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.