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Never mind the Easter eggs, it’s high time heads rolled at Hearts

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Afternoon all. I’d like to start off today’s piece by paying tribute to an absolutely wonderful tweet many of you will have seen over the weekend, which appeared in response to Robbie Neilson’s post-match claims that it would have taken a “decapitation” for the referee to award Hearts a penalty in Saturday’s goalless draw with Dunfermline Athletic.

Now, Robbie has certainly been guilty of failing to judge his audience on a number of occasions this season but, even for a man with such disastrous PR skills, I feel it’s quite a stretch to suggest that he besmirches the victims of religious extremism when bemoaning refereeing decisions in a Scottish Championship fixture. 

Helen, if you’re reading, there are a lot people deserving of your ISIS ire but I just don’t think an under-pressure football manager, desperately seeking his latest deflection tactic for another insipid performance, merits a place that high up your list. 

There are, however, some football-related reasons to take issue with this latest instalment of Buck-Passing Bingo with Robbie Neilson. Although he went a little Game of Thrones for the viewers at home this week with talk of decapitations, our central character stayed true to his comedy roots for the most part, churning out the same catchphrases about referees that we’ve already heard in a few earlier episodes this season, with the kind of predictability that was matched only by the slapstick on the field. Of course, nobody found any of it remotely entertaining or amusing.

Self-reflection seems to be in short supply, such is Neilson’s unique talent for finding ways to account for poor performances on a weekly basis without using the word “my”, as in “my team selection”, “my tactics” and “my inability to see when something clearly isn’t working”. However, that lack of introspection is hardly surprising at a club where the key decision makers seem oblivious to the existence of a problem in the first place.

Shortly after I posted my last piece, I noticed the club had released a statement in response to supporter unrest and I wondered if it would render any of my own writing redundant. In short, it didn’t. By contrast, all the statement did was reinforce what many Hearts fans have suspected for a long time now: that within the club, there is a gross misunderstanding – by the owner, the management team and the players themselves – as to the nature and depth of Hearts supporters’ grievances. 

It’s a misunderstanding echoed by numerous media personalities who clearly do not watch Hearts on a weekly basis and prefer to apply a narrow focus on the league table as evidence of an alleged overreaction by an entitled fan base, conveniently ignoring the five-year decline that led us to where we are now and the very real concerns that we have about what lies ahead.

It shows when they use terms such as “great position” and “success” to describe our current place in the second tier; when they use that supposed “success” to gloss over cup defeats to non-league teams and dropped points to part-time teams in the league; when they refer only to the Brora Rangers and Queen of the South results as if they represent a mere blip in an otherwise positive run of form; when they question calls for change.

It’s symptomatic of a club that fosters a culture in which increasingly low standards are accepted; a club that, for all its talk of plans and projections for where we “should be”, has demonstrated time and again that it lacks the necessary direction to get us there; a club that has lost touch with its supporter base and any semblance of an identity.

On that note, I read an interesting article recently by Matt Slater in The Athletic about Paul Conway’s Pacific Media Group, which owns the likes of Barnsley, Belgian side Oostende and French outfit Nancy among others.

In the piece, Slater talks about the group’s long-term vision for the clubs within its stable and the steps it takes to realise those goals, beginning with a clearly-defined style in which it wants its clubs to play, which not only dictates the players they recruit, but the coaches they appoint. There is also an unwavering commitment to youth development and the continued reinvestment of any profits made from player sales into further recruitment efforts, which again are focused predominantly on the low-cost acquisition of young players who data show to be undervalued.

While some, if not all, of these clubs have larger budgets than us in purely financial terms, they are all still considered relatively “small” in the context of their own national leagues. Yet, in staying true to the principles they set out from the start, all are showing signs of upward mobility. Reading the article, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of envy at the clarity of purpose and ambition shown by PMG. I’m not advocating becoming part of such a multi-club conglomerate (Ann Budge actually turned down an approach from PMG last year) but the results of focused planning tell their own story and stand in stark contrast to the journey we have been on since exiting administration.

For starters, there is no blueprint for how the club wants to play the game and, as a result, there has been no consistency in the type of head coach we have brought in. Instead, this board has overseen five managerial appointments involving four individuals, each of whom has arrived with very different ideas from his predecessor as to how he wants his team to play. That, in turn, has led to wholesale changes in the playing staff on a seasonal basis and a running total of new recruits that is now within touching distance of three figures.

Married to that is the club’s policy on youth development, which has been selective at best and, at worst, negligent. Whereas the club was keen to herald the success of the academy in the 2017-2018 season, when the likes of Harry Cochrane and Anthony McDonald were putting in performances that belied their tender years and Craig Levein was fielding entire teams of teenagers at Rugby Park, the haphazard Supermarket Sweep approach to player recruitment in other seasons (most notably the current one) has forced most of our promising youngsters out of the picture.

The signing of Shay Logan is a prime example in that regard, with Neilson deciding to bring in the 33-year old right back instead of recalling young Cammy Logan from his loan with Cove Rangers, which itself had stalled due to the lower league shutdown.

Granted, the on-loan Aberdeen man played well on his debut, but that only raises questions as to why he wasn’t brought in sooner, when everyone knew well in advance that Michael Smith was likely to be away on international duty and Neilson was so averse to throwing Shay’s namesake into the mix. Having already lost to Brora and Queen of the South with Craig Halkett floundering at right back instead, the decision to bring in Logan was akin to applying for home insurance after the fire has already razed it to the ground. 

Then there is the farcical glut of wide men signed this season and what it says about our recruitment more generally. Since identifying the squad’s lack of width over the summer, Neilson has brought in five players to address that problem, yet the only one to have made any kind of positive impact has managed just a handful of appearances due to injury. Meanwhile, we’ve resorted to playing a central midfielder who cost us six figures out wide instead. 

Ask any Hearts fan what the club’s policy on player recruitment is and you’d likely be met with a Partridge-esque shrug. The club talks about its supposed commitment to youth development, but recent history suggests otherwise, with the Oriam more closely resembling a retirement home for ageing professionals to see out the last days of their career, as well as a rehab clinic for the perpetually injured and an “all expenses paid” four-year retreat for players who never play.

What that speaks to is a recruitment strategy lacking focus. As if to reinforce that point, the club even managed to appoint Joe Savage, the man tasked with overhauling our recruitment, after the head coach, a mistake that British clubs seem to make with alarming regularity and never learn from.

And yet, that is just a microcosm of the club as a whole these days – rudderless and in need of a complete rethink from top to bottom. The initial five year plan sounded nice at the time, something most of us got behind in theory, but in practice failed for a multitude of reasons. Though the odd mistake was always going to be made, the same ones have been repeated over a number of years and nobody appears to have learned from them. 

If the club has any hope of returning to where it once was – let alone progressing – new leadership is required. As it plans for the club’s fan-owned future, the Foundation of Hearts could do a lot worse than look to Conway and co for inspiration.

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