On Thursday morning, I woke up after a broken, restless sleep, feeling almost hungover. Having only had about two excessive drinking sessions since October out of solidarity with my pregnant wife, it dawned on me that this feeling was not exclusive to alcohol consumption and that I’ve felt the same after gorging an entire Dominos family feaster to myself.
I also realised that it was not the physical pain and fatigue that was most unbearable after an alcohol or junk food binge, but the mental side of it; the regret and self-hatred for having gone through with something I know is not good for me and which often leads to an extreme low on the other side.
Only this time it wasn’t countless drinks or my own body weight in pizza; it was a 100-mile round drive to and from Paisley, via Lanarkshire back roads in pretty treacherous weather, to watch Hearts in what had been widely billed as a must-win game for our survival hopes. ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ I asked myself before I set off on my journey, as I’m wont to do when deciding if it’s really necessary to order that extra double rum or the extra-large, stuffed crust option.
Whether it’s ill-advised drinking, unnecessary junk food, impulse shopping or continuing to blindly follow your football team, the foolishness and naivety you feel after any bad decision you repeat in life often exacerbate the mental torture. “Will I ever learn?” Having written only a few days ago about how, in a season of false starts, I felt this time was different, how the players seemed to have finally grasped the severity of the situation and upped their collective game, I’ve been asking myself that very question. On more than one occasion this season, I’ve allowed blind optimism to take over, convincing myself each time that things were on the up, only to be forced into reviewing that position soon after. This is just another of those occasions.
Within the first ten minutes of Wednesday night’s game, it was patently obvious Hearts were not going to win. By half-time, having created very little at one end and with Bobby Zlamal to thank for keeping the score level at the other, even the notion of leaving with a point seemed fanciful. And so it proved when, a mere three minutes into the second half, St Mirren capitalised on trademark Heart of Midlothian self-destruction to score the decisive goal.
Since the turn of the year, there has always been an underlying concern about this squad’s stomach for a relegation scrap. If the derby win and performance against Motherwell had created any illusion they were ready for one (and they certainly did for this writer) Wednesday night, when we were second to seemingly everything, well and truly shattered it.
Unlike their hosts, who seemed fully aware that their fate lay in their own hands and determined to do something about it, there was a timidity about the Hearts players, a reluctance to take risks for fear of fluffing their lines and a mental weakness that St Mirren sniffed out from the start.
With the team now four points adrift and rapidly running out of time to recover, many fans will have left Paisley at full-time feeling pretty resigned to our fate. After all, if the players couldn’t lift themselves for a game of that magnitude, when there was an ideal opportunity to close the gap, are any of us fooling ourselves into thinking they can thrive under greater pressure now that they have more ground to make up?
Whether we actually find out the answer to that question is very much up in the air for the foreseeable future, now that the Covid-19 pandemic has rightly brought the season to a standstill. In such circumstances, sporting events are clearly of scant importance compared to public health and safety, but like every other industry affected by the unprecedented scale and uncertainty of this virus, the football world still has to make contingency plans. A better understanding of what those might look like from a Scottish football perspective is expected after today’s UEFA conference call.
Following yesterday’s government advice around social distancing and self-isolation, it no longer seems viable that any games will be played behind closed doors. Given the unwavering support fans have shown this group of players for very little return, playing in front of empty stands seemed like a wholly fitting way for them to see out the remaining games; the risk of infection not so much. We might be scunnered with them, but we’re not monsters.
The popular debate now appears to revolve around whether the season should be voided, delayed until reasonably practicable to resume or simply brought to an end now, the latter of which would obviously result in our immediate relegation.
Of course, from a purely selfish point of view, such an outcome seems unduly harsh with 24 points still to play for and only six points separating us from safety, regardless of how little faith we (or the rest of Scottish football fandom) have in the team’s ability to close that gap on the pitch. In fact, for a lot of these players, the latter option would be considered a get-out-jail-free card of sorts if it meant not having to face up to their collective failure in front of an angry crowd, before slinking off to whatever club was willing to pick them up. Such an easy escape would be perfectly characteristic of a side that has shirked responsibility more often than not over the past 20 months.
Yet, no matter how deserving of relegation we may be (and we really are) we wouldn’t be the only ones to feel aggrieved in that situation, with plenty other teams separated by similarly fine margins still chasing titles, European spots and safety. Such a decision would succeed only in opening a massive can of worms from a financial, sporting integrity and ultimately legal point of view.
Having said that, it’s almost impossible to make a decision that will keep everyone happy, considering how little precedent there is for such a unique set of circumstances. With what looks like a prolonged period of inactivity ahead of us, I personally feel that now is an ideal opportunity to take a serious look at reconstruction of the whole Scottish senior football system, particularly when there are plans afoot to form a new West of Scotland league at the other end of the pyramid. That may seem like a convenient stance for a Hearts fan to take, but I’d be saying it no matter where we were in the table.
I also like to think most Hearts supporters would be able to accept their medicine if we were to go down, even if the club challenges the legality of it; after all, it’s nobody else’s fault that we’re propping up the table. Whatever outcome the SFA and SPFL decide upon, and regardless of what league that leaves us in for next season, the fact that we’ve found ourselves in this position in the first place is entirely down to problems on our own doorstep – problems that have been a few years in the making. Once the worst of the corona virus has passed, a deep clean of our own club is most definitely required.
In the meantime, stay safe, look after your loved ones and don’t be dicks when doing your shopping: we all have mouths to feed and arses to wipe.