When the Hearts players were left to stand and survey Celtic’s celebrations back in December after coming so close to securing last season’s Scottish Cup, many of us noticed the raw emotion etched on their faces.
In the dressing room after, Robbie Neilson would most likely have told them to bottle that feeling and use it as fuel to drive them towards another final at the next possible opportunity.
While emotions were running high for a lot of us at the time, it’s a rhetoric many of us bought into, even going as far as suggesting the performance in the final was some sort of seminal moment in this squad’s journey similar to the League Cup defeat in 1996. Not for the first time in the last five years, such a moment has proved to be no more than a false dawn.
Any hope that this Hearts side would come back determined to avenge their December disappointment was well and truly extinguished on Tuesday night when, at the first hurdle, Hearts crashed out of the competition at Dudgeon Park, home of Highland League champions Brora Rangers. Embarrassing, yes, but not nearly as embarrassing as believing this team was actually capable of redemption, something I allowed myself to do in the aftermath of that Celtic defeat – the maudlin tone of the last three paragraphs in this piece makes me cringe now.
Back then, many suggested a Hearts win would not have been that much of a surprise in light of the complete collapse that was taking place at Celtic. Similarly, though the headlines in both the Scottish and UK news bulletins have referred to Tuesday night’s result as the biggest upset in Scottish Cup history, there isn’t a Hearts fan who has watched us play this season who could feign surprise at such a result, one that claims the unenviable title of worst in the club’s 147-year history.
The reaction has been unanimously clear-cut on social media: no manager should survive that. At any other club in the country, the manager would be delivering his dying declaration in the dressing room after the final whistle and would have his P45 before he could make it onto the team bus, but not Robbie Neilson. Not at Heart of Midlothian.
Speaking at the start of the month, Ann Budge responded to criticism of Neilson with the following:
“I think one of the problems in football is that some clubs react too quickly. It takes time. Robbie came back to us in June so he’s been back eight months. He’s brought in a lot of new players, he knows what he wants to do and he knows his fundamental objective this year is to win promotion and he’s focused on that.”
While it is fair to say that, in leading the Championship by 16 points, Neilson is on course to achieve his key objective of promotion, this has as much to do with the clubs below us slitting each other’s throats as it does our own performances. At points this season, Raith and Dunfermline both had opportunities to narrow the points deficit at the top but passed them up. Could we honestly say we would feel as comfortable about our position if they hadn’t, given what we know about how these players deal with pressure?
Though Neilson was correct to an extent when he said there were “remnants” of the relegation season still within the squad, the fact that this was one of his first thoughts after such a humiliation was in keeping with his deflection tactics at other low points throughout the season. Whether it’s the referee, the pitch, the weather, the opponent’s fictitious “impressive home record” or the previous campaign, what began the season as bullishness has descended into a buck-passing exercise in moments of adversity.
Discounting those flimsy excuses, there has to be an element of self-reflection here. It’s all well and good blaming the lingering effects of yesteryear, but more than half the starting lineup on Tuesday were Neilson’s signings, made over the course of two windows. He had a full pre-season to work with the survivors of 2019-20. He came into a club he knows well and was able to bring his own backroom staff with him immediately. His predecessor, for all his own faults, was relieved of his duties despite coming into a comparatively unfamiliar environment, with fewer resources at his disposal and less time to make changes.
If it’s a tactical issue, that’s down to the man who sets the team up. If the tactics are sound but the players simply aren’t good enough to carry out the instructions, that’s down to the man who recruited them. If the players are good enough but simply aren’t motivated, that’s down to the man leading them.
I was asked by a friend afterwards if the lack of fans could have contributed to this slump but it’s not something I subscribe to with this group of players. There are more than a few in that team whose Hearts careers effectively ended on Tuesday night – one or two may even come and go without ever having played in front of the fans – and they should perhaps count themselves lucky in that respect. We’ve all seen how easily some of them wilt in the heat of a vitriolic Tynecastle. This season was a prime opportunity to gain some composure and rebuild confidence without the added pressure from the stands – and yet they’ve still evidently struggled.
It’s something that is symptomatic of the softness within the club these days and comes from the very top, as evidenced by Ann Budge’s comments regarding our recent performances:
“Will things go wrong along the way, will there be bumps on the road? Of course there will. When I talked to Robbie about coming back I told him ‘I want you to view this as a minimum of three years’. He’s safe as far as I’m concerned and I know it’s not everybody’s view but it’s my view.”
Fans say there is something “rotten” in the club but that’s not the right term: rotten was what went on behind the scenes under Robinson, under Romanov. The current state of affairs is rotten only insofar as a Sunday school fete could be couched in such terms, where pats on the head and participation medals are handed out to those who come up short and where people are allowed to repeatedly underperform and be assured of their long-term job security.
A defeat to a part-time side that hadn’t kicked a ball in ten weeks is not a “bump in the road” but a sinkhole, yet it seems the people at the wheel will survive the fall.
So where does this leave the fans? How do they force the board to take notice, when that board seems continually oblivious to our shortcomings, takes action only when things are too far gone and which doesn’t seem to have a plan in place when that action is eventually taken?
There has been talk of a protest in the Foundation Plaza this Saturday, something that doesn’t sit right with me at all. Not only is it grossly irresponsible in the current climate, it also runs the risk of emboldening the board and becoming the subject of further deflection in a condescending statement about supporter conduct.
Which leaves the financial route.
I used to scoff at people who threatened to cancel their Foundation contributions or surrender their season tickets, seeing it as an over-reaction to events on the pitch and something I would never resort to myself. However, while it may have been a knee-jerk reaction four or five years ago, it’s not as if things have improved in that time and such a response seems increasingly proportionate with each new low. If the club was a company on the stock exchange, a major event like the Brora defeat would have seen investors dumping their stocks at the earliest possible opportunity before the share price fell off a cliff.
On a personal level, my life has also changed immeasurably in that time. Back then I had very few financial responsibilities other than rent and a few bills, with most of my disposable income being directed into the coffers of local pubs and restaurants. A season ticket was something I never thought twice about renewing, even when the return on my investment was rapidly decreasing.
Though my daughter was born last April, the decision to renew for this season was still an easy one, especially when the club was relying so heavily on that income during testing times. After all, the club is as much an investment of time and emotion as it is a financial one and it is that mindset that the club has drilled into over the past few years – this notion that the fans are “a constant”.
Over the past few seasons, that has increasingly felt like emotional blackmail in order to maintain the “constant” flow of unconditional funding from supporters despite the poor return. Cutting off my own funding to the club is not a decision I would take lightly, but when it feels as though it is almost being taken for granted, I can’t help but ask myself if it would be better spent making up for lost time with my family. I’m not the only one standing at that particular crossroads.
In a year that has really tested people mentally, football has often been there to take our minds off the toil, with the prospect of eventually getting back and seeing familiar faces in the flesh a beacon of hope to cling to. And yet, despite being locked out for over a year, there are supporters genuinely contemplating not going back even when they’re allowed to. When you consider what people have been through in their personal lives, that is a shocking indictment of how far the club has fallen and should be a source of deep shame for those in charge.
Ann Budge will forever be remembered for what she did in the club’s hour of need but right now her stewardship of this club is rightly being called into question. Nobody is calling for autocratic knee-jerk leadership where heads roll at every mistake, but there has to be an acknowledgement that after countless rebuilds in such a short space of time, the culture of this club is not conducive to success and that change is badly needed. The financial route, though one many will be reluctant to take, may be the only way to achieve that.