Monday, 30 December 2013

Creature of Habit

My fiancée, the lovely Marion, remarked the other day that I was something of a creature of habit. I wasn’t entirely surprised by her less than complimentary comment as Saturday has always meant going to the Hearts game, something my first wife was only too keen to point out to anyone who would listen. Even when my two daughters were born, this didn’t change. Marion qualified her statement somewhat by opining that as Hearts weren’t playing last Saturday I was something like a fish out of water. However, it got me thinking about how predictable I’ve become by maintaining the ritual that is following the Hearts. For instance, here’s my schedule for a typical game at Tynecastle:

12.30      Arrive at The Station Tavern, Gorgie Road. Barmaid sees me arrive and instantly begins to pour a pint of foaming ale.

13.30      Three pints in and already there’s the first reference to how no one can lace Rab Prentice’s boots.

14.45   Leave the pub in a much more expectant mood than two hours previously.

14.50      Negotiate the steps up the Wheatfield Stand, trying to evade a middle aged woman bawling ‘Half Time Draw Tickets’ at the top of her voice. I get enough of women bawling at me…

15.00       Game kicks off with the last strains of Hector Nicol fading away.

15.05      First shout from the crowd urging the referee to go forth and multiply.

15.07      First comparison of said referee to famous biblical figure as in ‘Jesus Christ, ref!’

15.20      Callum Paterson’s attempt on goal likened to the contents of the overflowing urinal in the downstairs gents.

15.21      Member of Masonic Lodge of dubious parentage wearing luminous yellow shirt and struggling to keep up with play is identified as a Mr Collum…

15.40      Mass exodus of fans head for the toilet, pie, hot dog or any combination of the three in a usually failed attempt to beat the queues.

15.45      Half-time arrives – it’s generally agreed that football isn’t what it used to be as auld Bill and I remember our ‘heroes’ from a bygone age – in truth, these were players we used to hurl abuse at thirty and forty years ago.

15.55    Several hundred crumpled pieces of paper are collectively tossed into the air as the winning ticket for the half time draw is announced. My mate gets within ten thousand of the winning number. He’s rather sceptical as less than five thousand tickets were sold….

16.00    Second half kicks off to loud cheers – stadium announcer par excellence Scott Wilson announces that Hibs are two goals down at half-time.

16.02    The vast majority of those who sit in our section of the Wheatfield Stand return to their seats.

16.20      I remark that this game is tedious and has goalless draw written all over it. The forwards haven’t got a clue and Ryan Stevenson has done absolutely nothing of any significance. I make my view known that Mr Stevenson might well have sat next to us in the stand.

16.21      Ryan Stevenson scores a wonder goal from twenty-five yards after beating three men on the edge of the penalty box. I always knew he was liable to score a goal out of nothing. I make my view known that Stevenson is a valuable member of the team…

16.35   The part-time Hearts fans head for the exits. The fiftysomethings mutter something about having to pick up the wife from the Gyle Shopping Centre while those with kids argue their case for getting home in time to watch Ant and Dec…

16.40 Obligatory ‘how long is there to go’ question – particularly prevalent if Hearts are leading by a single goal.

16.45   The referee blows for full-time right on cue – unless the fourth official is Mr Brines who always adds three minutes of additional time (check this the next time he officiates at your team’s game) Hearts have scraped a victory and all’s well with the world. We join the cue for the exits.

17.02 We finally snake our way down the steps of the stand and head for The Station Tavern. The general consensus of opinion is that the game was rubbish, Hearts were rubbish and there must be better things to do on a Saturday afternoon.

See you next week then!

Happy New Year, readers…

St. Mirren 1 Heart of Midlothian 1

SPFL, Sunday 29 December 2013 – New St. Mirren Park

It’s become something of a habit while compiling match reports on Hearts games for the Edinburgh Reporter this season to convey the feelings of doom and gloom usually associated with what seems like recurring defeat. So it makes a pleasant change to report on Hearts not succumbing to a reversal in Paisley on Sunday, albeit they had to contend with one point rather than the very much needed three following a hard-fought 1-1 draw in Paisley.

After Boxing Day’s hapless performance against Kilmarnock, Hearts boss Gary Locke brought back Scott Robinson while there was an unexpected but very much welcome return for the experienced Ryan Stevenson who had been injured for the last three weeks. Locke made a few positional changes too, most notably with Jamie Hamill playing in midfield beside Callum Paterson.

If the changes in the Hearts line up were designed to produce a change in fortune such hopes were in tatters after just three minutes when St. Mirren took the lead. Former Hearts hero Danny Grainger crossed for Thompson to stab the ball home from just three yards out and it looked like another bad day at the office for the Maroons was on the cards.

It was Thompson who almost set up the Paisley Saints second goal when he fed Naismith whose effort was superbly saved by Hearts keeper Jamie MacDonald. Hearts came close themselves after 22 minutes when, from a free-kick, Jamie Hamill set up young Jamie Walker but the winger’s effort went just wide. At the interval Hearts remained a goal down but there was no doubt their first half performance was an improvement on Thursday’s debacle at Tynecastle.

Suitably encouraged, Hearts began the second half and equalised in the xx minute. The home side looked to clear their lines from a Hearts attack but the ball fell to Jamie Hamill 25 yards from goal. The former Kilmarnock defender took it first time with his right foot and volleyed the ball into the net past former Hearts keeper Marian Kello for the equaliser. It was Hearts first goal in four games and brought rapturous applause from the visiting support.

The ever-dangerous Thompson then came close to putting the Buddies back in front before Scott Robinson tried to emulate Hamill but his effort from 30 yards looked destined for Paisley’s High Street. Jamie Walker then embarked on a mazy run but his effort on goal was wide of the target. After Ryan Stevenson came close with an ambitious overhead kick, Callum Paterson thought he had sealed a rare Hearts victory with a close range effort only to see Kello produce the kind of stupendous save that marked his all too brief career at Tynecastle.

In the end, Hearts had to settle for one point rather than three and, on the balance of play over 90 minutes, this was probably a fair result. Hearts are now on minus two points at the foot of the table, 13 behind Ross County who lost at Aberdeen.

Afterwards, Hearts boss Gary Locke praised his beleaguered players. "I thought, second-half especially, it was an outstanding performance," Locke told BBC Radio Scotland.

"We asked for a better performance than the other day and I think the players responded in the right manner."

It may be fanciful to suggest Hearts might have cut the deficit to seven points by this time next week – particularly with a trip to Easter Road for the Edinburgh Derby on Thursday – but it’s a lifebelt of hope to cling on to.

St Mirren: Kello, Naismith, McAusland, Newton, Kelly, Goodwin, McGregor, McGinn, Thompson, McGowan, Grainger.

Hearts: MacDonald; McGowan, McKay, Wilson, McHattie; Robinson, Hamill, Paterson, Tapping; Walker, Stevenson.

Referee: Kevin Clancy

Att: 4,568

Top man: Jamie Hamill – what a strike for Hearts equaliser!

Absence Makes the

I've not been updating this site as much as I would have liked in recent weeks. This is partly due to my involvement with The Edinburgh Reporter website.

However, I aim to put this right for 2014.

No, come back, come back......

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Bordeaux - Ten Years On

A significant feature of Craig Levein’s time as manager of Hearts, was achieving some decent results in European competition - particularly away from Edinburgh.  Season 2003/04 would see Hearts maintain their steady progress under the former Scotland centre half even though money, as always, was tight at Tynecastle. Chairman Chris Robinson had to tell Levein - like the majority of Hearts managers before him - that he would need to wheel and deal in the transfer market, as there would be no money for new players. However, Levein was proving more than adept at spotting attributes in players others couldn’t see.

Levein recruited two attack-minded players in the summer of 2003. Dennis Wyness had a decent scoring record at Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Hearts faced a fight with Wyness’ former team Aberdeen - who wanted him back at Pittodrie - for the Aberdonian’s signature. The fact that Hearts were about to play in the UEFA Cup seemed to swing it for Wyness, who ventured south to Scotland’s capital city and signed for Hearts. Paul Hartley was a player who once played for Edinburgh’s other team but saw the error of his ways. He had performed well for St. Johnstone and Levein saw the Glaswegian as an integral part of the Hearts team - something Hartley would prove to be for some time after Levein’s departure from Tynecastle. Both players, to the delight of Chairman Chris Robinson, cost nothing as they were at the end of their respective contracts.

Hearts had enjoyed a productive campaign in season 2002/03 and a third place finish in the SPL meant participation in the UEFA Cup. Hearts awaited the draw for the first round knowing they would be sure to face tough opposition. They were paired with the Bosnian side Zeljeznicar Sarajevo and while the draw could have been tougher, Hearts were grateful they had avoided the likes of Barcelona, Liverpool, Valencia and Borussia Dortmund. The Bosnians, though, were no mugs and on their substitute’s bench was a 17-year-old striker who would go on to become a huge star in years to come. In January 2011, Edin Dzeko would move from German football to money-laden Manchester City for the not inconsiderable sum of £27m.

Hearts won the first leg 2-0 at Tynecastle, thanks to goals from Mark de Vries and Andy Webster. Crucially, they had avoided conceding an away goal, but those of us who recalled Hearts UEFA Cup trip to neighbouring Velez Mostar in 1988, knew the return leg would be a tough affair. The Bosnians weren’t happy with their defeat in Edinburgh and sacked coach Amar Osmin afterwards. New coach Milomir Odovic told his players they not only still had a chance to progress, but they had to prove to him that they were good enough. It took a backs to the wall performance from Hearts to secure a goalless draw and progression to the second round on a 2-0 aggregate.

When the draw for the second round was made, Hearts fans clapped their hands with eager anticipation. No trip to the relative unknown this time. For Hearts were paired with one of the leading clubs in French football - FC Girondins de Bordeaux. The first leg was to be played in the south of France and the chance of heading to warmer climes seven weeks before Christmas to see their team take on one of Europe’s top sides was not to be missed for Hearts supporters. 3,000 Jambos headed to the wine producing region of France. Hearts arranged a special charter plane to take fans there and back on the same day. With hindsight, the events of Thursday 6 November 2003 meant that, perhaps, we should have stayed over to fully celebrate one of the most famous results in the history of Heart of Midlothian Football Club….

There were just over 15,000 fans at the Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux - a fifth of whom had made the journey from Scotland. Those of us who boarded Hearts charter flight at 7.00am that day, had been in the French city since 11.00am - and had spent much of the day sampling the delights of the city and French hospitality. It may have been early November but the temperature in the south of France was 72 degrees fahrenheit and while some Hearts fans headed for open-air cafes, most congregated at an Irish Bar (as you do when in France…) called The Connemara. It was a day when a copious amount of alcohol was consumed and it built up a magnificent atmosphere ahead of the match.

Bordeaux: Rame; Alicarte; Basto; Jemmali; Jurietti; Pochettino; E. da Costa; P. da Costa; Feindouno; Chamakh; Darcheville.

Hearts: Gordon; Neilson; McKenna; Webster; Pressley; Kisnorbo; Maybury; Stamp; Wyness; Valois; De Vries.

As for the game itself, the majority of Hearts supporters present may have been under various influences of alcohol but I suspect many of them were wondering if they had imbibed too much when they heard the team Craig Levein had selected for the game. Granted, several beers had been consumed during the course of the day but as I stood behind the goal with 3,000 other Jambos but it seemed to me Levein had gone for a 4-3-3 option - as Dennis Wyness, Mark de Vries and Jean-Louis Valois were all named in Hearts starting line-up. However, when the game kicked off, it soon became apparent that de Vries would plough a lone furrow up front. Wyness and Valois were part of a six-man midfield - with Kevin McKenna, Steven Pressley and Andy Webster forming a trio of centre halves in front of young goalkeeper Craig Gordon, making his debut in European football at the age of 20 years. Robbie Neilson, normally a full back, was given one of the six midfield positions and the intent was clearly to stop the home side from producing anything approaching French flair. What’s more - it worked.

Bordeaux struggled to produce a threat of any kind in the first 15 minutes. Hearts six man midfield snapped at the heels of any home player threatening to venture forward, with Bordeaux striker Jean-Claude Darcheville - who would later go on to play for Rangers in the SPL - hardly getting a touch of the ball. The old adage in football in games like these is if the underdogs can survive the first 20 minutes, then anything is possible. After 20 minutes, came the first real chance of the game - but not at the end of the ground most expected. Robbie Neilson, of all people, had been fouled on the edge of the Bordeaux penalty box and while there were hopeful appeals from the less than sober visiting support, the resultant free kick taken by Valois, back in the country of his birth, went wide. Nevertheless, it added to the belief in the Hearts camp that a positive result was possible.

It did, however, alert the home team that they had a game on their hands. Jemmali fired in a ferocious shot that Craig Gordon did well to save, before an effort from Feindouno went just over the crossbar. Moments later, a moment of carelessness from Valois presented another chance for Feindouno but again his effort was not on target. The game was now taking on the pattern we all thought it would, with the French continuing to press, although Hearts threatened again just before half-time when Neilson - revelling in his midfield role - delivered a cross that caused consternation in the home defence. With both Kevin McKenna and Mark de Vries lurking in the Bordeaux penalty area, the aforementioned Feindouno headed the ball towards his goalkeeper Rame - who had Dennis Wyness bearing down on him. The Bordeaux number one managed to avert the danger but it was another encouraging sign for Hearts, roared on by their vociferous support who were showing their French counterparts just how to get behind your team. Those Jambos were happy to get the chance to ease their voices at half time with the game still goalless - Craig Levein’s master plan was, so far, working well.

Five minutes after the re-start, Darcheville produced a chance out of nothing but fired his shot over the bar. Minutes later, the same player had a goal bound shot hooked off the goal line by Andy Webster, before Gordon produced another fine save from Costa. It didn’t help the now sobering Hearts support that Bordeaux were attacking the end behind which they stood anxiously and we constantly looked at our watches in the belief that time had stood still in the south of France.

Craig Levein brought on fresh legs when Paul Hartley replaced Valois but Hearts suffered a blow when the magnificent Robbie Neilson had to go off injured, to be replaced by Austin McCann. Inevitably, it was Bordeaux who continued to make all the running and, at times, Craig Gordon must have felt it was he against the French as the home team did everything but score. The young goalkeeper came of age that evening and one could see the frustration on the faces of the home players as the Hearts supporting goalie kept them at bay, one save in  particular from Pochettino damn near taking the breath away.

Still the game remained goalless. Hearts supporters would have been delighted with a goalless draw and the chance to complete the job at Tynecastle three weeks later. With just 12 minutes left, the deadlock was broken. On a rare foray into the Bordeaux half, Hearts were awarded a free kick for a foul on Phil Stamp that Hartley elected to take. He was too far out to have a shot on goal but he expertly floated a long ball towards the far post, which the tall figure of McKenna met with his head. ‘Moose’ as the big Canadian defender was known, headed the ball across the penalty box where Rame palmed his effort away - but only into the path of de Vries who slotted the ball into the net for an incredible goal. Cue absolute bedlam in the Hearts end as 3,000 disbelieving maroon and white clad supporters leapt for joy.

The home support was stunned. It has to be said the same feeling was prevalent among a nonetheless, ecstatic travelling support. The game ended with an historic 1-0 win for Hearts, their first and, to date, only victory on French soil. Bordeaux were one of the leading clubs in France and for a young, inexperienced Hearts team - and manager - to come away with a victory was nothing short of sensational. At the end of the game, the Hearts players celebrated with those who had travelled to support them.

It was to Craig Levein’s credit that he said, immediately after the game had ended, that the tie had still to be won. Bordeaux weren’t a top team in Europe for nothing and they would fancy their chances of overturning the deficit at Tynecastle in the return leg. Which, inevitably, as far as Hearts are concerned, they did. In front of a full house of close to 18,000 fans in Gorgie, the French team displayed their undoubted class with a performance of maturity and authority and won 2-0 on the night to progress 2-1 on aggregate. Domestically, Hearts secured another third place finish in the SPL but lost to Dundee in the League Cup and Celtic in the Scottish Cup.

Nonetheless, the disappointment of that cold November evening in Gorgie will never take away the jubilation felt by those of us who travelled to the south of France three weeks earlier. Such trips take a fair degree of planning but it’s doubtful if any of us could have made a better job if we had planned it in details ourselves. The weather, the hospitality, the magnificence of Bordeaux, the alcohol - and, of course, the result, meant it was just the perfect day to be a Hearts supporter. In fact, I would say it was the best day I have had as a Hearts supporter outside of seeing the Jambos win two Scottish Cups. A day none of us who were there will ever forget.

Hearts 50 Greatest Games is still available in all good bookshops and at


Sunday, 15 September 2013

Heart of Midlothian 1 Celtic 3

SPFL Saturday 14 September 2013 - Tynecastle Stadium

Hearts had won both their previous SPFL fixtures at Tynecastle this season but the acid test of this young Maroons team was always going to be when League Champions Celtic came to Gorgie. So it proved when Neil Lennon’s side proved too good for an enthusiastic and hard-working Hearts side who nevertheless gave as good as they got in an eventful afternoon at Tynecastle.

Celtic manager Neil Lennon recognised how tough this fixture has traditionally been for his side and, despite the Hoops opening Champions League fixture in Milan next Tuesday, sent out a strong starting eleven. As expected, it was Celtic who had the bulk of the possession in the early stages of the game and Kris Commons had the first real chance but volleyed over from 12 yards when he really should have opened the scoring.

This is not to say Hearts were sitting back and Gary Locke’s side looked dangerous on the counter-attack. The impressive Kevin McHattie, restored to the Hearts team following his suspension from the team that lost in Inverness before the international break, almost caught out Celtic keeper Forster with a close range effort. However, the opening goal came at the other end and in somewhat controversial circumstances.

Hearts Jamie Hamill must have felt an overpowering sense of déjà vu when, for the second game running, he was deemed guilty of handball in the penalty area thereby conceding a penalty kick. In Inverness a fortnight ago, Hamill seemed powerless to prevent the ball cannoning off his head  - which not only resulted in a penalty kick for Caledonian Thistle but also a red card – ultimately rescinded -  for the Hearts man. This time round Stokes’ effort cannoned off the unfortunate Hamill’s arm. Penalty decreed referee Willie Collum although thankfully common sense prevailed and Hamill remained on the pitch. Commons despatched the penalty and the jeers and catcalls that whistled around Tynecastle from a disbelieving home support told its own story. Afterwards, Celtic manager Neil Lennon remarked he had been as surprised as anyone by the decision to award a penalty kick.

Hearts were seen more as an attacking force in the second half and equalised just before the hour mark when Jason Holt struck a low shot from the edge of the penalty area which evaded Forster to level the score. Tynecastle erupted and having defeated both Hibernian and Aberdeen with huge encouragement from a vociferous home support, one sensed Gary Locke’s youngsters could perhaps do it again. However, parity lasted just six minutes when Stokes raced through the Hearts defence to restore the visitors’ lead.

Hearts had appeals for a penalty turned down by referee Collum moments later in an incident that didn’t look dissimilar to the one which gave Celtic their first half lead. The home side’s frustration turned to despair when Celtic wrapped up the three points with four minutes left when new signing Pukki headed home their third goal.

Thus, Hearts unbeaten home record ended but there were many plus points for Gary Locke. The Maroons gave as good as they got for much of the game and although there can be no denying Celtic deserved to win the game, Hearts youngsters can take much encouragement despite having to chase the game after that controversial opening goal.

Hearts: Macdonald; McHattie; Wilson; McGowan; McKay; Hamill; Robinson; Walker; Holt; Paterson; B. King.

Celtic: Forster; Izaguirre; Ambrose; van Dijk; Lustwig; Matthews; Brown; Boerrigter; Ledley; Stokes; Commons.

Referee: Willie Collum

Att: 15,928

Top man: The impressive Kevin McHattie is a player who seems to be much improved this season.



It’s remarkable to think it’s nearly 32 years since the death of one of Scottish football’s greatest managers – Bill Shankly. I recently watched a documentary on television about the man from the Ayrshire mining village of Glenbuck who became a Liverpool legend and will forever be revered in the red half of Merseyside.

It was fascinating to hear how the man who transformed Liverpool from Second Division also-rans to English League champions in the mid-1960s used psychology to inspire his players. Former England international Kevin Keegan spoke about when he joined Liverpool from Scunthorpe United in 1971 and was up against West Ham United and their England World Cup winning stars such as Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore. Shankly didn’t want the young Keegan to feel overawed and had a quiet word with his starlet as the teams prepared in the dressing room shortly before kick off. The wily Scot told Keegan that Moore was now past his best, and suspected the England captain had been out clubbing the night before as he was sure he was limping. Liverpool won 4-1 that afternoon with Keegan getting on the scoresheet. After the game, Shanks applauded Keegan for his performance, adding he had just played against the best defender in the country who was at the top of his game. Not quite how he had described the England star two hours earlier but his pre-match diatribe had the desired effect!

It brought to mind the story former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby was often fond of regaling. Decades ago there was no internet and no instant communication the way there is today. Busby, another great Scot, told how Shankly telephoned him after a midweek game between Liverpool and Sheffield United. Despite their rivalry, Shankly and Busby were good friends and Shanks, mindful of the fact United were due to play the Yorkshire team in a forthcoming fixture, thought it best he telephoned Busby with some advice.

‘You know, Matt, I was really impressed by Sheffield United tonight’ said Shankly. ‘They are very skilful, they have great strength, pace and spirit. In my view, they are one of the best teams in the country’. Somewhat perplexed by this, Busby assumed Liverpool had lost and his compatriot was getting his excuses in early. ‘So, Bill’ Busby said in that famous drawl, ‘I take it your boys lost tonight then?’ ‘Oh, no’ replied Shanks, ‘we won 5-1…’ And the marker had been laid!

Perhaps the most famous exponent of what is now termed ‘mind games’ is another famous Scot who also brought greatness to Manchester United - Sir Alex Ferguson. He famously ‘got inside the head’ of the aforementioned Kevin Keegan when the perm-haired Englishman was manager of Newcastle United in the mid-1990s and the Geordies were top of the English Premiership table. Ferguson intimated that some teams didn’t try as hard against Newcastle as they did against the Red Devils and this had helped the Magpies establish a decent lead at the top of the table. This infuriated Keegan – as Ferguson had intended – and the effect it had on the mindset of the players helped derail Newcastle’s journey to a first English League championship since Moses was a boy. Once doubt sets in it’s difficult to get rid of it.

This week Celtic head for the San Siro and the might of Milan in the Champions League. Few will give Neil Lennon’s side a chance but the Hoops defied the odds not so long ago by beating Barcelona. Lennon will surely use psychology to try and gain an advantage over his more illustrious opponents. If only Bill Shankly were still around to pop into the Celtic dressing room prior to kick-off…!


Mike Smith

Twitter @Mike1874

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Heart of Midlothian 2 Aberdeen 1

SPFL Saturday 24 August 2013 - Tynecastle Stadium

Billed as: The clash of the two biggest clubs in the land outside of the Old Firm with Hearts continuing their quest to claw back the 15 point deficit imposed on them at the start of the season and  Aberdeen looking to get back on track following their defeat from Celtic last week.

Reality: A rip-roaring game played in front of more than 15,000 frenzied spectators at one of Scotland's most atmospheric grounds. Urged on by a noisy and passionate home support, Hearts youngsters yet again demonstrated their hunger, commitment and, at times, skill to secure another three points which may well be crucial at the end of the season when the points are added up and the fight to avoid relegation is concluded. After a splendid opening spell, Hearts went ahead after 17 minutes with a wonderful goal which began in their own half and ended with Jamie Walker waltzing into the Aberdeen penalty area before dispatching a shot low into the right hand corner of the net to put the home side deservedly a goal ahead. Cue the decibel levels from the home support rising to eardrum bursting levels - 'we are the Hearts and we're staying up'. Moments later, great play from Billy King gave Jamie Hamill the opportunity to double Hearts lead but the experienced defender couldn't direct his shot on target and the Dons breathed again. Aberdeen, though, are a decent, experienced side and they dominated the rest of the half. They certainly enjoyed more possession but couldn't find the equaliser by half time.

Hearts began the second half on the offensive and Walker brought out a fine save from Aberdeen keeper Nicky Weaver as the young Jambos sought to add a second goal. The impressive Billy King was proving to be a thorn in the flesh of the visiting defence but his effort on goal lacked the power to trouble Weaver. 12 minutes into the second half the game seemed to turn  - and not to the home side's liking. Hearts highly talented  Brad McKay suffered a head injury after clattering into an advertising board and while he tried to carry on after treatment it was clear the young defender was concussed. Hearts manager Gary Locke - rather than resort to the John Lambie method of telling a player who had a head knock and didn't know who he was that he was Pele and to get back on the field - replaced McKay with yet another Hearts youngster, Jordan McGhee. McKay had been hugely impressive and I felt his enforced absence would be a blow for Hearts, a feeling intensified minutes later when Aberdeen equalised. Home defender Kevin McHattie was adjudged to have brought down Zola inside the penalty box and Hearts were penalised twice as McGinn not only scored from the resultant penalty kick to level the scores but McHattie was ordered off for denying Zola a goalscoring opportunity.

For a brief spell Hearts young heads seemed to go down and the home support understandably feared the worst. The noise was now emanating from the Roseburn Stand as the Aberdeen fans sensed victory against a depleted Hearts team.  However, Jamie Hamill brought inspiration once more by almost scoring following a superb passing movement and this lifted the home side and the supporters. After McGinn headed over from six yards for the visitors, a huge increase in the noise levels rasped around the Wheatfield Stand and rather than settle for a point, this young fighting Hearts team went ahead once more with less than for minutes left to play. A long free kick was delivered towards the Aberdeen penalty box. Dons keeper Weaver came to collect the ball but Hearts substitute Jordan McGhee got his head to it first to nod the ball into the empty net. 2-1 to the ten men and Tynecastle erupted in a cacophony of noise. With an astonishing five minutes of additional time added Aberdeen looked to have secured a point when Magennis had a free header six yards out. This time the effort was on target - but Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald pulled off a brilliant point blank save to tip the ball over the crossbar. The home support rose as one to acclaim a stupendous save.

Moments later, the final whistle blew and Hearts had secured an incredible win against the odds.

Reaction: Words can barely express the emotion felt by Hearts players, management and magnificent supporters after an astonishing victory against a good Aberdeen side who may well be pushing Celtic at the top end of the league this season. Hearts are now on minus eight points - and are just nine behind St. Mirren. I felt if Hearts were nine points behind at Christmas they would still have a fighting chance of avoiding the drop. They have reached that stage now and the end of August is still a week away. Yes, this young team will hit a barren spell and the points deficit may increase. But the spirit, hunger, will to win and the feeling that everyone is in this together means this may well turn out to be a season that will go down in history for this great football club.

The good: Every Hearts player played their part - as did the truly magnificent supporters who are saving this club not only off the pitch but on it too.

The bad: It seems churlish to moan about the referee but some of Alan Muir's decisions were baffling to say the least.

Top man: Scott Robinson covered every blade of the Tynecastle turf on Saturday - his emotion at the end of the game summed up what every Hearts fan felt.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Heart of Midlothian 1 Hibernian 0

SPFL Premiership - Sunday 11 August 2013 - Tynecastle

Billed as: The first Edinburgh derby of the season kicking off just after high noon (thanks Sky TV - again) and the chance for this young Hearts team to put some badly needed points on the board.

Reality: If it was silky football with the emphasis on the passing game you were after then you were at the wrong game. But for sheer guts, effort and will to win it was excellent. Hearts youngsters rose to the occasion to deservedly beat their more experienced city rivals.

The good: Dylan McGowan struggled most of the afternoon but he delivered a superb cross to enable young Calum Paterson to bullet home a header with 20 minutes to go to give Hearts a marvellous win.

The bad: Hibs overly physical approach - how did Scott Robertson stay on the field - put paid to Hearts Ryan Stevenson who suffered bad ligament damage and had to go off early in the first half.

Verdict: A fine win for Hearts over an admittedly poor Hibs team. The deficit at the bottom of the table is now minus 12 points. A small gain but a gain nonetheless. With the spirit shown by the players, manager and supporters, it's just possible the great escape might happen.

Top man: Jamie Hamill and Danny Wilson were immense in defence but, for me, no one shone brighter than young David Smith.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Other 5-1...

Heart of Midlothian 5 (five) Hibernian 1 - Bank of Scotland SPL
Sunday 11 August 2002 - Tynecastle
In 2002 it’s fair to say Craig Levein was making a name for himself in football management. Here was a young, articulate scholar of the game who, at the height of his playing career, was a brilliant defender in the Franz Beckenbauer mould. He suffered two serious knee injuries, which meant he had to give up the game prematurely - his decision to do so was announced at a tearful Tynecastle press conference in the autumn of 1997. Now, he was back at the club he served so well and where he made his name.

By the time season 2002/03 started, Levein had rebuilt the Hearts team to his specification. Just a little over four years had passed since his predecessor Jim Jefferies had led Hearts to Scottish Cup glory, but most of that team had now left Gorgie for pastures new. This was now Levein’s team. One of his first signings was Andy Webster, a stylish centre-half very much in the Levein mould. Levein paid a handsome sum of £70,000 in March 2001 to Arbroath for the services of the 19-year-old Dundonian. Like Levein, Webster would go on to play for Scotland. He would be a crucial component of Levein’s side that would go on to produce some memorable results, both domestically and in Europe, in the years that followed.

Hearts began season 2002/03 with a steady, if unspectacular, 1-1 draw at Dundee, before welcoming Hibernian for the first Edinburgh derby of the season. The BBC had switched the game to a Sunday afternoon for live television transmission and although it was early August and the Edinburgh Festival was in full swing, the weather was more like November. Torrential rain lashed the capital city all day but this didn’t stop more than 15,000 fans heading to Tynecastle for a game always hugely anticipated.

The game began rather like the weather conditions of the day - with Hearts flooding the Hibernian half. One of Hearts new signings, French winger Jean Louis Valois, was clearly in the mood and took little time to display his obvious skill.  Hearts other significant signing of the summer - Dutch striker Mark de Vries - was making his first start of the season, having come off the substitute’s bench the previous week at Dundee and his big physical presence seemed to have an unsettling effect on the Hibs defence right from the start. Valois, despite the monsoon like conditions, was revelling in the atmosphere and the Hibs defenders were clearly having trouble containing him. That said it was Hibernian who nearly opened the scoring when Townsley played a neat pass to O’Connor whose shot dipped over the crossbar. To say Hibs opening the scoring would have been against the run of play would be akin to saying there was a shower in Edinburgh that day. However, Hearts finally got the goal their play so richly deserved after 18 minutes, when keeper Niemi launched a long ball forward that was nodded on by de Vries towards Andy Kirk. Ulster Andy, as he was affectionately known, produced a lob of some quality over the Hibs keeper and immediately ran to the jubilant Hearts supporters in the Wheatfield Stand. 1-0 to Hearts and Kirk really should have made it 2-0 a few moments later, when he headed a sublime cross from Steven Boyack over the crossbar. In the 27th minute, Hearts thought they had scored a second goal when, following a corner, Valois found Scott Severin, but the midfield man’s spectacular diving header crashed off the Hibs crossbar with the Hibs keeper beaten. As half-time approached, some Hearts fans felt edgy about only having a one goal lead for all their team’s dominance. However, four minutes before the break, that man Valois delivered another fine cross into the Hibs penalty area and de Vries poked the ball beyond Caig to give Hearts a 2-0 lead at the interval.

Hearts fans, of course, can never take anything for granted and a two-goal lead quite often isn’t enough. Five minutes into the second half, Hibs Ian Murray headed home a cross from Brebner and it was game on in the Edinburgh derby. The goal gave the visitors hope and the game developed into an end-to-end affair. Valois continued to torment the Hibs defence and he provided yet another inviting cross, only for Kirk to fail to accept the invitation - but only just. Ulster Andy then produced a ferocious effort from six yards out, which Hibs keeper Caig brilliantly tipped over the crossbar. Hearts swarmed forward again on 64 minutes with Valois, inevitably, involved. The Frenchman struck a shot that Caig could only parry and de Vries slammed home the rebound to put Hearts 3-1 ahead to the ecstasy of the home support.

Hibernian brought on the old warhorse Mixu Paatelainen - who played a significant part in Hibs 6-2 win over Hearts at Easter Road two years earlier - in an attempt to score the two goals needed to salvage a draw. Two further goals were indeed scored as the game entered its final stage - but not by those in green and white. As the 90-minute mark approached, some of the home support began whistling for referee Mike McCurry to blow his whistle for full-time. However, the magnificent Maroons - and Mark de Vries in particular - weren’t finished yet. As Hibs pressed for a lifeline, Hearts broke up field in the final minute of regulation time. Good work by substitute Gary Wales set up de Vries, who buried the ball past Caig for Hearts fourth. With the Roseburn Stand emptying quicker than a pint of 80 shillings ale at The Diggers on match day, three quarters of Tynecastle was rocking. Deep in injury time, Steven Boyack delivered a deep cross into the Hibs penalty box, which the inevitable figure of de Vries met with his head and the ball bounced over the flailing Caig to make the final score an incredible Heart of Midlothian 5 Hibernian 1. The big Surminese striker had astonishingly scored four goals on his home debut. Being against Hibs, it was a performance that would place the name de Vries in Tynecastle folklore.

As the fans spilled out on to Gorgie Road, the rain was still hammering down in the capital city but the jubilant Hearts support did not care. They were in dreamland. They had waited years for a result like this over their city neighbours, who still referred to Hibs 7-0 win at Tynecastle on New Years Day 1973 and the aforementioned more recent 6-2 win at Easter Road. Now revenge was sweet indeed.

Few players have made such a debut in the Edinburgh derby as Mark de Vries did that day. The 6ft 4ins striker from Dordrecht 90 was sensational and, incredibly, Hearts manager Craig Levein said afterwards he expected even more from the big man - once he was fully fit! However, as impressive as de Vries’ scoring exploits were that day, the man of the match was not the big striker - but another new boy, winger Jean-Louis Valois. The Frenchman simply destroyed the Hibs defence that rain-soaked afternoon and he was instrumental in Hearts dominant performance. The former Luton Town player, who began his career at Auxerre under the legendary Guy Roux, was signed by Craig Levein on a free transfer and Hearts fans were wondering just how on earth any team could have simply allowed the gifted Frenchman to leave for nothing. The answer would become apparent in the months ahead. On his day, Valois was sublime, but there were other days when he was anonymous - almost the archetypal Scots winger! He was brilliant in season 2002-03 and he enthralled the Hearts fans with his skilful displays. Sadly though, Valois became something of a one-season wonder. A regular in his first season at Tynecastle, something seemed to happen to the Frenchman in the summer of 2003 and he failed to reproduce his form in season 2003/04. After losing form, he fell out of favour with Craig Levein and was released early from his contract in January 2004. After a brief spell in Spanish football, Valois returned to Scotland at the somewhat unlikely port of call that was Clyde. He then signed for Burnley and featured in their famous FA Cup victory over Liverpool in January 2005. Again though, he flattered to deceive and left Lancashire for the United Arab Emirates later that year. As for his Dutch colleague that day, it would not be the last time de Vries would feature prominently in a Hearts game - more of this later!

The next Edinburgh derby following the 5-1 thrashing of the hapless Hibees came at Easter Road in November - and, in many ways, was as sweet as the August hammering. Hearts had struggled all afternoon and trailed 1-0 with just five minutes remaining. As Hibs eyed a small measure of revenge, they reckoned without Hearts substitute Neil Janczyk. Four minutes from the end, the young midfielder crossed for big Kevin McKenna to nod past Hibs keeper Colgan to give Hearts an unlikely equaliser. Two minutes into stoppage time, Janczyk provided a sweet pass to Phil Stamp who darted into the Hibs penalty box, before stroking the ball past Colgan to give Hearts an even more unlikely winner. Even when Hearts played poorly, as they had done that afternoon, they were still good enough to beat Hibs! Craig Levein’s men ended the season in third place in the SPL - and qualified for the UEFA Cup.

Hearts had a decent run in the League Cup, reaching the semi-final before they lost to a solitary goal by Rangers Dutch star Ronald de Boer at Hampden on a cold, miserable February evening. However, Hearts reserved their worst performance of the season for the competition that means so much to the fans as it’s the one we all think Hearts - unlike other teams from Edinburgh - have a realistic chance of winning. Namely, the Scottish Cup. Hearts were drawn away to Falkirk in the third round (the first round that included the top flight clubs)  The Bairns were in the First Division at the time and Hearts had prepared for the game with  a mid winter break in Portugal. Perhaps the players were still thinking about this when they took to the field at ramshackle Brockville Park on a freezing cold January afternoon; it certainly wasn’t the cup-tie they were thinking about in a shambolic first half in which they found themselves four goals down to their lower league opponents, thanks to a hat-trick from Colin Samuel and a goal from Owen Coyle. There were shades of a 6-0 hammering at the same ground a decade earlier. Small wonder few Hearts supporters mourned the passing of  Brockville when it was demolished to make way for a supermarket a few years later (okay, perhaps I felt a tinge of sadness, given Brockville was where I saw my first Hearts game in 1968)

Such thoughts, however, could not have been further from the minds of celebrating Hearts supporters as they left Tynecastle in August 2002 after hammering the Hibs. We were too busy asking our Hibby supporting associates what the time was - as we made it five past!

Mike Smith

Hearts 50 Greatest Games is available in all good bookshops or on-line at Amazon

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Golden Age of Broadcasting

BBC Scotland had live television coverage of Celtic’s UEFA Champions League qualifier against Cliftonville the other night. I watched about ten minutes of it before I felt compelled to switch it off. It was an easy enough win in the end for Neil Lennon’s side but what made me reach for the off button on the remote control was the incessant chattering from the BBC commentator. Now, I’m sure Liam McLeod – for it is he – is excellent at what he does and his pre-match research was meticulous. It’s just that his Aberdonian accent grates me more than a little – and I speak as someone who was born in the Granite City. Not only that, but McLeod does appear to enjoy the sound of his own voice. Perhaps this is understandable as the summariser sitting next to him was former Rangers and Aberdeen striker Billy Dodds, a man who puts the ‘oy’ into annoyance.

A couple of days later, I purchased a book entitled ‘A Game of Two Halves’ – the autobiography of former BBC sports commentator Archie Macpherson. The book, first published in 2009 by Black and White Publishing, was on sale at a considerably reduced rate (hence my purchase – did I mention I was born in Aberdeen?) but my initial thoughts are it seems likely to be an excellent read. And it brought back memories of what is perceived by many to be the golden age of broadcasting.

I have to confess I’m one of those people who looks back at a bygone age with rose-tinted spectacles. As a child growing up in the 1970s, a live broadcast of 90 minutes of football was a rare event four decades ago. There were just two broadcasters – the BBC and ITV, the regional arm of which was Scottish Television for viewers north of Hadrian’s Wall. In the early part of the decade the annual Scotland-England game was live on ‘the box’ as well as the occasional Scotland World Cup qualifying tie or European Cup tie – in the days when Scotland actually qualified for the finals of the World Cup or European Championships and Scots clubs i.e. Celtic reached the latter stages of the European Cup. Even the Scottish Cup Final wasn’t covered live until 1977. Other than these small morsels all we got was an half hour edited highlights programme – the BBC’s Sportsreel, later to become Sportscene on a Saturday night and Scottish Television’s Scotsport, usually on a Sunday afternoon.

Archie Macpherson was BBC Scotland’s main man in the 1970s and he was ably assisted in the commentating stakes by Alastair Alexander, a man who seemed to have secured a lifetime sponsorship deal with Brylcreem. There was an authority about Macpherson in particular, akin to a middle aged uncle who knew a bit about life and a lot about football. There’s a famous scene in the film Trainspotting where Ewan McGregor’s character Renton has sex and proclaims he hasn’t felt so good since Archie Gemmill scored Scotland’s third goal in their 3-2 defeat of the Netherlands in the 1978 World Cup Finals in Argentina. Archie Macpherson’s description of that goal is being played in the background. I wouldn’t go as far as to agree with Renton but I still feel goose bumps when I hear Macpherson’s commentary of Scotland’s 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Wales at Anfield towards the end of 1977, especially the second goal which secured Scotland’s place in the finals. ‘There’s an overlap, Martin Buchan…good running by Buchan, read it well…there’s Kenny Dalglish in there……OH, WHAT A GOAL!! OH YES! THAT DOES IT!’ Macpherson’s description was a passionate as any Scotland fan and encapsulated the feeling we all felt that night.

Perhaps Macpherson let his emotion get the better of him for Scotland’s first goal that evening when Joe Jordan appeared to punch the ball in the Welsh penalty box only for the referee to award a penalty to the Scots. ‘A handball if ever there was one’ opined Archie. Not many Welsh people agreed with Archie’s assertion although the referee’s decision, thankfully, was the final one…

Macpherson was also the commentator when Hearts headed to Dens Park on that final, fateful day of season 1985/86 requiring just a single point from their last game against Dundee to secure their first league title for over a quarter of a century. As a Hearts fan I naturally took my place on the terracing behind the goal but I don’t care to dwell on what happened that day. It took me several months to listen to snippets of Macpherson’s commentary that afternoon but only he could have described the build up to the game so vividly as the silver-shirted Hearts players took to the field – ‘who, away back in August blessed with the second sight, the seventh son of a seventh son could have foreseen Hearts on the very last day of the season playing for the championship, requiring only one point….?’  Words worthy of Keats…

Macpherson’s ‘rival’ over on Scottish Television  - although in truth they were good friends - was Arthur Montford, whose commentaries, particularly on Scotland games, have become legendary. Montford commentated on Scotland’s famous 2-1 victory over Czechoslovakia in the World Cup qualifier at Hampden in 1973, a win which took the Scots to the World Cup Finals for the first time in 16 years. The bold Arthur quite rightly dispensed with neutrality when, towards the end of the game, he shouted ‘watch your back, Denis’ as Scotland’s Denis Law was about to be tackled by a Czech player. Five years later when Don Masson infamously missed a penalty against Peru in the 1978 World Cup Finals, there was a stunned silence for a few seconds before Montford was barely able to utter ‘disaster for Scotland’.

This was a different era, decades before Sky Television, when games weren’t subjected to camera angles from every square inch of the ground, every refereeing decision wasn’t dissected and analysed, managerial tactics weren’t studied in depth and every substitution wasn’t theorised. It was a much simpler age and quite often the renowned commentators of the time just let the football do the talking.

I recall Arthur Montford, resplendent in sports jacket, smiling in the Scotsport studio on a Sunday afternoon welcoming viewers with the words ‘with the top game of the day in Scotland being the Old Firm clash, we took our cameras to Cappielow for the meeting between Morton and Partick Thistle’ And we watched nonetheless.

Macpherson and Montford might have occasionally irritated some viewers, particularly those who didn’t support the Old Firm. And they were from a much less technical era where multi-media coverage was still light years away. However, people of my generation still recall them with great fondness. They were both household names and both afforded respect.

Times change but not always for the better. Kick-off times and dates are changed at Sky’s behest – just after midday on a Sunday for the Edinburgh derby next month is yet another example of the satellite broadcaster completely ignoring the views and the wishes of the fans. The subscription monster that is Sky Television now dictates, leaving the terrestrial stations to grab what they can. Even ITV’s deal to cover the UEFA Champions League is shared with Sky leaving the BBC to make do with Celtic’s pre-qualifier against a part time team from Northern Ireland. 40 years ago we were lucky to get three games a year live on television. Now, thanks to Sky, there can be three a day. Blanket coverage gives credence to the adage you can have too much of a good thing.

Something you could never say about Archie Macpherson and Arthur Montford…  
Mike Smith
Twitter @Mike1874

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Hawick Royal Albert 1 Heart of Midlothian XI 6

Pre-season friendly, Albert Park, Friday 12 July 2013

Billed as: Hawick RA's manager is a friend of the brother of Hearts manager Gary Locke and the Maroons agreed to play a friendly.

Reality: Hearts fielded their under 20 side which was mostly 16, 17 and 18 year olds. On a scorching summer's evening in the Borders, the young Hearts team took control of the game straight from kick off and, a ten minute spell at the start of the second half aside, dominated from start to finish.

The good: If this is the future of Hearts then there is plenty to look forward to. Yes, it was a friendly and the Tynecastle men boys were streets ahead fitness wise of their part time opponents. Nonetheless, the Hearts laddies had skill, pace and vision and I suspect more than one of them will make the first team before the end of the season.

The bad: A wee defensive lapse or two - quite awful defending led to the home side's goal. Something that needs to be addressed.

Reaction: A fine summer's evening and a fine display from the Hearts youngsters.  The accompanying photograph is copyright to Brian Sutherland. For clarification, that's not George Clooney in the background with his two daughters although the likeness is admittedly uncanny...

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Spartans 0 Forfar Athletic 2

Pre-season friendly, Ainslie Park - Tuesday 9 July 2013

Billed as: A chance for one of the favourites for the new Scottish Lowland League to pit their wits against Division Two side Forfar Athletic who were involved in the play-offs in the SFL last season.

Reality: With a Ramsdens Cup preliminary tie against Threave Rovers on Saturday, Spartans were keen on getting their fitness levels up. On a beautiful summer's evening in Scotland's capital city, it was a pity there weren't more people at Ainslie Park to witness a decent game.

The good: Both sides tried to pass the ball wherever possible - they both play on an artificial surface and this does lend itself more to a passing game.

The bad: Sadly, a distinct lack of atmosphere. 'This is Ainslie Park, Let's Make Some Noise' rather fell on deaf ears!

Reaction: An enjoyable game with The Loons just deserving their win. With the experienced Gavin Swankie and Chris Templeman, Forfar always carried more of a threat up front. It was Templeman who opened the scoring after just three minutes and while Spartans worked hard the game was ended as a contest with 15 minutes left when Muhsin fired in a ferocious effort which Spartans keeper Bennett could only palm into the net.

Enjoyable stuff and this may be the first of several visits I will be making to see Spartans this season.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

At the Crossroads of Fate

The terms ‘Crisis at Hearts’ and ‘Turmoil at Tynecastle’ have been such constant companions of Heart of Midlothian FC in the last few years it’s perhaps surprising Scotland’s biggest club outside the Old Firm doesn’t charge them rent.

Ten years ago Hearts were around £24m in debt and then Chief Executive Chris Robinson was on the verge of securing – but thankfully didn’t deliver – a deal that would see Hearts sell Tynecastle Stadium in a desperate attempt to alleviate the club’s financial crisis. The main flaw in the plan was that Hearts had nowhere to go. Robinson was prepared to let the club become tenants of the Scottish Rugby Union and play their home games at Murrayfield which has a 67,500 capacity. Hearts had played some UEFA Cup games there as Tynecastle was not fit for European purpose but it lacked the intensity of the Gorgie ground and the prospect of playing run of the mill league games in front of 50,000 empty seats on a wet Tuesday night in November was hardly enticing.

Step forward Lithuania based Russian businessman Vladimir Romanov. With an estimated personal fortune of £240m, Romanov bought a controlling interest in Hearts and immediately declared the club would remain at Tynecastle. Romanov owned Lithuanian side FC Kaunas and as well as vowing to keep Hearts at the ground they had played since 1881, he shipped a couple of Kaunas players on loan to Hearts to help the cause. Hearts won the Scottish Cup in 2006 and split the Old Firm in the SPL to head for the qualifying round of the following season’s UEFA Champions League.

However, there was the other side of the Russian coin. In the years that followed, Romanov displayed a zero tolerance approach to the managers he appointed, wafting P45s regularly. His occasional outrageous statements about the SFA and the SPL, inferring they were corrupt and the media – he once referred to the press as monkeys - brought ridicule to him and the club.

Hearts won the Scottish Cup again in 2012, hammering city rivals Hibernian 5-1 in the first all Edinburgh final since 1896. Now, little more than a year later, Hearts have gone into administration with debts of £25m. Having now declared himself bankrupt, Vladimir Romanov has done a fair impression of former striker Christian Nade – he’s out there but no one is quite sure where. The existence of Edinburgh’s oldest and most successful football club is under threat more than at any time in the last 139 years. Administration means Hearts will begin the SPL campaign – if they survive until August – with a 15 point deduction. With most of last year’s Scottish Cup winning team having long since departed and the first team now principally made up of young players, the fight to avoid relegation begins on the first day of the season.

As bad as that is, the nightmare scenario is what happened to Rangers this time last year – the club is liquidated and has to start all over again in the Third Division. And possibly having to groundshare if the sale of Tynecastle is forced through by the administrator.

There is interest in taking over Hearts with three or four credible bids, including the Foundation of Hearts, a group created by local business people which, if successful will mean the long suffering supporters running the club. Fans have already pledged thousands of pounds to FoH who are in the process of converting these pledges to hard cash in order to submit a serious bid. The next few weeks will prove crucial to the club’s future.

Hearts supporters, as always, have demonstrated an allegiance to the club that is nothing short of astonishing. The administrator announced on 20 June that the club needed to sell 3,000 tickets in 14 days just to keep afloat during the summer months. Unconfirmed reports suggested Hearts sold nearly a third of that number in just 24 hours with the ticket office opening on a Saturday to cope with demand.

I’ve been following Hearts for 45 years. Having endured relegation twice in the 1970s, the cruel twist of fate of losing the league title in the last eight minutes of the season at Dens Park in 1986 and the numerous cup final and semi-final defeats, there’s almost an ingrained pessimistic trait to my outlook.

While the Romanov era brought two Scottish Cup wins - and last year’s hammering of Hibernian in the final will surely never be bettered for Hearts supporters – there has been an unease at how the reputation of our club has taken something of a battering. Now, Hearts stand at the crossroads of fate once more. On the one hand, administration and the real possibility of relegation from the SPL next year are blows the club may never recover from. If Tynecastle Stadium is sold by the administrator, it may well be the death knell of one of Scottish football’s most famous names. There is also an argument that Hearts might have considered administration last season and gone down to the First Division for the new campaign. If relegation happens twelve months from now there’s the prospect of facing Rangers in the First Division in season 2014/15 making automatic promotion that bit more difficult.

On the other, Romanov and his dictatorship has gone, the size of the debt, like a millstone around the club’s neck for decades may be cut like the removing of a cancerous growth. If Hearts can keep their stadium, with season ticket sales increasing by the hour, the atmosphere in Gorgie next season will be more raucous than ever with the fans believing the 15 point deduction can be overcome. Some first team players have agreed a pay cut and the sight of Gary Locke and some of the team at the Tynecastle ticket office today to thank the fans demonstrates the feeling there is for the club. 'Lockie' was always a fans favourite as a player given he is 'one of us' and he has shown more dignity in the last few days than Vladimir Romanov did in eight years.
The problem is Hearts are presently unable to sign any new players and the burden placed on the club’s talented youngsters may be too much to bear. However, if Hearts are under new ownership come Christmas and are still within touching distance of eleventh place in the SPL then new faces may arrive during the January transfer window. The cavalry may arrive – one can only hope they’re not too late.

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of Hearts players signing up to Sir George McCrae’s Battalion in the Great War, an act of devotion to their country that is rightly remembered every year. The sacrifice of those players is more important than all the games won, lost or drawn by Heart of Midlothian FC in the last century. However, it would be comforting to think Hearts will still be around to mark this important anniversary. 

One of Scottish football’s most famous anthems is ‘follow the Hearts and you can’t go wrong’. No one in Scottish football wants the implications of the opening lines of another famous Hearts song – ‘and now the end is near…’


Mike Smith

Twitter @Mike1874




Sunday, 26 May 2013

That Cup Parade in Full

I enjoy living in Leith, particularly on cup final day. All week I've been reading about Hibernian FC's plan for tomorrow's, ahem, victory parade following today's Scottish Cup Final. Doing my bit for public service, here's the amended itinerary:

18.00 Bus leaves Edinburgh city chambers

18.05  Bus stops at Tescos to allow Leigh Griffiths to do his weekly shop

18.10 Bus arrives in Gorgie Road, where passengers ask local Hearts supporters what it feels like to see their team win the Scottish Cup.

18.20 Bus arrives back at a deserted city chambers.

19.02 Loud beeping noise as the open top bus reverses into the Lothian Buses garage.

As has been said annually since 1903 - better luck next year, chaps...

Friday, 26 April 2013


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Thursday, 18 April 2013

Newcastle United...

...have a new club badge. Allegedly...

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Willie No Come Back Again?

It was rare to see so many youngsters playing in the first team together. As with most youngsters they could lack self-confidence and belief in themselves. What they needed was some old heads to lift them both on and off the park. They’re a talented bunch.’

Those are the words of a former Scotland internationalist who played for Hearts at the end of an illustrious, if controversial playing career. However, Willie Johnston wasn’t talking about the current crop of youngsters plying their trade at Tynecastle. In his excellent biography ‘Sent Off at Gunpoint’, Johnston was talking about the group of young players with dodgy 1980s hairstyles who were trying to break into the Hearts first team more than 30 years ago in 1982. One of the finest left wingers ever to play for Scotland, ’Bud’ Johnston was 35 years old when he was signed by then Hearts manager Alex Macdonald in September 1982. The likes of John Robertson, Gary Mackay, John Brough and Davie Bowman were the future of a club that was almost on its knees in 1981 before Wallace Mercer saved Edinburgh’s oldest and finest football club from oblivion. Three decades on and it seems the more things change the more they stay the same…

I wrote in a previous article about the sad demise of Scotland’s international team and how, in my view, things have been in a steady decline since the World Cup Finals in Argentina in 1978. Willie Johnston doesn’t need reminding he was sent home from those finals after admitting to taking a banned stimulant. The truth was he had taken anti hay fever medication which contained traces of the stimulant. He certainly didn’t take it to enhance his performance – Willie was one of the fastest players in the world and had no need to take any performance improving drug. As Scotland manager Ally MacLeod said at the time, perhaps unwisely, there was no way Johnston could have taken drugs on top of all the alcohol he had the night before. The bold Ally was jesting, of course, but the SFA viewed it as a serious matter and Johnston never played for Scotland again.

Johnston may have been nearing the end of a career which included two spells at Rangers – the first of which saw him score two goals to help the Ibrox side lift the European Cup Winners Cup in 1972 – West Bromwich Albion and Vancouver Whitecaps. However, Alex Macdonald saw Bud as the ideal man to bring his considerable experience to the likes of Robbo, Mackay and company, not only on the pitch but off it too.

Of course, controversy was a constant companion of Bud’s and I was at Celtic Park in March 1983 when the little winger was sent off during a Scottish Cup tie after an ‘altercation’ with Celtic’s Davie Provan. Johnston maintains to this day he barely touched the Celtic winger but the man in the hoops collapsed to the pitch and Bud was shown a red card. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing and perfectly understood Bud’s initial reaction when he refused to leave the pitch. To Hearts credit they backed their man and Wallace Mercer wrote to the SFA to protest at the treatment of the man from Cardenden. When two police officers at the game then came forward to say Willie had not struck Provan, the SFA knew there had been a miscarriage of justice and other than the automatic one match ban, there was no further punishment meted out to the veteran Hearts man.

Bud was someone who proved invaluable in the development of the younger players at Tynecastle at that time. John Robertson and Gary Mackay still regale a Bud story or three to this day and they readily acknowledge the contribution the great man made to their development. Yes, he could be a controversial character – but he was a character, something you don’t see much of in the game today.

As the curtain falls on a disappointing season for Hearts, it would be good to think today’s young Jambos could be influenced by someone who has done it all in the game, like the left winger who helped to nurture the Hearts youngsters of three decades ago.

Bud Johnston – Willie no come back again?!


Mike Smith

Twitter @Mike1874