“Without the support of the fans there is, as we issue this note, a real risk that Heart of Midlothian Football Club could possibly play its last game next Saturday, 17th November against St Mirren. This isn’t a bluff, this isn’t scaremongering, this is a reality.”
I remember being on the bus home from work on 7th November 2012, when I read the above announcement that the club had been served a winding-up order from HMRC and – without sufficient financial backing from the supporters – faced the very real prospect of playing its last game the following week at home to St Mirren.
You often hear people who have been affected by a devastating turn of events talk about how they never expected it could happen to them. Though far from being a life-changing illness or natural disaster, the sentiment was certainly similar: insolvency events were the kind of thing that only seemed to happen to other football clubs.
Since the turn of the millennium alone, we had already witnessed a handful of smaller Scottish clubs going into administration (Motherwell in 2002, Dundee twice in 2003 and 2010, Livingston twice in 2004 and 2009) or disappear completely (Gretna in 2008). However, any notion that this was something that only happened to the minor players, that some clubs could be “too big to go under” was dispelled entirely when Rangers were liquidated in 2012.
So as I sat on the number 35 bus back from South Gyle that evening, less than six months on from the Glasgow club’s own financial demise, the gravity of the words on my phone screen was not lost on me, and for the next week and a half, the grim prospect of losing my beloved football club started sinking in.
The St Mirren game on 17th November 2012 was not our last, but it’s often not until you’re forced to contemplate life without a loved one that you reflect on their importance to you and how you may have taken them for granted in the past. To many, it may seem insensitive to compare the impending loss of something as trifling as a football club to that of a friend or relative, but such is the strength of feeling thousands have for their respective clubs that the thought of it not being there anymore stirs similar emotions.
For most football fans, their club and many of their closest personal relationships do not exist exclusively from each other – they’re interwoven. They produce moments we celebrate with each other, times we reminisce about together and memories we cherish when those we shared them with are no longer among us.
At no period in our lives has this been more pertinent than the past 18 months, with lockdown demonstrating just how much football means to people. Within the Hearts community alone, the loss of that weekly ritual inspired a plethora of podcasts and weekly Zoom gatherings between fans fed up of staring at the same four walls and craving their fix of football chat that would otherwise have taken place in person within the pubs of Gorgie and the perimeters of Tynecastle Park.
It’s fitting, therefore, that the official transfer of ownership to the fans – “Heart and Soul Day” – came a little over a week after the Tynecastle turnstiles were thrown open without restrictions for the first time since March 2020. The significance of that event cannot be overstated. Many fans will have returned minus the close companions and loved ones they sat with at the last home game they attended. For them, Sunday’s meeting with Aberdeen would have been especially difficult; the result (which in any other context may have been looked upon with frustration as two points dropped) an insignificant footnote in a far more poignant story.
Over the past few years, it was not uncommon to see the phrase “we’re lucky to have a club to support at all” at the centre of many arguments online: over-used by those at one end of the spectrum, who were happy to excuse even the lowest moments; dismissed all too easily by those at the other end looking for the smallest reasons to fire shots at the club, be it non-alcoholic beers or over-priced imitation Lego buses. There’s no denying that we’ve had some real low points since coming out of administration and will no doubt have many more to come, but what yesterday drove home was how the underlying sentiment of those words still rings true.
Reading This Is Our Story, Ian Murray’s excellent account of our time in administration, not only opened my eyes to how close we came to extinction, it also struck me just how fortunate we were (and still are) to have such strength of feeling within our support. People who believed they could make a real difference, who acted swiftly, lived and breathed the Foundation of Hearts from the very beginning and put their blood, sweat and tears into ensuring we didn’t follow the same fate as Rangers. Sitting on that 35 bus back in November 2012, I was aware of the seriousness of the situation, but as a lowly temp worker in his first full-time job out of university – no connections, no influence, no clue – felt nothing but helplessness. What contribution could I possibly make to change this?
I’d like to think that, God forbid, should we ever be faced with such circumstances again, I would do more, but it was always about more than just individuals. After all, without the unwavering unity and commitment of the Hearts support as a whole, the gargantuan individual efforts of Bryan Jackson, Ann Budge and the other key players involved (of which there are too many to name in this piece) would likely have been for nothing. From the Foundation figureheads to the kids turning up at Tynecastle to hand over their piggy banks, we all played our part.
As I watched the video posted on the official club Twitter yesterday morning, I held it together pretty well until the final moments when the camera revealed the two children running out onto the pitch after completing their “Maroon Mile”, at which point I crumbled. I’ve always been a relatively sentimental, nostalgic person, but since becoming a parent for the first time during lockdown (with a second on the way later this year) I feel those characteristics have only intensified as I’ve grown increasingly aware of my own mortality, even in my mid-30s. My feelings towards my football club are tied up in that as much as anything else.
Though my dad’s side of the family was predominantly Hearts-leaning, I was never railroaded into supporting the club. It’s something I’m grateful to them for, as I found my love for the club grew organically, albeit with the help of those pre-existing familial ties, an element of peer pressure in a surprisingly Hearts-dominated class at primary school, the more trivial aspects (like a preference for the colour maroon over green) and good old-fashioned fate, such as the discovery of a shiny Hearts badge in my first pack of Panini stickers.
As much as I plan to exercise self-restraint by letting my daughters make their own choices in life – including whether or not they support the same football team as me – I also like to imagine that they will grow up to be Hearts fans, enjoy coming to games with me and look back on those times with fondness long after I’m gone.
They may well do, they may follow their mother’s lead and support Motherwell, or they may reject football outright and find other interests. Either way, I’m proud to have played my part in a cast of thousands to ensure they (and the generations that follow them) have that option.