. At the same time, Celtic were cruising to a 5-0 win at St. Mirren Park - and thereby snatched the league title from the under the noses of the despairing Hearts players.

For those of us who were at Dens Park that fateful May afternoon it’s easy to associate Dundee with failure from a Hearts perspective. Particularly when you consider that even further back in the mists of time - 1965 - Hearts charge to the league championship was caused significant damage when Dundee visited Tynecastle in February 1965 and inflicted a 7-1 thrashing to the Maroons. The more mature Hearts supporter won’t need reminding that Hearts also lost the league title on the last day of that season, by 0.04 of a goal on goal average, to Kilmarnock. While Killie won the last game of the season 2-0 at Tynecastle, the damage caused by the thrashing by the Dees was significant.

However difficult it might be, I prefer to associate the Dark Blues with more positive times for Hearts (a rare show of optimism, I kmow) Eighteen months after that day at Dens Park, Hearts entertained the Dark Blues at Tynecastle. On calm, Halloween afternoon in 1987, Hearts seemed to release their pent-up frustration and produced a display that, in my view, remains one of the best I have seen in over 40 years of following the Hearts. This was a time when many teams still played not one, not two but three players up front. Hearts had a diminutive forward line in John Robertson, John Colquhoun and Wayne Foster - and those three players destroyed Dundee in a magical first half that took the breath away. Hearts were 3-0 ahead at half time thanks to two goals from John Robertson and one from John Colquhoun. In fact, Robbo should have had a first half hat-trick but the wee man missed a penalty kick - a rare occurrence for Hearts legendary striker. Hearts display in that first half was mesmerising. The pace of Colquhoun and Wayne Foster down the flanks was too much for the Dundee defence and Hearts looked like scoring every time they went forward - which was incessant in that first 45 minutes. In midfield, Kenny Black had one of his finest games in a maroon shirt and this enabled Gary Mackay to display his array of passing skills - the man who would score for Scotland against Bulgaria ten days later was a magnificent reader of the game and his defence splitting passes had the visitors literally on the run.

Hearts eased off slightly in the second half - it would have been nigh impossible to match that superb first half display - and won 4-2. However, it had been a joy to watch the maroons that afternoon. Many of the more mature Hearts support likened Hearts performance to that of the team of the halcyon days of the 1950s when the Gorgie boys dominated Scottish football. That period was before my time (honestly!) but I could understand the comparison. Even a certain journalist by the name of Jim Traynor opined in The Herald that, on their first half display, there was not a team in the country that could stop Hearts winning the league championship.

Those of us who stood motionless and crestfallen on the terraces of Dens Park in May 1986 will never forget that day. Three Scottish Cup wins since may have helped the mental scars heal although they’ll never fade completely. However, a similar display from Hearts on Sunday to the one against Dundee in October 1987 would be the ideal way to welcome Dundee back to Tynecastle.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Big Match 1983

About a month ago, I got up one Sunday morning to cook a bit of breakfast. I opted for the healthy Scottish selection - black pudding, bacon and sliced sausage - and while those wonderful delicacies sizzled under the grill, I switched on the television for some early morning viewing. I tuned into ITV4 where the pre 9.00am offering was The Big Match, a re-run of a football highlights programme from 1983. Of course, July is usually the time of the year when football withdrawal symptoms kick in (see what I did there) While pre-season games are okay in their own right, the lack of competitive games has one yearning for the days of thrashing your city rivals in a cup final at Hampden and partying all weekend. Now this may say something about my age (having reached the half century earlier this year) and my levels of sadness but I found watching The Big Match from nearly 30 years ago rather fascinating.

Yes, it was English football (I suspect ITV4 didn’t think showing a re-run of Scotsport’s Arthur Montford waxing lyrical about Morton versus St. Mirren would entice many viewers outside Renfrewshire out of their beds on a Sunday morning) but it was football nonetheless. I missed the opening part of the programme - there was a danger of my black pudding burning to a cinder - but caught the highlights of Watford against Aston Villa at Vicarage Road. In these days of television cameras nearly outnumbering spectators at some games, it’s easy to forget how different things were three decades ago. For starters, neither Watford nor Aston Villa had sponsor’s names on their shirts. About half the crowd, a healthy sized one at that, were standing on an open terracing and many of those who were under cover were also standing. However, this was a time before the tragic events of Heysell, Bradford and Hillsborough and the subsequent tragic loss of lives at these venues. As Hearts supporters of my generation will tell you, many a happy Saturday afternoon was spent standing on the terracing at Tynecastle, the more sensitive among us opting to stand under the Shed when it rained, as it often did. Prior to safety being the number one priority at football grounds, we thought nothing of it. The fans at Vicarage Road in 1983 certainly thought nothing of it as The Hornets and The Villa served up a rip-roaring game, which the home side won 2-1 with a late goal.

The Big Match programme ended with a summary of other games from a young presenter called Jim Rosenthal with a hairstyle that was pure Alan Partridge. We saw the goals from Leicester City against Wolves and an even younger Gary Lineker toe poking a typical effort into the net from about eight yards out. And the word Walkers was nowhere to be found at Filbert Street…

1983 was the year Hearts returned to the Premier Division after two seasons ‘downstairs’. The second half of season 1982/83 saw the emergence of the teenage John Robertson as a first team regular and while he was scoring goals for fun in the First Division, there were those who questioned whether the wee man could prove as effective in the top flight. This was answered in spectacular fashion on the first Saturday of September when ‘Robbo’ scored two goals against Hibernian in his Edinburgh derby debut - the first of which was one of the best goals I’ve ever seen and one which the wee fella still says today was one of his best in a long career.

While The Big Match highlights programme down south was showing games largely free of shirt advertising, in 1983 Hearts were blazing a trail and were one of the first clubs in the UK to have shirt sponsors. When Robbo scored his two goals against Edinburgh’s other team on that memorable afternoon, he had the name Alexanders emblazoned on his shirt. Traditionalists may have tut-tutted but Chairman Wallace Mercer was very much a man ahead of his time and any way of getting revenue into the club was generally welcomed. A few years later, Mercer knew the impact the advent of satellite television would have on the game although I’m not sure if even the man they called the Great Waldo realised just how much.

That’s why it’s quaint to look back at a time when teams with shirt sponsors were still a novelty, when you could leave the Tynecastle Arms at ten to three and still be able to take your place on the terracing in plenty of time for kick off and Jim Rosenthal had an impressive head of hair (and wasn’t reduced to standing on the touchline for a pre-season friendly at Southampton for Channel Five)
Incidentally, Hearts won that Edinburgh derby in 1983 - Robbo’s double helping secure a 3-2 win at Tynecastle. In the 29 years that have elapsed, it’s fair to say Hearts have enjoyed the Edinburgh derby several times since - particularly when it’s played in Glasgow!

Twitter @Mike1874

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Hearts v Liverpool - Rush for Tickets

Less than 24 hours since the draw and I've already had three Liverpool fans ask me if I can get them a ticket...

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Leagues Apart

This time last year Hearts supporters were looking forward to a new season that promised much. Manager Jim Jefferies had made several new signings and a draw on the opening day of the Clydesdale Bank SPL 2011/12 season at champions Rangers suggested such optimism wasn’t misplaced. However, unless you’re the seventh son of a seventh son, no one could have predicted what would happen in the twelve months since.

I watched that game at Ibrox in a pub in Dalkeith and if I had said to my mate that, one year on, Hearts would have changed manager not once but twice, would hammer Hibernian 5-1 in the William Hill Scottish Cup final and Rangers would be playing in the Irn Bru Third Division, he would have been dialling social services quicker than it would have taken me to order another round of drinks from the bar (even given the fact I was born in Aberdeen and am, therefore, naturally slow in getting the drinks in…) But it has been an incredible year…

The Rangers ‘crisis’ has dominated football headlines all summer. Hearts, to their credit, were one of the first clubs to make their views on the Rangers situation crystal clear. While others hummed and hawed, Vladimir Romanov blazed a trail and not so much put his cards on the table as decorated the walls with them. The majority of football fans in Scotland agreed with the Russian that the ‘new’ Rangers should not be permitted to take their place in the Clydesdale Bank SPL as if nothing had happened and the financial mismanagement of the old Rangers should not be swept under the Hampden carpet. Hearts, like the majority of other clubs in Scotland, have had to make big cuts in order to achieve a modicum of financial stability and a good few number of the Scottish Cup winning team have left for pastures new as the club tries to live within its means. The same thing happened to Hearts Scottish Cup winning teams of 1998 and 2006 and supporters reluctantly accept this is the way of the football world now. The days of the likes of Gary Mackay spending 17 years at the club he loved are rapidly disappearing. Players come and players go as clubs try to make ends meet - and football shouldn’t expect to be immune to the current global financial crisis.

Hearts have a crop of youngsters as good as any other club in Scotland and there were already signs in pre-season games that they are the way ahead for the Scottish Cup holders (I’ll never tire of saying that!) The 2012/13 season will be history in the making. Hearts are now the second biggest club in Scotland. This sounds alien but the demise of Rangers has created this situation. The Edinburgh derby is now the biggest derby game in Scotland (even if the Monopolies Commission are keen to investigate Hearts dominance in this fixture, keen as they are to see at least an element of competition) Leading figures in Scottish football have been prophecies of doom at the prospect of there being no Rangers in the top flight for two or three years - although I suspect league reconstruction may be pushed to the top of the agenda to ensure the Gers aren‘t away from the top table of Scottish football for too long.

Since the Scottish Football League was formed over 120 years ago, Rangers and Celtic have used their financial power to take the best Scots players away from their competitors - and complained of a lack of competition. Rangers have often spoken of their desire to play in England. Now they will have the opportunity and I’m sure their fixtures at Berwick will prove to be sell-outs…

It’s fair to say the fans, other than those of Rangers of course, are relishing a SPL without the baggage one half of the Old Firm bring and are hopeful of an all together more competitive league.

Despite the departure of some key players, I have a feeling the Hearts youngsters coming in who performed so well last season will drive the team to challenge Celtic for the SPL title. Hearts enjoyed the sweet taste of success last season after triumphing in the biggest Edinburgh Derby ever and lifting the Scottish Cup for an eighth time. The brilliant efforts of players such as the born again Darren Barr, the unbridled enthusiasm of Ryan McGowan - what a joy it is to see this laddie’s passion for playing for Hearts - the sheer commitment of Danny Grainger and Jamie Hamill and the class of Andy Webster will rub off on the youngsters who experienced the high of glory last season and will yearn for more of the same.

The Clydesdale Bank SPL may be Rangers free this season. Far from devaluing the competition, my view is season 2012/13 could be one of the most exciting and refreshing league campaigns ever.

Bring it on!

Twitter @Mike1874

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Monday, 28 May 2012

Caption Teaser

                                   Photo shamelessly stolen from

What's being said at this major sporting event in Glasgow the weekend before last?

Are the Hibs players saying?

'Congratulations, Mr Skacel, that was a fine goal, sir'

'I thought you were marking him'

'I couldn't understand what Pat Fenlon was saying anyway'

'I knew I shouldn't have had that eighth pint last night'

'Ach, I'm out of here after the game anyway'

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

When It Really Matters, Hearts Are Way Ahead

There’s an old saying that déjà vu isn’t what it used to be. In 2006 when Hearts met Hibernian in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup, the four-week build up to the biggest Edinburgh derby in decades was fraught. One of the worst experiences in football is losing a cup semi-final. To lose one to your city rivals simply didn’t bear thinking about. Moreover, Hearts supporters had taunted their neighbours with the oft-stated statistic that Hibernian had not won the Scottish Cup in over 100 years. They knew that if Hibs won at Hampden, they would be red-hot favourites to break that hoodoo, particularly as Second Division Gretna had upset the odds by defeating Dundee in the other semi-final played the day before. More than 40,000 fans from Scotland’s capital city made their way to Scotland’s national football stadium for the clash of the titans - and Hearts thrashed their city rivals 4-0 with former Hibby Paul Hartley hitting a hat-trick.

Six years later many Hibbies saw the William Hill Scottish Cup Final against their bigger Edinburgh neighbours as a chance for revenge, a feeling this year was their destiny. After all, the wee team’s followers opined, the last time Hibernian won the Scottish Cup - 1902 - was the last time the club had an Irish manager. Now they had Pat Fenlon and history was about to be made. And they were right in that respect - history was made on 19 May 2012.

It was billed as the greatest Edinburgh derby ever. As in 2006, there were sleepless nights aplenty as fans of both clubs contemplated the worst-case scenario - defeat from your greatest rivals in the Scottish Cup Final. Having followed Hearts for more than 40 years, experience tells me never to get even remotely cocky as far as the Maroons are concerned. The mental scars from the events at Dens Park, Dundee in 1986 will, I fear, never disappear. Being eight minutes away from winning your first league title in over a quarter of a century - needing just a single point from your final game and having been unbeaten in seven months - one could smell the scent of glory, only for Albert Kidd to kick it away from the maroon hordes in the cruellest of fashions. The Scottish Cup wins of 1998 and 2006 have helped fade those scars but those of us who stood motionless on the Dens Park terracing that day at approximately 4.40pm can never forget.

Thankfully, the younger generation of Hearts supporters have not had to suffer such acute heartache. Tee shirts declaring ’Keep Calm - It’s Only Hibs’ were selling well in the build up to the big game and there was no shortage of young ’uns read to tell me ’don’t worry, auld fella - we’ll skoosh it‘. As things transpired they were right - Hearts demolished Hibernian 5-1 in one of the most one-sided cup finals I can remember. Two goals from Czech Republic talisman Rudi Skacel added to goals from Darren Barr, Ryan McGowan and a penalty from Danny Grainger took Hearts dominance over their Edinburgh rivals to a new level and utterly humiliated the devastated Hibees. Hearts third Scottish Cup triumph in 14 years saw the maroon half of Edinburgh party - while the Hibs fans retired to their beds, some having left the National Stadium as early as 3.30pm when Skacel put Hearts two goals ahead.

Those tee shirts were spot on - I needn’t have worried, it was only Hibs. Yet, strangely, I almost felt cheated as if Hibs total ineptitude had let me down too. By that, I mean the elation of the full time whistle blowing and the realisation that Hearts had won the cup had been doused slightly by the fact the game was all over after less than an hour, by which time Hearts were already 4-1 ahead and Hibs a man down (even if that man was Pa Kujabi, an apology for a football player even by Hibs standards) Against Rangers in 1998 and Gretna in 2006, Hearts had been taken to the wire. My heart was in my mouth at Celtic Park 14 years ago when it looked like Rangers were about to get a last minute penalty kick to level the scores - only for referee Willie Young to award a free-kick on the edge of the penalty box. And eight years later, I watched Hearts penalty shoot-out triumph over Second Division Gretna with fingers partly covering my eyes. The tension on both occasions was unbearable. Not so this time around as Hearts demolished their capital city rivals in a fashion that is fast becoming a custom. Hearts New Year win at Easter Road, for example, was 3-1 going on 6-1.

The downside for Hearts was the departure of midfield maestro Ian Black, Stephen Elliott and Gary Glen and the uncertainty over the future of Skacel, Andrew Driver, Suso Santana and even the manager Paulo Sergio. However, Hearts fans have seen all this before. It didn’t take long for the cup winning teams of 1998 and 2006 to break up and Hearts came back each time. They will do so again, of that I’m sure.

For now, let’s just savour the biggest Edinburgh derby triumph of all time. Hibs may have won league games of little importance by 7-0 in 1973 and 6-2 in 2002 but Hearts have proved, yet again, when it comes to the big games that really matter, they are a class above the little club with two stands too many from Leith.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Heart of Midlothian 5 (five) Hibernian 1

William Hill Scottish Cup Final - Saturday 19 May 2012 - Hampden Park

As was the case before the all Edinburgh semi-final in 2006, the build-up to the first Scottish Cup Final between Hearts and Hibs since 1896 was full of tension. Hearts were installed by the bookmakers as odds on favourites but several players, including Ian Black and talisman Rudi Skacel, were looking unlikely to be continuing their careers at Tynecastle, as there were no offers of any new contracts on the table. Semi-final hero Craig Beattie had been nursing a hamstring injury and wasn’t included in the starting eleven. Hibernian, who had only just managed to avoid relegation, had several players who were on loan, including striker Leigh Griffiths who had scored their winner in the semi-final win over Aberdeen.

A crowd of over 51,000 packed into Hampden and the tension was palpable as the teams walked on to the field. It was Hearts, however, who made the brighter start and good work from Andrew Driver saw a cross for Rudi Skacel but the Czech Republic player could not direct his header on target. If Hearts were nervous they certainly didn’t show it during that opening period as they pinned their city rivals inside their own half. With 15 minutes gone, the breakthrough arrived. A corner from Danny Grainger seemed to bemuse the Hibs defence. Ryan McGowan showed commitment to get to the ball first and his attempt at goal fell at the feet of Darren Barr who stabbed the ball past Hibs goalkeeper Brown and into the net to give Hearts a deserved lead. Already in the ascendancy, Hearts confidence grew further. Shortly after the goal, Hibs defender Kujabi was booked for a foul on Santana - a foul that would have major implications later. Ian Black was dominant for Hearts and it seemed astonishing that Hibs were allowing the former Inverness Caledonian Thistle player so much space to orchestrate the Hearts midfield. It was from Black’s pass that Rudi Skacel doubled the Maroon’s lead after 27 minutes. Collecting the ball on the edge of the Hibs penalty box, Skacel produced a trademark turn past McPake before firing in a shot that took a deflection off the Hibs player before flying past Brown. 2-0 to Hearts and the Maroon Army erupted in anticipation of another Hearts cup triumph. Hibs had barely been in the game and when striker O’Connor had a chance on the edge of the Hearts penalty box, his effort on goal soared over the bar and in among the goading Hearts fans in the West Stand. Hearts nearly made it game over when Suso Santana’s effort on goal was scrambled off the line by McPake. And, typical of Hearts, what should have been 3-0 turned into 2-1 as Hibs grabbed an unexpected lifeline a minute before half time when McPake poked home Soare’s cross. At half time, there was slight irritation among the Hearts camp that the game was now on a knife-edge after dominating the game.

The second half had a spectacular start. In the 47th minute, Suso Santana set off on a run down the right wing skipping easily past a couple of Hibs challenges. He had his shirt pulled by the pursuing Kujabi who also clipped the Spaniard’s heels as the winger danced into the penalty box. Penalty said referee Craig Thomson who also booked the Hibs player for a second time meaning the Easter Road team were down to ten men. They also went 3-1 down when Danny Grainger stroked home the resultant penalty kick and looked to the skies in tribute to his late grandfather.

Any lingering doubts that the Scottish Cup was heading back to Gorgie disappeared two minutes later when Hibs keeper Brown could only parry Stephen Elliott’s header and Ryan McGowan leapt to head the ball home. 4-1 to Hearts - and it was game over, a fact the mass exodus of Hibs fans at this point clearly indicated.

Hearts seemed content to toy with their great rivals and sprayed passes all over the Hampden turf, much to the delight of the baying Jambo Army. With 15 minutes to go, Rudi Skacel collected the ball on the edge of the penalty box and fired in an effort and that trundled past Brown to make it an astonishing 5-1 to Hearts. Ecstatic Hearts supporters taunted those few Hibs fans who were still in the National Stadium with chants of ‘ole’ and ‘we want six’ and ‘there’s only one Pat Fenlon’. This was too much for the Hibernian manager who made an ill-judged salute with his arm to the Hearts support - and was duly sent to the stand by referee Craig Thomson for his troubles.

The game ended at Heart of Midlothian 5 Hibernian 1. I had waited 30 years to see Hearts win a trophy before they won the Scottish Cup in 1998; this was Hearts third Scottish Cup triumph in 14 years and was the sweetest of them all. Hearts had dominated the Edinburgh derby for nearly 30 years but this magnificent victory over an admittedly very poor Hibernian team took derby domination and humiliation of their city rivals to new levels.

As in 1998 and 2006, the west end of Edinburgh partied. As the Maroon Army bellowed throughout this glorious weekend, the Hearts were having a party - the Hibs were in their beds!

Hearts 50 Greatest Games, available from all good bookshops from 1 August, will include this game.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Heart of Midlothian 2 St. Johnstone 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Sunday 6 May 2012 - Tynecastle

Hearts last home game of season 2011/12 saw a rare victory in Gorgie over a St. Johnstone side who have become something of a bogey for Hearts in recent years. The Saints knocked Hearts out of the Scottish Cup in Edinburgh last season, drew in a cup tie earlier this year (although Hearts won the replay in Perth) and won on their last visit to Gorgie on SPL business in December. This time round, however, Hearts always looked in control and recorded a comfortable win which enabled Paulo Sergio's side to leapfrog the Perth Saints to 5th place in the Clydesdale Bank SPL.

Hearts took the lead after 16 minutes following fine play by Ryan McGowan. The Australian full back may be a bit rough round the edges but I've always been impressed by his whole-hearted approach and commitment. His cross into the Saints penalty box found Rudi Skacel and the Czech Republic star - Hearts leading goalscorer - steered the ball past goalkeeper Mannus to put Hearts 1-0 ahead. Skacel had a chance to double Hearts lead soon after but contrived to balloon his effort into the Roseburn Stand. Skipper Marius Zaliukas also missed a glorious opportunity, heading over when it seemed easier to score.

St. Johnstone looked dangerous on the counter-attack and the introduction of Hibby Derek Riordan as a second half substitute was warmly greeted by the home support, eager to show their appreciation for the former Hibs striker...

Hearts scored another 12 minutes into the second half when Andy Webster slid home Danny Grainger's cross and the contest was effectively over. A vital win for Hearts as 5th place in the Clydesdale Bank SPL will mean a place in next season's Europa League.

Top man: Sad to see Darren Barr leave the field due to injury - the former Falkirk player has been a revelation in his midfield role in recent weeks.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Heart of Midlothian 0 Rangers 3

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 21 April 2012 - Tynecastle

The scene was set. Hearts had reached the William Hill Scottish Cup Final six days earlier after knocking out Celtic in a dramatic semi-final. And it was the 56th anniversary of Hearts1956 Scottish Cup winning team.

The highlights of the game are listed below.

Well, there might have been had Hearts turned up....

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Scottish Cup Latest...

It will be an all Edinburgh William Hill Scottish Cup Final at Hampden on 19 May. Bring on the Hibees!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Fearless in the Face of Adversity

The recent news that former Celtic player and current Aston Villa captain Stilian Petrov had been diagnosed with leukaemia sent shock waves round football. Coming just a couple of weeks after Bolton defender Fabrice Muamba’s near death experience during a game against Tottenham Hotspur, it showed that not even famous footballers are immune from tragedy.

The most important battle of Stilian Petrov’s life brings to mind the story of a Hearts player from nearly a century ago. Glasgow born Tom Gracie began his senior football career at Airdrieonians before moving to Hamilton Academical, Arthurlie and Morton. He moved south of the border in 1911 and played for both Everton and Liverpool. However, his time at Anfield wasn’t a particularly successful one and he returned to Scotland in 1914 when Hearts spent the not inconsiderable sum of £400 for the services of the centre forward. Hearts began season 1914/15 with eight consecutive league victories and Gracie endeared himself to the Hearts support by scoring in a 2-0 win over reigning champions Celtic at Tynecastle in the opening game of the league season. The Maroons were labelled favourites for the league title but events more important than football would dictate otherwise. Gracie was Hearts leading goalscorer and a hero with the supporters. He and his team mates could have continued playing football as the sport was exempt from conscription to the services. However, Gracie and ten of his team mates decided their country’s need was greater and they enlisted for service to Sir George McCrae’s Battalion The 16th Royal Scots in November 1914. The story of this act of courage is told in Jack Alexander’s excellent book McCrae’s Battalion.

Gracie’s admirable commitment to his country meant, naturally, he would miss a number of games for Hearts - the football season continued much to the chagrin of many. Hearts would lose key games as the effect of the war effort on their players took its toll. Nonetheless, Gracie would end the season as the league’s joint top goalscorer with 29 goals. How much would a club pay for a player with such goalscoring prowess today?

Hearts missed the league title but for Tom Gracie, much more was at stake when the Glaswegian was diagnosed with leukaemia in March 1915. Despite the diagnosis, Gracie continued to serve his country and play for Hearts - which summed up the immense courage of the man. Eventually, fatigue took its toll and Gracie was admitted to hospital in Leeds before he returned to Scotland to be with his family. He died in October 1915 in Glasgow’s Stobhill Hospital.

Today, huge advances in medicine mean leukaemia is not the killer it once was. Stilian Petrov has vowed to fight his illness and every right thinking football fan offers their very best wishes to the Bulgarian and hope he makes a full recovery. It’s a chilling reminder, though, that illness and the threat to life itself can strike in the most unexpected places and to people who work incessantly on their fitness to try to be the best there is.

It was suggested that the immediate presence of the medical team at White Hart Lane was significant in saving Fabrice Muamba’s life. Stories that he had ‘died’ for over an hour were reported in the days that followed and while it remains doubtful if the Frenchman will ever play top class football again, his family are just grateful he is still alive and seemingly on the way to recovery. Other players in recent years haven’t been so fortunate. The sudden deaths of Rangers Davie Cooper in 1995 and Motherwell’s Phil O’Donnell in 2007 left Scottish football in a state of shock. Football players, of course, cannot be protected from life’s tragedies and when famous players are affected, the fans who idolise them share their anguish.

Stilian Petrov and Fabrice Muamba are aware of the support they have from fans of all clubs, not just those from Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers. Just as a player from a century ago earned huge respect from a nation. Tom Gracie may have been from several generations ago but his brief and notable contribution to the proud history of Heart of Midlothian FC will never be forgotten. And neither will his courage and dedication to his country and club.

Mike Smith

Twitter @Mike1874










Sunday, 1 April 2012

Heart of Midlothian 3 Aberdeen 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 31 March 2012 - Tynecastle

Not for the first time in recent seasons Hearts put Aberdeen to the sword at Tynecastle - and not for the first time in recent weeks Rudi Skacel ran the show. The Czech Republic attacking midfielder scored two cracking goals against an Aberdeen team that showed little up front and looked vulnerable at the back.

It has to be said it was something of a tedious game with both teams perhaps having forthcoming Scottish Cup semi-finals on their minds. The atmosphere, too, usually fervent for a clash with The Dons in Gorgie was somewhat muted. After a dull first 25 minutes, Australian Ryan McGowan - who had a fine afternoon - headed home Hearts opening goal from a Danny Grainger corner kick. Although Aberdeen came forward on numerous occasions in the first half, home keeper Jamie MacDonald could have sat next to me in the Wheatfield Stand for all he had to do.

The game was livened up considerably eight minutes into the second half when Skacel collected the ball midway inside the Aberdeen half, took a couple of steps forward before crashing home a magnificent left foot shot from 25 yards that soared away from visiting keeper Brown to double Hearts lead. It was one of the best goals seen at Tynecastle for some time and typical of the man the fans adore.

Skacel had a chance to score again soon after but was denied by what appeared to be the arm of an Aberdeen defender in the penalty box - but no penalty said referee Willie Collum. With minutes to go, Aberdeen's Scott Vernon missed a glorious chance to make a game of it when he hooked a pass from Hughes high into the Roseburn Stand, to the despair of the visiting support whose anguish increased moments later when that man Skacel controlled Darren Barr's pass superbly before rifling the ball past Brown to complete the scoring at 3-0 to the home side.

Curiously, Hearts have played better and lost but there was no denying the quality of Rudi Skacel's goals. Getting the man 'who scores when he wants' to sign on again for next season has to be a priority. Aberdeen manager Craig Brown came out with a curious statement after the game when he said his keeper didn't have a save to make all afternoon. Perhaps if he had made three his side would have gained a point...

Top man: tempting though it is to say Rudi Skacel, for me it was Ryan McGowan, whose determination shone through.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

One Rule For Some...

Last month I had something of a dilemma. Valentines Day doesn’t normally mean much to me but this year was different and I planned to treat a special lady in my life. Then Hearts threw a spanner in the works by allowing St. Johnstone’s Cillian Sheridan to score a late equaliser in the William Hill Scottish Cup fifth round tie at Tynecastle and therefore necessitate a replay in Perth. I knew the way my luck goes that the replay would be on Tuesday 14th February rather than the following night when one wouldn’t need an excuse not to say it with flowers. However, it seemed the fates offered this ageing Hearts supporter a rare break when it was initially announced the replay would not be on the Tuesday but on Thursday 16th February instead as Sky Sports had opted to show the game live on television. Halleluiah I cried. I can take my beloved out for a romantic meal and still head to the game. Then, it wasn’t fate that intervened - it was the suits at UEFA who told Hearts and St. Johnstone their game could not be shown on television on the Thursday as this was in direct competition to Europa League ties being televised on the same evening.

This rather bizarre ruling meant I didn’t get to Perth as the game was switched back to the Tuesday. My distraction at checking my mobile phone under the table at the swank restaurant was picked up by my acquaintance who wasn’t the slightest bit amused. Especially as the game went into extra time and Hearts waited until three minutes before the end until netting the winner. Punching the air with my fist and shouting yes several times wasn’t quite the romantic end to the evening she had anticipated…

My disappointment at missing the Gorgie Boys cup triumph - sweet revenge against the team that knocked us out the cup last year - intensified some weeks later (stay with me on this one) when ITV televised Birmingham City’s FA Cup replay with Chelsea - in direct competition to UEFA Champions League games also being televised that Tuesday evening. UEFA stated the English FA hadn’t informed them the cup replay would be on television that night - although it hardly took a genius to work out that a tie involving one of the biggest clubs in England would be on television - but said they would be investigating the matter.

This was small consolation to both St. Johnstone and Hearts who, it is believed, lost more than £80,000 each as a result of the SFA doing the right thing and obeying the rules laid down by UEFA - while Chelsea, one of the richest clubs in the world, were paid handsomely by Clive Tyldesley’s employers. We all know we live in financially difficult times - one only has to look at the plight of Rangers and the very real threat to their existence - and a not insignificant amount of money was lost to the Perth Saints and the boys in maroon last month.

Will UEFA take action? In fairness, they probably will but it will almost certainly be in the form of a fine for both Birmingham City and Chelsea and likely to be far less that the money they received for the game being televised in the first place. This seems to me to be yet another example of one rule for the rich, money-laden clubs of the world and another for those who have to budget on a month-to-month basis.

Television has a hold on football like never before. Sky has led the way, particularly in England, and the fees they pay to clubs in the Barclays FA Premiership are like Monopoly money. The BBC and ITV, to a lesser extent, are also aboard the gravy train and coverage of the national game on the small screen has never been greater. Now we don’t want to go back to the quite ridiculous situation of several decades ago when the Scottish Football Association would prevent terrestrial television channels in Scotland showing a European Cup quarter final live because Albion Rovers were playing East Stirlingshire in a bottom of the league clash and therefore the attendance of three men and a dog might be affected to the extent just the dog turned up. However, a modicum of common sense surely has to be applied here. I seriously doubt if there was anyone in Bucharest on the night of 16 February who would have been torn between going to watch the local team Steaua take on Twente or heading to the pub to watch Hearts taking on St. Johnstone on satellite television.

Hang on, a man in a suit from UEFA has just passed me a note. It’s from Jim the Jambo in Bucharest…

Monday, 19 March 2012

Heart of Midlothian 2 Hibernian 0

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Sunday 18 March 2012 - Tynecastle

The Monopolies Commission have today intimated they may investigate the Edinburgh derby after yet another win for Heart of Midlothian against Hibernian. While conceding Hearts are a bigger club with more trophies won, bigger support and a prouder history, the Commission are of the opinion Hearts still have no right to dominate a fixture intended to provide some cheer for both sets of supporters from Scotland's capital city...

Hearts duly made it three wins out of three against their city rivals yesterday with a fully deserved win. A high noon kick off it may have been (thanks ESPN) but Hearts leapt out the traps and had the visitors on the ropes before inevitably opening the scoring just before the half hour. A quite magnificent crossfield ball from Ian Black was controlled brilliantly with one touch by Craig Beattie. The former Celtic striker strode in on goal before poking the ball through the legs of Hibs keeper Stack to give Hearts the lead.

The visitors threatened briefly after half time but striker Leigh Griffiths swallowed the bait fed to him by teasing Hearts fans and proved as ineffectual in front of goal as he was to ignoring taunts about his looks. Hearts scored the second goal their dominance deserved in injury time when substitute Suso Santana skipped into the Hibs penalty box before slotting the ball beyond Stack to complete the scoring.

That's now ten games in a row Hearts are unbeaten against their city rivals, a run going back three years. It's almost certain now that the next Edinburgh derby won't be until next season - unless the pair meet in this season's Scottish Cup Final. Given Hearts record this season, that would be the derby to end all Edinburgh derbies...

Chant of the day - 'You could have come in a taxi' - Hearts fans towards the section of the Roseburn Stand that didn't have empty seats.

Top man: Craig Beattie - he may have tired towards the end but this was hardly surprising given his awesome work rate. And what a goal...

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Wanna Bet?

‘Away up in Gorgie’ begins one of Scottish football’s most famous anthems. A change in my personal circumstances recently has meant I recently moved from living in the heart of Midlothian to a short stagger away from one of Gorgie’s finest watering holes i.e. The Athletic Arms aka The Diggers. Yesterday, I was ambling along Gorgie Road. Being a Saturday morning, my brisk walk was not in any way to do with me clearing my head from partaking in too much alcohol the night before. Oh, no. I just happened to pass a well-known bookmaker and, unfortunately, my long established medical condition - turf accountant constipationitis - was triggered (cannae pass a bookies…)

I have been known to place the odd bet or three over the years. On very rare occasions, I actually win. My gambling habit is mocked by friends and family alike. Shortly after Hearts won the Scottish Cup in 1998, my then 12-year-old daughter was rushed into hospital with appendicitis. Recovering at the Sick Kids’ Hospital a couple of days later, one of the teachers from her school very kindly paid her a visit - and duly cast me a disapproving eye as he realised I was playing cards with my daughter with her pocket money at stake (I was winning too, when he came in…)

Now, I have to say I don’t often bet on Hearts to win. This has nothing to do with not having faith in my team but more to do with putting the mockers on the boys in maroon securing victory. Those who know me will tell you my record at the bookies is not a particularly good one. The last horse I backed that actually won a race was Shergar (as your parents, younger readers) In fact, in years gone by, it seems the more I bet against Hearts, the more likely they are to win. Moreover, the bigger the occasion and the bigger the bet, the more success seems to come the way of the Gorgie Boys. It’s nearly six years since the greatest Edinburgh derby of all - the Tennents Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park when Edinburgh’s finest put Hibernian to the sword, a Paul Hartley hat-trick helping to secure a 4-0 win and a place in the Scottish Cup Final. I would like to think I was as influential as Mr Hartley was in that game as I had placed a crisp ten pound note on Hibernian winning the game. Now before you castigate me, I should explain my glass half-empty thinking was if it all went Pete Tong and Hearts lost, at least I would have the very small consolation of picking up a few pounds from the bookies afterwards. And spending the winnings on drowning my sorrows. As events transpired, I was more than happy to part with ten pounds to see the maroons triumph. That game had a lunch time kick off and it was around 4.30pm that I toasted Hearts success in the Tynecastle Arms. The rest of that evening is a blur…

When the Gorgie Boys have been to Europe, I have usually placed a small sum on Hearts losing. The 1-0 victory in Bordeaux in November 2003 was one of the greatest experiences ever for those Hearts fans who were there. The two ten pound notes I placed on a home win were never seen again but it was a price worth paying. Similarly, a ten pound punt on SC Braga to defeat Hearts in the Portuguese city was safely deposited in the bookies’ vaults when Mark de Vries scored twice to secure a 2-2 draw on the night.

Getting back to the events of yesterday, the odds of 9/2 for Hearts to record an admittedly rare win at Ibrox looked particularly tempting. Rangers troubles are well documented and Dundee United and Kilmarnock have both won in Govan in recent weeks. I entered said bookies and filled in a slip that read £10 on Hearts to beat Rangers. Then, I considered the implications of my actions and thought better of it. Winning at Ibrox is difficult enough without having the additional burden of me backing the Maroons.

Sure enough, Hearts did the business with Jamie Hamill scoring a late winner. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as more than £50 passed through my fingers. Of course, had I placed a bet on Rangers to be ahead at half time and Hearts to win at full time, not only would I have been able to have a pint in The Diggers on the way home that evening - I would probably have won enough to buy everyone in the pub a drink.

Perhaps I should place a substantial bet on Hearts to lose every game next season. With my track record, there would be a reasonable chance Hearts could win the league…

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Heart of Midlothian 0 Dundee United 2

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 25 February 2012 - Tynecastle

Another Saturday. Another pitiful performance from Hearts. Without the influential Andy Webster and David Templeton, Hearts struggled on a cold Saturday afternoon against a Dundee United side on top form at the moment.

True, the home side were further hampered when Ian Black had to leave the field injured five minutes from half time and Marius Zaliukas didn't appear for the second half after also picking up an injury. But, for all their possession, Hearts fell apart when it came to the final third of the field.

Jon Daly gave United the lead just before the break when he headed home Anderson's free-kick - Danny Grainger seemed beaten rather easily - and when Hearts Stephen Elliott had his effort blocked off the line by former Hearts hero Robbie Neilson, one just felt this wasn't Hearts day. A feeling confirmed five minutes from the end when Gunning headed home to seal the points for the Terrors - and result in a mass exodus from the home support (yours truly included)

Striker Craig Beattie was introduced to the crowd at half time - Hearts badly need a presence up front. I wonder how John Sutton is doing down under...?

Top man: Mehdi Taouil

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A Time and a Place

Regular readers of this blog - both of you - may have formed the impression I am something of a traditionalist. I celebrate - if that’s the word - my half-century on Sunday and I’m of the age of looking back to the days of Drew Busby, Donald Ford and the culture of the terracing with more than a degree of fondness. Football is a lot different now to when I was growing up as a child of the 1970s with commercialism and television taking the game from its working class roots and placing it in the hands of the rich. The big games are now played on a Saturday lunch time or evening or Sunday. I always found a small crumb of comfort when I looked at the Scottish Cup - at least the cup final would always be on a Saturday with that traditional kick off time of 3.00pm. However, even that small morsel was taken away last month when the Scottish Football Association announced that, from 2013, the Scottish Cup Final would be played on a Sunday.

My understanding is this is to comply with rules that prohibit any television conflict with the UEFA Champions League final - which, next year, will be held at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, 25 May. I understand it - but I certainly don’t agree with it. Two of the greatest days of my half century were 16 May 1998 and 13 May 2006. No Hearts fan needs reminding their team lifted the Scottish Cup on those dates, defeating Rangers at Celtic Park in 1998 and Gretna at Hampden in 2006 - both glorious Saturdays. We headed back to Auld Reekie on the Saturday evenings on both occasions to find Scotland’s capital city thronging with celebrating Hearts supporters. In particular, 1998 is the year that tugs at the heartstrings. The Maroons had gone 36 long years without winning a trophy and, having come agonisingly close on a couple of occasions, we Hearts fans of long standing didn’t really know what to expect when the day of glory finally arrived. My friends and I didn’t get back to Edinburgh until close to eight o’clock on that Saturday evening nearly 14 years ago (14 years already - who would have thought it?) This was partly due to the fact we went through on a supporters’ bus, the driver of which was a Rangers fan - and he didn’t wait overly long after the final whistle to wait for celebrating Hearts fans. He headed back to Edinburgh with a half-empty bus - leaving those of us behind to take the train back. When we alighted at Haymarket Station, we couldn’t believe our eyes - there were thousands of Hearts fans on the streets waiting for their returning heroes. We did which comes naturally - we headed to the pub. The rest of the evening is a blur…

In 2006, Hearts were expected to win the final against Second Division Gretna - and we all know what happens when Hearts are expected to win something. The Gorgie Boys required a penalty shoot out to lift the famous old trophy for the second time in eight years but this didn’t dampen our fervour and yearning for another party in the footballing half of Edinburgh. These weekends will live forever in the memory of those who were there. The football suits at UEFA now want to impinge on that celebration by having the Scottish Cup Final moved to a Sunday.

Now, there’s little doubt that if Hearts get to the final in 2013, the majority of us will take the Monday off work - just in case the old trophy is brought back to Gorgie Road again. However, that’s not the point in my view. Saturday is football day. We have become accustomed to big games being switched to Sundays, Mondays and even Friday nights. Saturday lunch times are okay but the politicians are no doubt mortified by the prospect of football fans heading to the pub after a game at around 2.30 on a Saturday afternoon and staying there until closing time…But - Saturday is cup final day. Three o’clock on a Saturday. And I mean the cup final, not the other, lesser competition that has been won a couple of times by Edinburgh’s wee team.

Dundee United and Hearts were the last clubs outside the Old Firm to win the Scottish Cup and fans of both teams will treasure their memories forever. There’s a time and a place for the Scottish Cup Final. Call me an old stick-in-the-mud but should Hearts win the cup again, a little of the sparkle may be lost on a Sunday afternoon…

Twitter @Mike1874

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Heart of Midlothian 0 Celtic 4

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Wednesday 8 February 2012 - Tynecastle

Another visit to Tynecastle from Celtic. Another night of controversy. The photo above shows Stephen Elliot giving Hearts the lead after just two minutes. Well, they would have done had referee Willie Collum and his hapless assistants had any clue about what they were meant to be doing. They didn't think the ball had crossed the line. Seconds later, Scott Brown opens the scoring at the other end. Hearts fall apart and Celtic coast to an easy win.

Hearts were second best in every department and Celtic thoroughly deserved their win. But, yet again, the atmosphere at a Hearts-Celtic game was poisonous. Hatred seems to have taken over and the sectarian bile spewing out from the away end and, it has to be said, from some of the home support is quite frankly disgraceful. When will it end? Who knows...

Top man: Sadly, not one Hearts player passed muster tonight...

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Art of the Comeback

We’re only a few short weeks into 2012 but this year has already been labelled the year of the comeback. It was just a week old when Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson pulled off a major surprise - a trait the Glaswegian is prone to now and again - by naming the previously retired Paul Scholes as a substitute for his team’s FA Cup clash with neighbours Manchester City. The reason given for the 37 year old’s return was the lengthening injury list at Old Trafford but there’s no doubt the sly old fox that is Fergie was trying to outwit City boss Roberto Mancini and his money-laden side. United won 3-2 although this was more to do with the controversial sending off of City’s Vincent Kompany than the presence of Scholes, who appeared in the second half but then gave away possession that led to City’s second goal as they threatened an unlikely comeback from 3-0 down.
A day later, there was another comeback from a player that illustrated the sometimes fickle nature of football. Thierry Henry spent eight glorious years at Arsenal and has become a legendary figure in the red and white part of north London. His departure in 2007 to Barcelona left many Gooners fans devastated and his 174 goals in 254 appearances for the Gunners meant he would always be remembered as an Arsenal great. In 2010, Henry left Barcelona to end his glittering career in the United States with New York Red Bulls. When the transfer window opened in January, the possibility opened for Henry to move on loan back to English football - and there was only going to be one club where the Frenchman would head. And so Henry signed an eight-week deal at the club he loves and was a substitute in Arsenal’s FA Cup tie against Leeds United. Those who believe that things are written in the stars will tell you it was inevitable that Henry, wearing the number 12 shirt, would come and score the only goal of the game - his 12th goal in 12 appearances against Leeds United - 12 minutes from the end of Arsenal’s first home game of 2012...

What surprised me more than Henry’s re-appearance in an Arsenal shirt was that the vilification the Frenchman received a little over two years ago - when he handled the ball before crossing for William Gallas to score France’s winner against the Republic of Ireland in a World Cup play-off - was largely forgotten. Despite calls for him to be banned, at the time of the incident, from the World Cup Finals, Henry was once again the hero, the man who epitomised everything that is good about football…

Hearts, of course, have had their own comeback kings over the years. Fans were devastated in 1988 when the legend that was striker John Robertson swapped Tynecastle for Tyneside in a deal worth £750,000. However, his brief time at Newcastle United didn’t work out and Robbo returned home eight months later for the same fee that took him south in the first place. The wee man’s return to Gorgie saw him resume the mantle of ‘Hammer of the Hibees’ - his first goal second time around at Tynecastle was a late winner against Hibs - and he would go on to become Hearts record league goalscorer.

More recently, Rudi Skacel returned to Hearts after a four-year hiatus. The man who scored Hearts goal in their Scottish Cup triumph over Gretna at Hampden in 2006 left for Southampton soon after but the Czech Republic’s time south of the border wasn’t quite as fruitful as his time in Scotland’s capital city. After spells with Hertha Berlin, Slavia Prague and Larissa in Greece, Skacel returned to Tynecastle in September 2010, much to the delight of his adoring fans.

At present, it isn’t clear if Skacel will still be at Tynecastle beyond his contract, which is due to end on 31 January. While the midfield player extraordinaire spoke about his desire to remain with Hearts until the summer, we all know things can change quickly and dramatically in football. Skacel’s performance against St. Mirren at Tynecastle on 14 January when he bagged a hat-trick as ten man Hearts performed a minor miracle by winning 5-2 was the stuff of legend - the fact the team were 2-1 and a man down meant the result was a fantastic comeback in itself.

All of which just goes to show you can never say never. If Rudi does leave the building, does anyone have Drew Busby’s phone number? Now that would be a comeback!

Twitter @Mike1874