It’s a somewhat embarrassing reality that season 2020/21 was the second season HMFC have spent in the second tier in the past six years.
The outcome is ultimately the same – league champions with games to spare – but this season could not feel any more different to 2014/15.
Summer 2014 saw Ann Budge take ownership of the club, which had been left in a ruinous state following ownership of Vladimir Romanov. The previous season had seen the club suffer an insolvency event, stripping it of all but of a few senior players, which meant playing out the 2013/14 season with what was predominantly a youth team and a few remaining senior players, notably Jamie Hamill, Ryan Stevenson and Jamie MacDonald. The under-strength team and the points deduction imposed for insolvency meant that it was always going to be a huge challenge for that team to stay up.
When Budge assumed control, the club and the team needed to be rebuilt as we faced an extraordinarily strong Scottish Championship containing Rangers, Hibs and also highly-competitive Queen of the South and Falkirk sides. Right from the outset, tough decisions were made. Gary Locke, who was head coach of the team the previous season, was ‘brutally axed’, as was the parlance of the tabloids at the time, and the three aforementioned senior players, Hamill, Stevenson and McDonald, were all released. Robbie Neilson, meanwhile, was a surprising choice for head coach, working under the newly-appointed Director of Football Craig Levein.
The core of the team was going to be the young players – Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson, Dale Carrick, Kevin McHattie, Billy King, Brad McKay and others – while experienced pros in Prince Buaben, Morgaro Gomis and Neil Alexander were added, in addition to some savvy recruitment in the Bosman market, most notably Alim Ozturk and Osman Sow. There was excitement, vibrancy and right from the outset the team’s form was excellent; a very tough start on paper (Rangers and Ibrox and Hibs at Tynecastle) was overcome with two wins. The team never looked back after that.
We played quick, aggressive, positive attacking football, taking the game to the opposition every week – exactly the type of football Hearts fans love to see. The season in numbers was extraordinary: we scored 96 goals in 36 games, conceding only 26 for a goal difference of +70, the team achieved 91 points, 21 ahead of second-placed Hibs, and we smashed poor Cowdenbeath 10-0 at home.
Four, five and six-goal victories were commonplace. The young wide players – Walker, King and Nicholson – created genuine excitement and anticipation when they were on the ball. The league was won in March, before the school Easter holidays. It was a spectacularly successful season for the club, and Robbie Neilson, presiding over it all, seemed a really talented and exciting head coach.
2014/15 felt like a successful re-birth and a real platform on which the club could build for further success. It is astonishing, therefore, to think that the third-place finish the following season would be the high water mark up until the present day.
Perhaps the root of the malaise that has characterised the past six years was sewn in the summer of 2015. Popular players like Adam Eckersley and James Keatings were released, and some of the lesser young players, McHattie and McKay, were also let go. Admittedly none of these players has gone on to achieve much, but it felt harsh at the time, even if most of us accepted it on the premise that we would be aiming to recruit better.
One of my personal concerns, and this is probably a blog topic on it’s own, is the club’s use of the Academy players and that is perhaps one of the biggest contrasts with season 2020/21. Whilst the youth system at the club can potentially produce players to be sold on for big transfer fees, with the exception of Aaron Hickey, Hearts have been rather poor at achieving that. However, it should also be able to produce competent squad players for the first team squad. Think Considine at Aberdeen or Hanlon and Stevenson at Hibs; perhaps the likes of McKay or McHattie could have served a similar purpose at Hearts? We’ll never know.
So to 2020/21, and perhaps the first major difference is the circumstances that led to the club being in the second tier. Whilst the 2013/14 squad was stripped to the bare bones and fought valiantly against the odds, the 2019/20 squad was expensively assembled, bloated, dispirited and hugely underachieved against expectation and budget. The fans had spent much of the previous season angry and frustrated, and it was arguably only a narrative that the club was all-too keen to endorse – that we had been relegated due to Machiavellian machinations by rival clubs and the SPFL – which created a siege mentality that ultimately boosted season ticket sales when they may otherwise have dipped.
Robbie Neilson was once again recruited for the head coach role, having led Dundee United to the title the previous season, and with the previous promotion from the Championship from his time at Hearts on his CV, it seemed a logical choice.
The league this time around had no clubs of similar stature to Hearts, so the expectation of the fans was for the club to emphatically win the league once more. The opening fixture in October at home to Dundee produced an exciting 6-2 victory and at that point we perhaps thought we were on for more of the same.
A loss to Dunfermline away in the fourth fixture of the season, which briefly knocked us from top spot, was the first suggestion that it was going to be more of a slog this season. This was a Friday night fixture and these have often proved to be a tough watch as Hearts have struggled, playing dull, lifeless and insipid football in front of the BBC Scotland cameras, which have captured us losing to Dundee, grinding out 1-0 wins over Arbroath and Ayr and drawing with Queen of the South and Inverness.
The club has pretty much eschewed the young players this season, much to the chagrin of many supporters who love to see young players making an impact at the club. Lewis Moore and Callumn Morrison, two previously promising wide players, were let go or told they were surplus to requirements before the start of the season, Anthony McDonald also left the club and Euan Henderson was given limited game time. Their replacements, including the likes of Elliott Frear, Jordan Roberts and Gervane Kastaneer, have all looked well short of the standard required, despite being recruited by Neilson to provide ‘pace and width’. As of game week 24, no player under 20 has played one minute of league football for the Hearts first team this season.
Arguably the club has adopted a pragmatic approach and recruited an experienced squad to achieve the job in hand – promotion from the Championship – but many supporters, myself included, realise that we are facing yet another squad rebuild as we are currently carrying an ageing squad. There are perhaps mitigating circumstances as to why the club hasn’t been giving young players game time, given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on age group football, but it has also contributed to a perceived lack of energy and vibrancy in the team.
The style of play has also been awful, the opposition goalkeeper is rarely tested, we often play dull, lateral, possession-based football with little movement ahead of the ball, no incisive passing or players carrying the ball and a seeming lack of willing to take risks in possession.
That said, the team has proved on occasion that it can play well and score goals. We’ve had three six-goal victories at home this season (6-2 v Dundee, 6-1 v Queen of the South and 6-0 v Alloa) but, quite inexplicably, we have also lost to those three teams in other games this season. The season is also far less impressive in numbers: we’re currently on 50 points, 10 ahead of second place, and our goal difference is +32. Overall, it’s been much more of an ordeal.
So what has changed, Robbie? Where has the exciting, attacking football and the energy and vibrancy of 2014/15 gone? Neilson may legitimately point to the impact of the pandemic and the contrasting platform he inherited second time around, but if he is to have any chance of getting the fans back on side, he has to channel the spirit of 2014/5 and get the team playing the same style of football once more….
….and probably best to avoid losing to part time Highland league clubs in national cup competitions as well.