Hearts v Rangers: The alternative ending the script-writers wrote off
“The Rangers died and the Hearts survived” was the chant that reverberated around the away section inside Ibrox on the opening day of the season, a frank summary of events surrounding the Glasgow club in recent years, but also a suitable description of Rangers’ title hopes, which faded rapidly as their Championship campaign unravelled.
When the fixture list was first released last year, many (including the media, the bookies and Rangers themselves) had the script for the season already penned, with the first and last games between Hearts and Rangers marked as potentially defining events in the calendar. The first game, for example, was to be the moment the would-be champions laid down a marker for the season, putting prospective challengers in their place. The final day of the season, meanwhile, looked like a title decider waiting to happen or (at the very least) an opportunity for the already-crowned champions to lord it over the runners-up. In the end, the script was accurate but the starring roles were reversed.
That opening day fixture set the benchmark for Hearts’ relentless title charge; a win against Rangers on the final day therefore — before lifting the Championship trophy in front of a packed Tynecastle — would be the perfect way to bookend the season.
However, despite the outcome of this afternoon’s result, events after the final whistle will represent entirely contrasting emotions for the two clubs. While everyone associated with Hearts celebrates title glory, their opponents will be contemplating the impending playoff gauntlet that stands in the way of their promotion hopes, a contrast that also symbolises the difference between each club’s off-field fortunes after similar hardships.
Rangers, on one hand, having been consigned to the Third Division as a new entity following liquidation, had a chance to start afresh, learn from past mistakes and rebuild the club properly. Unfortunately, the Ibrox hierarchy seemed intent on a quick-fix approach and a familiar practice of financial mismanagement appeared to spread through the club’s second incarnation.
Even if the club had wished for a rapid return to the top league, any reasonable, logically-minded football supporter would agree that this could have been achieved within a sensible budget. Winning the Third Division could have been achieved just as easily by recruiting the best Second Division players; the Second Division by recruiting the cream of the First Division crop, and so forth.
The end result would still be the same, but promotion would have been achieved for far fewer pennies than it was. Whether it was due to supporter demand for big-name signings (unlikely) or a fear in the boardroom that austerity would not guarantee Premier League football after three seasons in the lower leagues, the practice of throwing inflated wage packets to average Premier League players only served to cause more financial uncertainty, with no extra gain.
Financial problems aside, a dark cloud of negativity hangs over The Rangers, despite their mini-resurgence under Stuart McCall. In-fighting at boardroom level and the sideshow created by Dave King and Mike Ashley created tension in the dressing room throughout the season, affecting on-field performances and causing mass unrest in the stands.
Hearts, meanwhile, have had an altogether different experience of the financial ruin that engulfed the club. The supporters rallied together from the start, backing the club by whatever means possible, largely through the continued support from the stands until the final day of the relegation season, even after Championship status had been confirmed. There was a siege mentality, of course, but at no stage did any Hearts fanblame the conduct of other clubs for the club’s demise, unlike their Govan counterparts.
Having dodged liquidation, the incoming regime fronted by Ann Budge signalled its intent to start afresh and run the club within its means, vowing never to let the club’s existence fall into uncertainty again. If that means slowly re-building the club over a number of years, then so be it. Events at Tynecastle today will suggest that this approach appears to be working rather well.
The scenarios of each club were much the same but the rebuilding process of each could not be more different. Rangers had the chance to rebuild properly, invest in youth, live within their means and learn from previous mismanagement.
Stuart McCall has made some effort to bring younger players into the first team since his appointment, but given the questionable philosophies of his predecessors, the damage has already been done this season. The opportunity to implement significant change appears to have passed Rangers by, and for that it will be hard to feel any sympathy for them as they negotiate a potentially troublesome playoff schedule. The financial uncertainty and board room politics will continue, as their chances of returning to the top flight hang in the balance.
Hearts fans, by contrast, can look to a bright future as the club returns to the Premiership. This season has demonstrated that we have the nucleus of a very promising and exciting team at the club and, perhaps rather unfortunately, a lot of home-grown players who will attract interest from other clubs during the summer. The club will continue to be a selling club such is the climate of Scottish football nowadays. However, given the calibre of player Robbie Neilson has brought in on a limited budget this season, supporters can rest assured that any departing players will be replaced with better quality and any money made from transfers will be handled responsibly.
Furthermore, we have a backroom team working hard to ensure the current crop of youngsters populating the first team does not prove to be a one-off golden generation. While the club continues to look abroad for bargain talent, the regeneration of Riccarton remains the long-term goal and it hopefully won’t be too long before we see another band of academy graduates pushing for first team places.
So when the two teams meet today, the result matters for one team only. Of course, many would rather we won the game and lifted the trophy on a high note. Failure to do so will undoubtedly rankle with some people, but at the end of the day, the bigger picture is of a club returning from the brink in remarkable fashion, while its challengers have floundered miserably. Regardless of today’s result, there can be no argument as to who the real victors are.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on May 2, 2015.