Eleven players, one iconic shirt number, ranked.
Greetings all! The ball is officially rolling on the 2017–2018 season, which Hearts began on Tuesday evening in the surprisingly sunny climes of the SPFL’s northernmost football ground. The 1–0 win may not have been the whitewash many would have hoped for against bottom-tier Elgin City, but for the first competitive game of the season, an away win (such a rare commodity for Hearts) in a cup we’re notoriously poor in, with a clean sheet for our new-look defence, is hard to take umbrage with.
In addition to that, it’s hugely pleasing to see new striker Kyle Lafferty getting off to a flyer, adding to his debut goal against Elgin with a brace in yesterday’s 3–0 win over East Fife, after spending much of pre-season addressing the bluff and bluster caused by his arrival. Fortunately, it matters not one iota what Neil Lennon or anyone else at Hibs thinks of Lafferty. As divisive as the Northern Irishman’s personality may be, the Hearts support as a whole will ultimately judge him on his performances and, as the new number nine, a large part of that will hinge on his goal-scoring.
There was a somewhat tenuous symbolism to the fact that Lafferty signed only a fortnight after the club’s archetypal number nine and record goal-scorer, John Robertson, left his ambassadorial role to fill the vacant manager’s position at Inverness. Ironically, Robbo’s playing days at Hearts ended the season before pre-determined squad numbers actually became a thing, but since then, Hearts supporters have hopelessly pined for a striker who can do that particular shirt similar justice.
Between Robbo’s departure in 1998 and Lafferty’s arrival this summer, 11 players have tried with varying degrees of success, although ultimately none of them have come close. The task of ranking them from best to worst initially struck me as easy: the top and bottom two were easy to nail down in my mind (although the player in 10th could have staked as much of a claim for 11th as the player in second could have done for top spot).
When it came to ranking those in the middle, however, it became much more problematic. Most of them fit the traditional number nine description but that’s about as similar as they all got. Some arrived as complete unknowns, others arrived with established reputations. All gave different lengths of service for Hearts at different stages of their careers and played in different teams, under different managers with different styles. The only common denominator that binds them, other than the number on the back of the shirt, was the level of supporter expectation they had to meet and the ruthless way in which they were judged from the stands.
Supporter judgement is, of course, very subjective. Many of the players in this list divided opinion, particularly those in the middle, which is what made ranking them so difficult. The invariable measurement that they were all judged against was their respective goals to games ratios, although there are other variables in football that made it impossible to judge these players exclusively on their goal returns. Less tangible criteria were also taken into account, therefore, and those are explained at points below when it came to deciding between one player and another.
11. Mike Tullberg
Deciding who to put in each of the bottom two spots felt like being asked to decide which part of your body you’d rather have lopped off, your hand or your foot: a dilemma you’d rather not have in the first place, each option as excruciatingly painful as the other.
In the end, the decision was a marginal one. None of the usual factors could be applied (goals scored, wider contribution to the team, general ability) because, quite frankly, none of them could be evidenced in either player. To put it into context, it’s worth noting that Kyle Lafferty has already achieved more in his first two competitive outings than both of these players put together.
Each player could feasibly stake a claim for being worse than the other, but what essentially swung it for me was the teams they played in (again…nothing really to do with the players themselves). So at number 11, the bottom of the pile, I give you Mike Tullberg.
Having signed the Dane on loan from Italian side Reggina in the summer of 2008, then-manager Csaba Laszlo said of his new recruit, “we only want to bring in quality and I believe Mike is a guy who can help us”. Tullberg himself seemed enthused by the prospect of plying his trade in Scotland, asserting that “Scottish football will suit my style”. Neither statement could have been further from the truth.
In hindsight, the writing was perhaps on the wall from day one given that Tullberg arrived at the club already nursing an injury. He eventually made his debut in a 3–0 defeat away to Dundee United, coming off the bench after an hour to replace Jamie Mole (a frightening indictment of the “competition” he had up front), before making his first start the following week in a home defeat to Kilmarnock. Injury struck once more, however, and he wasn’t seen again until the following March.
A more forgettable Romanov-era player you will struggle to find.
10. Paul McCallum
There are many who will read this and question why Tullberg was placed at the bottom of the list instead of this guy. In the end, it boils down to one question: was Mike Tullberg a better player than Paul McCallum? Considering both only managed seven appearances during their respective injury-hit loan spells, and had a sum total of zero goals between them, you would have more success finding a definitive answer to the meaning of life.
In truth, McCallum’s shortcomings stand out more in my memory, given that he fluffed a header from point blank range on his debut — a league cup semi-final defeat to ICT — and then went on to miss a penalty in the subsequent shoot-out. Tullberg may have done nothing right, but there is nothing I can remember that he did wrong either. He was just…there.
So, why was McCallum spared the ignominy of bottom spot? Firstly, there’s the wider context of the environment he played in. At only 20-years old, McCallum joined a team decimated by administration and therefore as inexperienced as he was himself, a team that also happened to be fighting a losing battle against relegation.
Secondly, he was only with us for about four months, but gave us as many appearances as (and more starts than) Tullberg did in an entire season.
Finally, he was involved in the “relegation derby”. Admittedly, he did nothing of note in that game, but he gains credit for simply being on the team sheet (in fact, he can even be seen at the bottom of the picture as King rounds the keeper for the second goal).
A generous review of a player who contributed so little, I almost forgot he played for us. Needless to say, he never made it with West Ham…
9. Soufian El Hassnaoui
Another player who developed a closer bond with the club’s medical staff than the supporters in the stands. With the club only just out of administration and finding its feet financially ahead of a season in Scotland’s second tier, circumstances necessitated a few gambles in the transfer market, of which El Hass was the first.
Where the Moroccan differs from the two below him on the list is that he actually featured enough for the Hearts supporters to have developed an informed (albeit polarising) opinion of him. To a lot of supporters, he was an empty jersey, a wage thief and any other negative cliché players are labelled with whenever supporters consider them substandard. Others saw a player with undoubted ability whose injuries were holding him back.
Personally, I found myself somewhere in between. Unlike the players in ninth and tenth, he actually contributed something, scoring four times in his 19 competitive appearances and providing probably my favourite assist of the entire Championship campaign, a delightful reverse pass for Osman Sow in the 10–0 win over Cowdenbeath. There were certainly flashes of ability, but considering the level of opposition we were facing in the Championship, we never saw evidence of that ability as often as we should have.
They say “start as you mean to go on” and while I’m sure El Hass had no deliberate intention of nursing injuries throughout his Hearts career, the injury record we were warned about when he first arrived eventually caught up with him. Despite being kept on for the first season back in the Premiership, he failed to make a single top flight appearance as he struggled to recover from serious cruciate ligament and groin injuries.
Unsurprisingly, he was cut loose the following summer, two years into his initial three-year contract, provoking little more than a shrug from supporters who had forgotten he existed. In the end, a gamble that never paid off.
8. John Sutton
If this list was also factoring in performances at other Scottish clubs, Sutton may have merited a place higher up the list. In fact, it’s those performances elsewhere that serve to highlight just how disappointing he was at Hearts. Look at his first and second stints at Motherwell: he hit double figures for three seasons in a row and had developed a reputation as a reliable Premier League goal-scorer. In his first season back at Fir Park, he scored 22 times. So why, then, were his intervening two years at Tynecastle such a washout?
Quite often, players flop at certain clubs because they either struggle with the step up in quality or buckle under the weight of increased expectation from the fans. For me, however, Sutton’s failure to launch at Hearts could be attributed as much to circumstance and poor timing as it could to his own shortcomings.
With the benefit of hindsight, it could be argued that Sutton’s chances of flourishing at Hearts ended the day Jim Jefferies — the manager who signed him — was relieved of his duties. When he first joined from Motherwell, it seemed as though we had found a tailor-made replacement for Kevin Kyle, who had operated so effectively as the target man in Jefferies’ side the previous season, and whose absence almost certainly contributed to the team’s slump in the latter half of the campaign. Had he been given the chance to operate in a similar role under Jefferies’ stewardship, I can’t help but wonder if Sutton’s first season would have panned out more positively.
Instead, under Jefferies’ successor Paulo Sergio, Sutton became somewhat of a pariah, and although he scored a double in the Portuguese’s third match in charge, it was clear that Sutton’s lack of mobility made him the proverbial square peg in a system of round holes. After managing just one start between September and late November, he was shipped off to Australia on loan the following January.
Sutton’s days at Hearts appeared to be numbered at that stage, but when Sergio left in the summer of 2012, the striker was given a second chance under new manager John McGlynn. His goal return improved slightly and he finished as the team’s top scorer the following season, however the fact that he did so with only eight goals in 41 appearances was indicative of a miserable campaign under McGlynn, whose inability to get the best out of his players was evidenced in the fact that Hearts sat in 11th place when he was sacked.
To sum up, if John Sutton were a character from The Simpsons, he’d be Mojo, the talented, housebroken helper monkey Homer acquires in the episode Girly Edition. After all, both arrived full of promise, but neither of them were fully utilised to their strengths under the stewardship of their new owners and, as time wore on, the poor creatures were reduced to weak, sluggish, nappy-wearing shells of their former selves, before being dumped back on the doorsteps of their previous homes, desperately seeking rehabilitation. Pray for Mojo. Pray for Sutton.
7. Juanma Delgado
If it wasn’t for Juanma’s attitude and general lack of application he would 1) probably still be leading the attack at Hearts today, 2) have more goals to his name and 3) be further up this list as a result.
An infuriating player who clearly had the ability to trouble opposition defences, going by his performances in the opening few months of his debut season, but whose shithouse characteristics (play-acting, regular bookings for dissent) made him an easy target for referees and opponents and, in the end, a liability Hearts could ill-afford.
When the Spaniard was eventually suspended in November 2015 for crossing the disciplinary threshold, Robbie Neilson took the diplomatic approach and pointed to cultural differences as the main factor, though also stressed that it was the player’s responsibility to fully adapt to his new surroundings. Any hopes Neilson had harboured of those words having the desired effect were quickly extinguished, however, when Juanma was sent off a month later for head-butting St Johnstone’s David Wotherspoon.
From that point onward, it was evident that Juanma would struggle to change his ways. Despite producing the occasional glimpse of his early-season form (a match-winning double in April against Aberdeen chief among them), the striker seemed largely disaffected in the latter half of the season. As a result, the supporters’ patience with him soon wore out and his form rapidly deteriorated, finding the net only four times in his last 19 appearances of the season, having scored nine in his previous 20.
The following summer, despite inheriting the coveted number nine shirt, the recruitment of four new strikers sent Juanma to the bottom of the pecking order and effectively marked the end of his Hearts career. He returned to Spain on loan, before leaving permanently for Japan the following January.
6. Michal Pospisil
Although he played the vast majority of his games for Hearts with either 21 or 11 on his back, Czech striker Michal Pospisil was given the coveted number nine shirt at the start of his third season at the club. There is an unfortunate irony, therefore, to the fact that Pospisil only managed nine sub appearances that season before he was sold in January 2008.
Prior to that, however, Pospisil had already established himself as a fans’ favourite at Tynecastle, despite having never really been considered first choice in his position. While competition up front with the likes of Edgaras Jankauskas and Roman Bednar definitely played a large part in that, the timing of certain injuries didn’t help, the first of which came only 10 minutes into Pospisil’s first pre-season game for the club.
“The guy in the blue boots” as my brother and I had initially referred to him (given the number of unfamiliar faces on show against Middlesbrough that day) had looked lively in the opening stages of that match, to the extent that I fully believed he would feature more prominently than his fellow countryman Bednar. It wasn’t to be.
Pospisil would go on to spend more than half of his Hearts career as a substitute, a status belied by the quality of some of the 14 goals he scored during his 67 appearances, but one that also gave him the opportunity to convert the winning penalty in the 2006 Scottish Cup final shootout with Gretna and secure his place in Heart of Midlothian folklore.
5. Lee Miller
Although Miller scored 11 times in his 23 appearances back in 2005, an impressive return for a 22-year old in an otherwise underperforming Hearts side, the fact that he was with us for only five months makes it hard to justify placing him any further up this list.
Given his relative youth and the potential he had shown during that loan spell, there is little doubt in my mind that, had he chosen to stay at Hearts longer term, he would have thrived in the team George Burley built the following season. As it was, despite being offered Miller at a relative snip, Vladimir Romanov opted against bringing him to Tynecastle permanently, and Miller opted for a move to Dundee United.
4. Kevin Kyle
In terms of bare numbers (games played, goals scored) there was very little to separate Kyle from Lee Miller in sixth and, if anything, an analysis based on numbers alone would have swung very marginally in the latter’s favour. So why does Kyle figure higher in the rankings? Put simply, his contribution to the team as a whole.
Whereas Miller was able to focus on leading the line in a team that contained experienced heads like Steven Pressley and Paul Hartley, Kyle arrived at a time when Hearts were not only short of options up front — having endured an insipid campaign the previous season with the likes of Christian Nade, David Witteveen, Gary Glen and David Obua leading the line — but also lacking the kind of leadership figures Miller had around him.
Doubling up as one of the more prominent on-pitch leaders and the main focal point of Hearts’ attack under Jim Jefferies, Kyle enjoyed a rewarding five months in maroon, scoring 10 goals (including a memorable late winner in the New Year derby) as well as setting up another four for his team-mates, many of whom Kyle brought the best out of, namely Rudi Skacel, David Templeton and Stephen Elliott.
As unfashionable a player as Kyle may have been, his impact could not be overstated and was probably more noticeable in his injury-induced absence. Having scored five times in the first nine games of a remarkable 11-game unbeaten run (by which point Hearts were only seven points and a game in hand away from top of the league) Kyle was ruled out for the rest of the season.
Hearts’ form subsequently nose-dived, their early-season form the only thing that stopped third place from slipping out of their grasp after winning just four of the last 17 league games. Kyle, meanwhile, never featured again for Hearts, the pain of which was soon eased by the handsome salary Rangers gave him to play lower league football.
3. Edgaras Jankauskas
As I’ve stated already, if this list was ranked according to the players’ careers beyond the four stands of Tynecastle, it would be noticeably different. Edgaras Jankauskas would be the runaway leader for one thing. That the Lithuanian sits third, however, has less to do with his Champions League winner’s medal and more to do with the fact he arrived in Gorgie as a 30-year old in the autumn of his career.
That isn’t to say Jankauskas was unsuccessful at Hearts — he won the Scottish Cup in his first season after all — nor is it to imply that his quality was hard to spot. It’s just, if you were to ask me to rank the most influential players in arguably the best Hearts squad of recent years, Jankauskas wouldn’t make the top six, despite having arrived as the highest profile signing of the early Romanov days.
Even though he made a commendable contribution in his first season with 12 goals in 30 appearances, there was always a sense that a player of his pedigree, with experience of bigger and better leagues, could have given much more in the comparatively modest surroundings of the Scottish game.
Maybe it was attributable to injuries, which prevented him from stringing together a steady run of games; maybe my expectations were just a little too high when we first signed him. Either way, it was the best we got from him: an uninspiring second season for the Lithuanian ended with a solitary goal in 19 games.
And yet, while we never saw him at his best for a sustained period, he still produced some memorable moments in a scintillating season, from that goal against Motherwell — the jaw-dropping power of which would have made even Jorg Albertz’s eyes water — to the time he executed the footballing equivalent of a scanting on Zibi in the Scottish Cup semi-final win over Hibs. Even the solitary goal he scored in the 2006–07 was saved for a pulsating Boxing Day Edinburgh derby.
Like his former Hearts team-mate Takis Fyssas, he arrived after his peak, but given the unlikelihood of Hearts ever attracting those players in their prime, it would be foolish not to appreciate the fact they played for us at all.
2. Stephane Adam
Like many Hearts fans my age, who perhaps weren’t quite old enough to appreciate John Robertson in his prime, Stephane Adam was my first true love. You’d be forgiven, therefore, for wondering why such a man — a man whose goal ended Hearts’ 42-year wait for silverware no less — doesn’t take the number one position by default.
If this list was based on the magnitude of individual contributions to Hearts, Adam would more than merit top spot. However, when considering the Frenchman’s Hearts career as a whole, is one genuinely successful season in five enough to justify top spot?
Take the Die Hard pentalogy as an illustrative example. The first film was a rip-roaring success and, in isolation, is rightly hailed as one of the greatest action films ever made. Yet, as a series, Die Hard’s appeal wanes with each underwhelming sequel. That isn’t to say the second, third and fourth instalments were bad films as such, they just never retained the quality of the first…though there was the fifth film, which was an unmitigated disaster. Stephane Adam is, of course, a Heart of Midlothian legend, so it’s maybe a little disrespectful to compare his five years of service to the gradual decline of a Bruce Willis action franchise, but the parallels are there.
Just as the original Die Hard propelled Bruce Willis to superstardom, Adam’s first season — during which he bagged 12 goals to help Hearts to a third-place finish and Scottish Cup glory — saw him go from unknown quantity to fans’ favourite in the space of a year. That cup-winning goal was his blockbuster moment, and while it was always going to be hard to top, few expected Adam’s level to enter the steady decline it did.
Although he went on to enjoy some personal success as Hearts’ top scorer the following season, the fact that he did so with only 10 goals was symptomatic of the team’s generally underwhelming follow-up to the previous campaign. The downward trajectory continued in Adam’s third season when he found the net only four times as he struggled to command a regular starting place amidst competition from Gary McSwegan, Darren Jackson and Gary Wales.
And then the injuries crept in. After managing only eight appearances in 2000/2001 (albeit scoring four goals in the process) it was evident that those injury problems had taken their toll on his body, and Adam’s final season in maroon fizzled out with only three goals in 21 games.
Back in May 2002, I remember there being a palpable sadness in the air when Adam said his goodbyes to the Hearts support alongside fellow cup winners Thomas Flogel and Steve Fulton, the last men standing from one of the greatest Hearts sides I’ve had the joy of witnessing. They say you always remember your first, and certainly as far as footballing heroes are concerned, Stephane Adam was mine. It may not have been plain-sailing until the end, but no love affair ever is.
1. Mark De Vries
If Adam’s Hearts career is best summed up by Die Hard, Mark De Vries is the Godfather trilogy, the quality of the first two acts hard to separate before the anticlimactic third.
Having seen no fewer than seven first team players depart in the summer of 2002, Hearts fans would have been forgiven for embarking on the following season with a sense of trepidation. The loss of top scorer Ricardo Fuller was particularly troublesome and few would have been enthused by the arrival of a relative unknown from the Dutch second division as the popular Jamaican’s replacement. That was, until 11th August 2002, De Vries’ home debut, when this happened.
Any fears about the season ahead were more or less washed away by the showers that afternoon. De Vries, as the strong, powerful focal point of Craig Levein’s attack, went on to enjoy a fruitful debut season in Scotland, scoring 15 times to help secure a third-place finish and European football for the first time in three seasons. The following campaign proved just as successful for the Dutchman, scoring another 15 times — including a memorable winning goal away to Bordeaux in the UEFA Cup — as Hearts became the first side outside of the Old Firm to secure consecutive third place finishes.
Even in his comparatively disappointing third domestic season (in which he failed to score a single league goal until November) the Dutchman still demonstrated his importance to the team on the European stage, bagging a crucial brace away to Portuguese side Braga to secure Hearts’ qualification into the inaugural UEFA Cup group stages.
Although there was no silverware to show for it in the end, the success of that particular Hearts team lay in its league consistency at a time when other sides outside of the Old Firm were struggling to find theirs. It’s also the last time a Hearts side secured third spot two years on the bounce and as top scorer in both those campaigns (something no other player on this list managed in their respective Hearts careers) De Vries was integral to that accomplishment.
Whereas Adam’s legacy at Hearts is largely (but justifiably) defined by that cup final goal, De Vries’ performances in both domestic and European competition ensured he would be remembered for more than just his four-goal derby debut. That he went on to score the same number of goals as the Frenchman (33) in half as many seasons (40 fewer games to be exact) is testament to the positive impact he had during his two and a half years at the club and, for me, fully justifies his status as Hearts’ best number nine of the SPL/SPFL era.