First up, congratulations to Brora Rangers, who by all accounts fully deserved their win.
It tends to be the case that the humiliated team is the primary focus following a cup upset, so I thought it was important to first give credit it where it’s due.
I chose not to watch the game last night, being somewhat stream weary, not just in the sense of spending too much time in front of a computer, but also because it has often been the case that the entertainment on offer from HMFC this season has been negligible. The fact that we watched the 2014 film ‘The Interview’ on Amazon Prime instead is perhaps indicative of our dissatisfaction with the fare on offer from Hearts by way of an alternative.
In losing to a non-league side in a competitive match for the first time since Queen Victoria was on the throne, the club hit an all-time low last night. Brora Rangers of the Highland League, a whole 30 places below their professional opponents, last played a league match before Hearts contested last season’s Scottish Cup final back in December and yet came away with a 2-1 win in this season’s Scottish Cup second round tie.
Yet, as someone who has watched nearly all of Hearts’ games this season up until this point, can I honestly say that it was all that much of a surprise? Apart from perhaps three or four games this season, notably the 6-2 win over Dundee in October and the 4-0 away win over Raith earlier this year, the team has toiled in most games. Wins, which to be fair have still been frequent, have nonetheless been laborious, hard-earned and ground out.
The team’s playing style, particularly in an attacking sense, lacks any kind of pattern or formula. The opposition goalkeeper is rarely tested despite dominating games in terms of possession. There is no pace, incisive passing or movement. Instead we get lateral attempts at ball retention, no risk taking or willingness to break forward in possession of the football. All of this is very familiar to seasoned watchers of the club over the past few years.
Our playing budget is multiple times those of our league opposition this season and goodness knows how many times that of last night’s part-time opponents, yet there seems to be little evidence of ability to leverage that advantage in relation to on pitch performance. Yes, the old adage that football is won on grass is true, and in some respect it’s heartening to see, in the era of elite super clubs, that on-pitch results don’t always directly correlate with budgetary superiority. However, it is still very frustrating to fans of clubs who hold that advantage even in relative terms when your team so badly underperforms.
So what of the man currently overseeing this, Robbie Neilson? As I wrote in my last piece for this blog, his appointment was the pragmatic choice at the time, given his past record of achieving promotion from the Championship both with Hearts and Dundee United, and the fact that the overall decline in the team’s performances could be traced back to his original departure in late 2016.
However, it is equally true to say that, given the relative state of our opponents from the start of 2015/16 onwards, his own performance in the role up until his initial departure, was perhaps adequate at best. The same discontent about style of play was as much a thing back then as it is now.
Despite the advantage the team currently has in terms of points at the top of the Championship, it has been a deeply unsatisfying season. Most of us bought into the rhetoric, following the early finish of last season, of the club’s unfair ‘demotion’, but the harsh truth is that there has been such a malaise at the club that I think we were very much on track for a fully-deserved relegation were the season to have been played out.
At what point, despite all the investment and positive infrastructural change she has brought to the club, does the finger of blame have to be pointed in the direction of Ann Budge? As CEO in previous seasons, she is ultimately accountable for the performance of the organisation and there is absolutely no doubt that it has been poor.
Since first getting back into European competition in 1984 following the yo-yo years of the late 70s, by my reckoning we are now (following last night’s cup exit) in our longest spell without qualifying in that time. Right now, the mere thought of European qualification seems preposterous, such is our drop in standards on the pitch.
Robbie Neilson may be a convenient fall guy for the Brora humiliation, and perhaps his removal would be window-dressing for a much deeper malaise, but it was so demoralising for an already demoralised fan base that I don’t see how he can survive this, despite being on track to achieve his primary brief of promotion from the Championship.
The club needs a change in momentum if it hopes to sell season tickets in any kind of substantial numbers. Last night was a true humiliation, but the fact it was not entirely a surprise says it all about the current state of the club.