Friday, 26 April 2013
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Thursday, 18 April 2013
Sunday, 14 April 2013
‘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?!
Friday, 5 April 2013
No one needs to tell Hearts supporters their team’s league results in recent weeks haven’t been the best. The club has put its faith in the youngsters from the youth academy and while none of the lads has let anyone down, I feel sure many Hearts supporters of my generation will hanker for the presence of a more experienced, combative type who isn’t afraid to make his presence felt. Or, to use football parlance from yesteryear, let his opponent know he’s there…
The more mature Hearts supporter will recall with more than a good deal of fondness Dave Mackay, Hearts legendary right half of the glorious side of the 1950s. Mackay was one of those players for whom the term ‘fifty-fifty ball’ didn’t apply - the maroon shirted powerhouse would invariably ensure he won the ball no matter his opponent. No one showed more determination or guts than the man they called The Real Mackay and he was the driving force of the Maroon Machine that dominated Scottish football nearly 60 years ago. Mackay left for Tottenham Hotspur in 1959 and many fans believed Hearts were never the same force without him.
I could hark on about other players from decades ago but, in fairness to our younger readers, I offer you the names of players from more recent times who had that ‘bite’ in a midfield or defensive role. In 1995 Hearts slumped to the foot of the Premier Division and manager Jim Jefferies didn’t need to be told where the problems lay. As well as recruiting French goalkeeper Gilles Rousset, Jefferies brought Italian defender Pasquale Bruno to Gorgie. The former Fiorentina player had a reputation as a hard man and even his appearance seemed enough to strike fear into opponents. He picked up more than his fair share of bookings and the odd red card here and there but this was due to his absolute determination to get to the ball before his opponent - by any method possible - rather than the popular misconception that he was a dirty player.
I wrote recently in this column about the fast approaching 15th anniversary of Hearts winning the Scottish Cup in 1998. A key component of that successful side was was Stefano Salvatori. The Italian, who arrived at Tynecastle in the summer of 1996, was one of the first picks in Jim Jefferies’ side and his tenacity and fearless displays in the Hearts midfield had more than an unsettling effect on the opposition. Like his compatriot Bruno, you would bet your mortgage on Salvatori being the first to get to a 50-50 ball - only he had a slightly more subtle approach! Those of us who were at the Scottish Cup final at Celtic Park in 1998 will recall Salvatori’s dominating performance in the middle of the park that day, something opponents Rangers struggled with all afternoon.
Julien Brellier arrived at Tynecastle in July 2005 as manager George Burley set about building a Hearts team that would challenge the Old Firm for honours. The French midfielder was another who could hardly be described as a shrinking violet and his combative displays immediately yearned him to the Hearts support. The former Montpellier and Inter Milan player spent less than two years in Gorgie but in that time still managed to amass 23 yellow and two red cards. One of those yellow cards came in a UEFA Champions League qualifier in Athens when Brellier was booked for failing to cover an earring on the field of play - something you could never imagine happening to Dave Mackay!
As recently as last year, Hearts had the spirited Ian Black in midfield. The self-confessed Hearts fan played a vital part in the Maroons William Hill Scottish Cup triumph over Hibernian at Hampden and it was against the Hibees in a league match at Easter Road that Blackie famously pulled up his jersey to reveal a tee-shirt that read ‘I’ll Paint This Place Maroon’. Again, his combative style meant he would pick up three dozen yellow and three red cards in less than three years at Tynecastle but, in my view, Hearts midfield this season has missed his presence.
Of the seemingly endless supply of young talent breaking through the ranks at Tynecastle this season, perhaps there’s another Dave Mackay, Pasquale Bruno, Stefano Salvatori or Ian Black in the making. Someone who will make the opposition think ‘I’ll not mess with him’.
Much as we all love the skilful ‘tanner ba’ players every team needs a ‘midfield presence’!