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’!