Since he conceded the penalty that gifted Celtic a way back into the 2019 Scottish Cup final, it has been hard to imagine a situation where Hearts fans would react to Bobby Zlamal’s departure from the club with anything other than unbridled joy. Yet, when Zlamal’s emergency loan move to St Mirren was confirmed last weekend, the news provoked quite the opposite reaction.
This is a sign of the times. Only a year ago, such an announcement would have been met with a string of offers from Hearts fans to drive the Czech to Paisley themselves. However, given what has happened in the past few months, with St Mirren one of the more scathing and outspoken parties on the topic of Hearts’ enforced demotion, the mood is palpably different. Now, the mere thought of doing any kind of business with that club is bile-inducing for many of a maroon persuasion.
From a supporter’s perspective, this is entirely understandable. After all, this is a club that was not just content to see Hearts suffer disproportionately during an unprecedented global pandemic, but whose chief executive and manager were steadfast in their beliefs that we actually “deserved” it. So when that very club was left with a Covid-related goalkeeping crisis ahead of their league game with Hibs, it came as somewhat of a surprise to see a Hearts keeper being named as a potential replacement.
Personally, when I first heard that Zlamal was being lined up as cover for St Mirren’s three quarantined ‘keepers, my immediate reaction was to laugh at the sheer audacity of it, particularly when the news broke days after the official St Mirren Twitter account had trolled Hearts fans with a photo of Jon Obika and the hashtag “heartbreaker”, a tweet that was later removed presumably after someone further up the hierarchy felt the need to save face in the circumstances. Perhaps even more laughable was the number of St Mirren fans who seemed to derive pleasure from the arrangement, as if begging for scraps from our table was something they were proud to do and not the latest hallmark of their tinpot existence. Beyond that, my feelings on the matter were indifferent at best.
If the Hearts Twittersphere was anything to go by over the weekend, I am very much in the minority in that respect, with many fans viewing the decision as fraternising with the enemy, a helping hand to a club that showed comparatively less sympathy and support to us in a similar time of need. One of the more common accusations was that the club had rolled over at the first opportunity, betraying the sentiment embodied in the #OnlyHearts mantra used throughout the close season in much of the club’s social media and promotional activity.
The scale of supporter anger about this episode appears to correlate directly with the level of emotional investment supporters had placed in that marketing slogan. While some went as far to suggest the club had harnessed the siege mentality of recent months to manipulate a galvanised support into buying season tickets, others saw it simply as a buzz-phrase similar to those trotted about the SFA before every failed international qualification campaign (”This Time”) or Hibernian’s “this is our city” claim despite their derby record providing evidence to the contrary.
For me, the slogan spoke to my long-held sentiment that Heart of Midlothian is the only club worthy of my time, money and energy, that no other club matters to me and that the only time I take any concerted notice of other clubs is when they’re sharing the pitch with my own. Did I feel that sentiment strengthen in light of recent events? Of course, but it was there long before anyone in the Hearts marketing team ran with it and it will stay with me long into the future. Did I expect the club to apply the concept literally and pull the shutters down on any further business with the clubs that voted to end the season and block reconstruction proposals? Absolutely not.
There is a wider issue at play here that goes beyond a simple social media hashtag and that is our future relationship with those Scottish clubs we believe have wronged us. What this latest fallout shows is that it’s an issue the fans and the club are going to have markedly different approaches to.
As I said in a piece back in June, when the feelings of resentment towards the rest of Scottish football were at their most fervent, tribalism and bitterness are currencies best left for the fans to deal in. Boycotts of away grounds have been mooted as possible retribution and supporters are well within their rights to do so. At the same time, that raw emotion is one of the principal reasons football fans don’t run football clubs and why, when ownership of Hearts eventually passes to the Foundation, decisions about day-to-day operations won’t be made via X-Factor-style public votes. The club has to take the emotion out of these decisions.
This would not have been a unilateral “favour” or some selfless, charitable act. On the contrary, such a decision will only have been ratified if the club felt there was something to be gained in return. Firstly, it is possible that some sort of fee changed hands. Secondly, we have a goalkeeper who, at best, looks set to spend the final year of his Hearts contract warming the bench and whose wages we would probably like to free up for recruitment elsewhere. If there is even the briefest opportunity to pass a portion of his salary (however small) onto another club in these financially uncertain times, while also giving an unwanted player a chance to attract potential suitors elsewhere (stop sniggering at the back), the move makes perfect sense.
It is also misguided to label this as another example of Ann Budge “taking the fans for mugs” when it is likely she had little, if any, input in the decision. Instead, it seems more plausible that the move was signed off by Andrew McKinlay following dialogue with Robbie Neilson and Jim Jefferies as to the footballing merits of going ahead with it. Considering the generally positive reaction to the appointment of Jefferies in particular, could people really be suggesting that this “Proper Hearts Man” was complicit in such a betrayal of the supporters’ trust and loyalty? I suspect not – it’s far more selective than that.
Unsurprisingly, the news has also led to the usual characters threatening to cancel their FOH contributions. Such a response is undoubtedly over the top but it’s become the go-to trump card of the more vocal and vitriolic Budge critics, which suggests many of these individuals were simply looking for the next perceived misstep as an excuse to use it once again. Threats to cancel what many regard as a lifelong pledge arguably undermines the same “Only Hearts” sentiment these individuals claim to be so invested in and accuse others of besmirching.
The best part of a week has passed since the initial outcry. For some, the dust has settled after the sight of Zlamal’s erratic performance in St Mirren’s 3-0 defeat put a more amusing spin on the whole affair. For others, it will continue to be source of resentment for some time, and though many will accuse the club of “taking the moral high ground” here, the fact that the club has remained objective despite recent events (when others may not have in similar circumstances) speaks volumes.
If every football or business decision was dictated by points of principle based on supporter resentment towards particular clubs, it would only lead to accusations of double standards, damaged credibility and alienation. On this matter, the club may find its approach is not to the liking of many supporters. For once, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.