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Seven Up

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With Ann Budge’s ownership having coming to an end last month, Ruaraidh Mackay looks back at seven significant on-field highlights from the seven years under her stewardship.

On 30 August 2021, Ann Budge signed Heart of Midlothian FC over to its loyal support, completing the transfer of the largest fan-owned club in the United Kingdom. Going back to 2014, after the rollercoaster era of Vladimir Romanov, there was an expectation that things would perhaps be smoother under the Edinburgh businesswoman.

As it turned out, there were almost too many big off-field moments in the Budge era to document – the on-field highlights seemed few and far between in comparison. In typical Hearts fashion though, they could still produce big moments when needed. Seven of what I consider to be the most significant are ranked below.


7. Hearts 2-1 Aberdeen (20 October 2018)

Perhaps this is a strange one to start with when discussing the on-field highlights of Ann Budge’s time at Hearts, considering there are far more memorable wins against Hibs, Rangers and Celtic to choose from. However, this win over Aberdeen in October 2018 signalled a real belief and steeliness in the Hearts side Craig Levein was assembling.

It stretched their Premiership lead to three points, and most importantly, ensured the side bounced back after a damaging first league defeat at Ibrox to Rangers two weeks prior. Hearts were missing key players like Peter Haring, John Souttar, Christophe Berra and Uche Ikpeazu, and pre-match predictions proclaimed a sure-fire Aberdeen victory in Gorgie. Despite the injuries, others stepped up for Hearts. Arnaud Djoum swanned around and constantly found space in key areas. Steven Naismith snarled and snapped his way around the pitch in customary fashion, before stroking home the winning penalty. It wasn’t so much the manner of the win – Hearts often dominate Aberdeen at Tynecastle – it was the fact that the squad players had stepped up and maybe, just maybe, Ann Budge’s much discussed ‘Five Year Plan’ would produce a title charge.

6. Hearts 2-1 Celtic (31 July 2021)

Hopefully this result will be looked upon even more fondly in May next year. Hearts fans had spent the summer feeling slightly flat, despite returning to the Scottish Premiership at the first time of asking.

Performances in Robbie Neilson’s second spell had generally mirrored these feelings, although there was an encouraging upturn in displays following a change to a 3-4-3 formation. With a lack of signings to get fans overly excited, there was perhaps more intrigue over the unknown quality of Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic side. This was one of the only real causes for optimism as the SPFL mainframe – the most derided computer since the T-1000 – threw up a clash with Celtic on the opening game of the season.

Cue Beni Baningime. The midfielder was signed from Everton and was boldly flung straight into the first eleven. As it turned out, Beni dominated, John Souttar scored, a celebrating fan inexplicably pulled his hood over his head live on camera, and all was finally well again in Gorgie.

5. Hearts 2-0 Queen of the South (28 March 2015)

OBE. How good did that feel? To watch newly-crowned champions Hearts step out at a sold out Tynecastle had fans feeling as light as the maroon and white balloons floating into the sky. The match itself was little more than a side show, as the home side comfortably saw off Queen of the South, who themselves were pushing for the play offs that season.

The satisfaction of knowing that one of Rangers or Hibernian would not be playing top-flight football the following season was almost too much smugness to bear for fans inside Tynecastle. The party went on into the night as Hearts returned to the Premiership at the first time of asking, bookending what was a persistent feel-good 2014/15 campaign, Budge’s first as owner of the football club.

4. Hearts 4-1 Rangers (1 February 2017)

Arise the Laptop Revolution. With the transfer window delivering a dizzying exhibition of European pedigree through the Tynecastle doors, it truly felt like Ian Cathro had finally arrived. Make no mistake, despite what would eventually occur, he was initially a hugely popular choice amongst Hearts fans to replace Robbie Neilson. It was utterly fascinating to both supporters and media alike how the 30-year-old ex-Valencia and Newcastle coach would fare in management.

Despite the hype, the revolution hadn’t got off to a perfect start, with Cathro’s new style struggling to make a mark on a squad used to Robbie Neilson. There were sprouts of optimism, particularly during a 4-0 trouncing of Kilmarnock, however it wouldn’t be until the 4-1 annihilation of Rangers on a cold February night that Cathro could feel like he had got underway in Gorgie. He called it ‘the most complete we’ve been across 90 minutes.’ Jamie Walker was imperious and at the peak of his powers, exemplifying the all-action Hearts performance with a sharp interception and raking drive from range. The substitute appearance of Alexandros Tziolis only further whetted the appetite of Hearts fans, as he oozed elegance on the ball. This was without a doubt Ian Cathro’s peak at Hearts, before the sharpest of tumbles, as Ann Budge’s much discussed experiment sadly failed.

3. Hearts 2-0 Rangers (22 November 2014)

The bouts against Rangers evoked more heavyweight hype compared to the Edinburgh derbies during the 2014/15 Championship campaign. Having Osman Sow squeeze a late winner at Ibrox on the opening day of the season in many ways was the catalyst for what was going to come, as Hearts embarked on a 20-game unbeaten league run to steal a big march at the top of the table.

The Rangers matches were always going to be key to any title challenge, with broadcasters scarcely believing their luck at such a tantalising set of clashes. It was the 14th fixture of the season where things would take a turn for both sides, however, as Hearts saw out a 2-0 win at a jam-packed Tynecastle. Once again, Robbie Neilson’s young team were shining, with exceptional performances from Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson and Jason Holt ensuring the league leaders moved nine points clear at the top of the table.

2. Hearts 2-1 Hibs (Scottish Cup Semi-Final, 31 October 2020)

“After everything they’ve gone through, after all that they’ve experienced, the hurt, the anguish, the anger, they lead in the derby again.”

It was the result that mattered most. With everything that had happened since this game was originally scheduled to be played – demotion, court cases, training bans – it was a demoralising time to be a Hearts fan. Enter a wildly buoyant Hibs fanbase, salivating at the chance to smash the ultimate nail in the coffin of their rivals.

Flying high in the league, and with a side who had many more games under their belt than the Jam Tarts, it looked like it was going to be a colossal ask for a Hearts victory, but after a truly dramatic 120 minutes Hearts had done it. Liam Boyce’s winning penalty and celebration will rightly go down in folklore. And as for Hibs? They would go on to lose two more vital games at Hampden that season, solidifying their trademark of ‘Hibsing It’.

1. Hearts 4-0 Celtic (17 December 2017)

You would imagine the snap of the net followed by the booming roar of the crowd comes screaming back to Harry Cochrane every now and then. Sixteen years young and with a left peg finish to match that of a certain Mr Skacel, it felt like Cochrane had ushered in a new era of youthful talent under Craig Levein. Anthony McDonald (16) and Jamie Brandon (19) also played in the 4-0 destruction of Brendan Rodgers’ 69-game ‘Invincibles’ in front of what the BBC labelled a ‘raucous cauldron of delirium’.

It was Hearts’ biggest win over Celtic in 122 years, achieved by a motley crew of a squad that would barely reach mid-table that season. Despite very low pre-match expectations, the energy expelled on the Tynecastle pitch that day was akin to a hurricane, blasting aside anyone not of a maroon persuasion.

We Bought Our Football Club

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“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.

Have Quality, Will Travel

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Fifteen minutes in and Hearts are spraying the ball about in comfort, hitting bold passes with players alert to receive it on the half-turn.

This is how it should be. The fluidity on display is genuinely encouraging from the men from Gorgie. John Souttar glides into an inside-right role which enables Michael Smith to drift into the middle of the park before launching an inch-perfect pass to set Andy Halliday away on the opposite flank.

Whilst the attack broke down eventually, it was what came next that was perhaps the most telling sign that Saturday would be a happy Heart of Midlothian day. The ball was smashed clear back to Craig Halkett, but Alex Cochrane and Souttar immediately drifted wide, and delivered crisp passes wide to advance the play rapidly. No possession for the sake of it, just snappy one and two-touch passing. The missing ingredient from last season had magically appeared at Tannadice – tempo.

That tempo continued and after almost two minutes of relentless probing, a relieved applause emanated from Dundee United fans for Jeando Fuchs, who intercepted the ball in the same way a determined child would finally get a touch of the football from a toying adult. Rinse and repeat – the possession dominance continued for the Jam Tarts, which culminated in a now-expected Liam Boyce goal.

Despite a brief second half surge from United, Hearts stood firm, and recorded their most comfortable away performance so far this season with a well-taken finish from Armand Gnanduillet. Josh Ginnelly’s appearance around the 60-minute mark had exactly the impact Robbie Neilson would have hoped for, as his energy and direct running gave the United defenders a rough afternoon. As Neilson himself stated after the game, it was a vastly changed substitute bench from the previous week against Aberdeen. Suddenly a threadbare squad is bursting at the seams with options.

The ability of Joe Savage to pluck a shining diamond out of the Premier League may be Neilson’s ace in the hole yet. A quick peek into the pedigree of the signings made this summer is enough to finally believe the manager when he peddles out the oft-repeated ‘quality over quantity’ line. New arrivals Ben Woodburn and Taylor Moore have experience at a level greater than the Scottish Premiership, whilst both are young and at the ‘make or break’ stage in their club careers. Beni Baningime is of course the pick of them all so far: watching his performances, it is scarcely believable Hearts have secured him on a three-year deal.

This market may be vital in the future for Hearts. Indeed, it is what could set apart Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen from the rest of the non-Glasgow sides in the league. Identifying young British-based players from the top English leagues and offering them a mainstream media-generating platform for regular first team football suddenly looks that bit more attractive for a fledging British star, following the successful cases of James Maddison and, to a lesser extent, Jimmy Dunne.

The season is far too early to call anything yet, however the parallels with Neilson’s first season in charge at Premiership level are striking. Win against Hibs in the derby and Hearts will have made it four wins from five, compared with season 2015/16’s five wins from the opening five. The difference this time around is Neilson’s side will have faced three of the top four sides in those opening games. Whilst it’s a superb opening milestone to potentially reach for a regular newly-promoted side, Hearts will be judged slightly differently due to higher budgets and expectations.

That budget and a demanding fan base in Gorgie ensure that European football must be targeted this campaign, despite public statements that top six is the key ambition. Hearts can certainly qualify for Europe and should look to the recent Europa Conference League playoff fixtures as inspiration. The club could vastly increase its revenues through participation, and even if the club falls short of third or fourth, fifth place may well be enough to land a shot at this particular glory.

A win versus Hibs in two weeks would be the tastiest cherry on top of a superb start for Hearts. The knives had been razor-sharp for Robbie Neilson since Brora, and he has responded to all the calls for his head with a tweaked formation, increased pace in the team and a knack of grinding out results from difficult fixtures in the top league.

If the St Mirren win produced a tiny shoot of optimism, the United one feels like an explosive surge. With the riotous away fans at Tannadice and glimpses of three new faces, Jambos fans are suddenly dreaming bigger.

Hearts’ home games will take care of themselves this season, which is perhaps why the Aberdeen result smarted so much for fans. The win at Dundee United was the first time the Jambos have won two away games on the trot since February 2019. Make no mistake, away victories are where Robbie Neilson will truly silence any lingering doubters. Results so far indicate he is well on his way to doing so.

Harry Cochrane is a Hearts hallmark: just not the one we hoped he would be

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Yesterday morning, the club tweeted the news that Harry Cochrane’s time as a Hearts player will come to an end this summer, after he rejected the club’s offer of a new deal.

With the 19-year old seeing out the current season on loan at Montrose, it means the Betfred Cup win over Raith Rovers back in October was his final appearance for the first team, rounding off his career in maroon at 33 appearances and one goal.

That solitary goal, the opener in a 4-0 demolition of Celtic’s Invincibles, will be Hearts’ fans enduring memory of Cochrane, but the fact that a moment from 2017 remained arguably the only noteworthy highlight of his time at the club leaves a nagging sense of unfulfilled potential.

The reality of that will not have been lost on the player himself and is likely to have been a source of frustration that ultimately led to his decision to move on. That in turn is likely to leave a bad taste in the mouths of Hearts supporters, many of whom are growing increasingly disillusioned with the club’s youth policy and will view Cochrane as another example of a once-promising academy graduate who has amounted to nothing.

It is easy to see where fans’ concerns come from. While nobody is suggesting that every young player released would have made it, there are legitimate questions to be asked when they are often replaced, at significant expense, by more senior players from elsewhere who, despite being presented as upgrades, rarely perform as such. 

There are countless examples this season alone, the most pertinent being the handful of failed wide men we brought in at the expense of Lewis Moore, Anthony McDonald and Callumn Morrison. Similarly, while Cochrane was spending time on loan with Dunfermline and Montrose, we’ve had the likes of Glenn Whelan and Loic Damour collecting sizeable wage packets but ultimately offering no greater return.

Often, the argument put forward in defence of these decisions is that the youngsters in question have done little in their careers since leaving Hearts. While that is true of most, it doesn’t necessarily mean none of them would have been capable of fulfilling the roles the club have instead sought to fill through external means and at great cost. As Martin Taylor pointed out in his piece yesterday, it’s not as if every academy player is expected to move to a higher level for a substantial transfer fee: there is also value in retaining home-grown players as steady squad members in the Scottish Premiership, as plenty teams in the league can demonstrate.

 Whether you think these young guys would have made it or not, there is no way it can be argued that playing them would have been any riskier than wasting the kind of money we have on the stream of supposedly experienced upgrades that have come and gone over the last five or six years. 

If we continue that trend of releasing academy players and replacing them with overpaid dross, what message does that send to other aspiring youngsters looking to break through? Where is the motivation to improve if their route to the first team is continually blocked by mercenaries earning far more than them but producing just as little? Why shouldn’t they look elsewhere for first team football? And what does all that tell parents about their child’s prospects at Hearts when deciding which club they should join in the first place?

Of course, it’s pretty easy to take aim at the club for every event that disappoints us these days, but some of the responsibility lies with the player himself. Since making his first team debut, Cochrane has worked under three separate (permanent) managers and was overlooked by all of them to some extent. While many will argue that two of those managers are cut from the same cloth, Daniel Stendel made it abundantly clear he wanted younger players involved when he took over and yet, despite recalling Cochrane from his loan spell with Dunfermline, was not as keen to throw him into the mix as he was with Moore, Euan Henderson and Andy Irving. Granted, it sounds as if he might have got more of a chance if the season had not been cut short by Covid and Stendel had stayed on, but there were still two months in which he hadn’t done enough to force his way into the German’s plans.

Nevertheless, the club had still demonstrated some interest in continuing his development when it offered him a new deal. Whether that’s been a case of too little too late for Cochrane or he simply had other reasons for wanting a fresh challenge, it was his decision, not the club’s.

All in all, it’s regrettable for all involved that this hasn’t worked out. Cochrane’s initial appearances as a fresh-faced 16-year old offered an enticing glimpse into what many hoped would be a promising first post-administration generation to emerge from the academy.

Supporter expectations had therefore been building since Cochrane and company broke onto the scene, with everyone willing them to become the kind of home-grown first-team success stories Hearts fans love to see. Two of the most recent examples in that regard are currently the elder statesmen in our squad and in the twilight of their careers. Perhaps it’s that ongoing wait for the next Christophe Berra or Craig Gordon – or perhaps it’s the tendency to over-romanticise the “one of our own” label that causes even greater disappointment when it fails to materialise. That’s certainly how I feel, having talked up Harry Cochrane to any friend or relative who was willing (or pretending) to listen.

Is it possible that this is where we have been going wrong over the past few years? In the digital age, when these boys are fully adept with social media and aware of everything being said about them, was the decision to expose them to the rigours of first team football at such a young age – 16, 17 years old in some cases – actually counterproductive? In doing so, did the club create a level of hype and expectation that was simply too much for these boys to process so early in their careers and their lives more generally?

How does that impact those players if they later find themselves on the fringes or out on loan having been given the briefest taste of top-team action? Naturally, some might use it as motivation to get back there as soon as possible, but not all young, developing minds are going to be wired that way.

Maybe that necessitates a rethink of how we bring young players through and perhaps this is what we’re seeing now, with the likes of Harry Stone, Connor Smith and Chris Hamilton having spent the majority of their formative professional years on loan. In taking a more gradual approach to their development and not throwing too much at them too quickly, the club can better manage expectations of, not just the player, but the fans as well.

A Tale of Two Titles

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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.

Robbie’s Audition

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One graphic declaring ‘Champions’.

That’s all the celebration that was needed on Saturday night, as Hearts were duly confirmed to have won the Scottish Championship following – rather fittingly – rival sides dropping crucial points. Immediately, supporters’ heads turned to scrutinise ‘What next?’ for their beloved football club. 

Neilson in or out? Does a 6-0 trouncing of a part-time relegation-bound club change opinions? In all honesty, it probably won’t and shouldn’t. There is a lingering feeling from many supporters that Neilson has achieved the bare minimum of what was asked this season, all whilst pocketing considerable extra embarrassment along the way. Concerns rightly remain amongst fans that this was the sole objective, rather than part of a wider remit. 

One such desire from fans was to see a healthy number of young academy players this season. The ballpark figure for a ‘healthy number’ would have been around four players from the age of 18-20. Currently Euan Henderson has ticked the criteria, despite barely holding a regular place this season. His memorable roadrunner impression, and superb dinked finish would have been one of the bigger reliefs from Friday night for Robbie Neilson. You could almost imagine his thoughts: ‘Brilliant, a youth player performing! Try and pin that one on me now, critics!’ 

Andy Irving is of course the other player who Neilson may try to demand credit for. Whilst Irving has played considerable minutes for Hearts during this campaign, he looks to be on his way out of the door at Tynecastle. He displays obvious technical talent on the ball, however it was intriguing to note the quicker pace of passing against Alloa, as Irving watched on from the bench. 

There is a fairly lengthy list of fresh-faced graduates who may have helped the manager achieve this target throughout the campaign. Connor Smith, Harry Cochrane, Cammy Logan, Scott McGill, and Chris Hamilton all currently share the ‘highly touted’ crown in Gorgie. Individually they might not make the grade at Hearts, but supporters are willing to dish out plenty servings of leeway when they see an academy player proudly sporting the Hearts badge. Watching the desire of young, hungry players such as Euan Henderson on Friday night is evidence that enthusiasm and fearlessness can go a long way to increase the team’s tempo and will to win. 

Youngsters aside, there is another issue fans have griped with this campaign. The style of play has alarmingly regressed, though ‘style of play’ is perhaps a strong phrase for a Hearts side who were winning with little fanfare prior to Christmas. Following the harrowing Scottish Cup final defeat, the players have staggered around punch-drunk during games, grinding through them whilst screeching the brakes on any flowing football. 

The Brora defeat was the culmination of months of deterioration. It was ultimately the breaking point for fans still willing to back Robbie Neilson. Whilst a third Championship title is positive on his CV, and he still has a small level of credit in the bank from his first Premiership spell with Hearts, the club doesn’t look like it has a great deal of improvement on the horizon. Another squad rebuild is looming, and whilst noises continue to emit publicly from Tynecastle that he has long-term backing, knives are as sharp as they will ever be for fans eager to see Neilson exit Gorgie. 

If Neilson stays, as is looking more likely, the club will hope that key men like Peter Haring and John Souttar retain consistent levels of fitness. Both strolled it against Alloa, and Hearts finally looked like a side brimming with confidence, with comfort in their tactical shape and bravery on the ball. Whilst the fact it was against the poorest side in the league may have been a factor, after an uninspired opening 20 minutes Hearts finally looked like they may have found a successful formula for next season. The change in formation to a 3-4-3/3-5-2 hinted that Neilson might just be learning, listening, and adapting to the criticism. 

There are three games left in the Championship season. Time to put the feet up and have a cigar? Certainly not. Robbie Neilson may well discover that the next three matches against Morton, Inverness and Raith represent an opportunity to showcase a newfound freshness and confidence to his side. In an ideal world, the knock-on benefits could entice players to a club that indicates it is finally moving in a forward direction. 

These matches also offer the beleaguered manager a chance to audition to fans and the board that maybe, just maybe, he can bring the club back to the level he left it at during his first spell. Revert to the previous standard of mediocrity, and the background noise will only increase before it becomes impossible to ignore calls for his head. Your move, Robbie.

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.

The Purse String Protest

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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.

The biggest shock in Scottish Cup history and we all saw it coming

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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.

Robbie and the Ghost of Daniel Stendel

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There have often been debates on Hearts social media following a bad result this season concerning the merits of Robbie Neilson and Daniel Stendel, Neilson’s predecessor in the Hearts dugout.

Looking at their respective records at Hearts, it should be no contest – Neilson is the clear winner, but why is it that Stendel is still held in such affection by some of the Hearts support? The answer lies in the circumstances of their respective tenures in the Tynecastle hotseat.

Robbie Neilson has always been a divisive figure amongst the Hearts support. For every fan who lauded his wholeheartedness and consistency, there were others who were irked by his limitations and who were driven disproportionately furious by the occasional shank out of play into the main stand from his usual right back berth.

Nonetheless, the abiding memories of ‘Robbie the player’, as he is often referred to in the mononymous way which infers affection, will be two things: the last minute goal in Basel, which secured a magnificent away victory in the UEFA cup, and the game-saving slide tackle on Gretna’s David Graham, which helped to secure the Scottish Cup in 2006. He was, for many years, a steady 7/10 player every week in the match ratings: consistent, reliable, never likely to inspire the team to victory nor make a calamitous error.

When Ann Budge assumed control of Hearts in 2014, he was a somewhat unexpected choice as Head Coach. He had no prior experience in a Head Coach role and was replacing the ‘brutally axed’ Gary Locke, who had done much to keep the spirits up at the club during the endurance test that was the 2013/14 season. Still, at his first press conference, standing alongside both Craig Levein and Ann Budge, he cut a smartly-dressed, confident and assured figure and there was a feeling that the club was in good hands. This was to prove emphatically correct as the team romped home in a Scottish Championship that, unusually, also had Hibs and Rangers amongst its number.

There were hints of problems to come though: Hearts’ record versus Hibs that season was mixed (P4, W1, D2, L1) with both draws coming from losing positions. Hibs under Alan Stubbs, despite the sparsely populated stands at Easter Road, often appeared to be more up for the games. The imperious league victory, with the title wrapped up before the school Easter holidays, served to reduce these concerns to mere murmurs of discontent at the time.

Robbie continued the good league form into his second season: indeed, the team started so strongly, winning our first five league games in a row, that those of us who get carried away with such things were even talking about potential title challenges. Subsequent losses to Hamilton and Inverness CT knocked that on the head.

Then came Aberdeen at Tynecastle and we all got a huge reality check, with the Dons racing into a 3-0 half time lead and looking a good few levels above their opponents. Hearts went on to recover their form though and put in a respectable challenge in the league to the eventually 2nd placed Dons, finishing 3rd, 6 points behind the Pittodrie men. Few of us would have predicted that our third place position in the league in May 2016, would be as high as we would finish for at least six years.

Perhaps the beginning of some fans turning against Robbie was the Scottish Cup 5th round game versus Hibs. Hearts, 2-0 up and coasting against their lower league opponents thanks to first half goals from Sam Nicholson and Arnaud Djoum, incredulously went on to concede goals from Jason Cummings and Paul Hanlon to draw the game 2-2, leading to a replay which Neilson infamously described in his post-match comments as ‘Money Spinning’.

Hibs would go on to win the 2016 Scottish Cup, their first win since 1902, thus robbing the Hearts fans of their 100+ years in a row terrace chant, often used to taunt their rivals. Neilson was the man at the wheel when this happened and will forever be tainted by it. This ultimately led to some fans going to the extreme of hiring a plane to fly over Tynecastle with the banner “No bottle, No Style, Neilson Out”, which still seems as absurd now as it did then.

Then there was Birkirkara in summer 2016. The club’s first foray into Europe since the 2012 game against Liverpool had seen us comfortably dispatch Estonian opponents in the first tie, before being drawn against the Maltese side – it looked to be a winnable tie. After drawing 0-0 in Malta, a game in which we had chances to win, Hearts went on to lose 2-1 at Tynecastle. Given the lowly standing of Maltese football, the result could only really be perceived as an embarrassment.

Nevertheless, the club made a solid start to the 2016/7 league season and, even with Rangers back in the league, were sitting in second place in November 2016, following a 2-0 home win over the Ibrox men. This proved to be Robbie’s last game in charge in his first spell as Hearts coach, as he chose to take up an offer to become Head Coach of MK Dons in England’s League One the following day. It seemed an odd choice at the time (MK Dons are and always will be a smaller club than Hearts) but the discontent many fans had expressed, including the infamous plane banner, may well have played a part in his decision.

It can be argued that the club’s subsequent decline in league performance can be traced back to the departure of Neilson in November 2016; certainly our subsequent finishing positions of 5th, 6th, 6th, 12th* (*league called early by Zoom meeting due to Covid 19 after 30 games played), have been nowhere near good enough.

Fast forward to December 2019 and the appointment of former Barnsley Head Coach, Daniel Stendel, to the Hearts hot seat. Described as ‘unkempt’ by Graham Spiers, on the basis of his appearance during his first press conference, there was perhaps an immediate contrast in sartorial elegance with that of some of his predecessors. But, more importantly for the fans, the German’s preferred playing style, gegenpressing (the high intensity, high press, attacking style of play popularised by Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool), promised a contrast with the dull, pragmatic and defensive football that had become the norm in preceding seasons at Hearts.

Stendel inherited a shambles. An injury-ravaged, out-of-form, unbalanced squad which lacked, amongst many other things, a competent goalkeeper. His forward options for his first game amounted to 37-year old Steven MacLean and the unproven Aidan Keena, both of whom have since left the club. After just a few days training with the squad, he was thrown into a hectic schedule involving five fixtures in 15 days from December 14th to 29th, including games against Celtic, Aberdeen and Hibs.

The squad he inherited had none of the qualities required to play a high defensive line with an aggressive press. Christophe Berra should rightly be remembered as a fine player for Hearts but, at this stage of his career, asking him to play a high line was pretty cruel. The midfield lacked aggression and pace. Glenn Whelan, brought in as something of a marquee signing, was a lacklustre and disappointing presence. Of the forwards, perhaps the most ideally suited to an aggressive pressing game was Conor Washington and he was injured. So it was unsurprising that he started with four defeats in four games, before a spirited draw in his fifth game against Aberdeen.

Stendel’s ability to coach the players in his preferred style was also hindered by the fact that his coaching staff, Jorg Sievers and Dale Tonge, weren’t recruited by the club until several weeks after his appointment. There was also the farcical situation of his immediate predecessor still hanging around the club in a de facto Director of Football role. The environment in the club was far from ideal, the timing was far from ideal and it would have been difficult for any Head Coach to be successful.

Despite this, there were some encouraging signs after the winter break. Making full use of the club’s young players, Euan Henderson, Lewis Moore and Andy Irving all featured prominently. Hearts played 12, won five, drew four and lost three from January until the league was halted in March. Stendel’s coaching visibly improved some of the players: Henderson and Moore became energetic, pacy options in attack; Sean Clare a revelation as a goal scoring, attacking right back; Irving a classy playmaker; Bozanic an energetic and dynamic goalscoring midfielder. There were stunning victories over Rangers (twice) and Hibs, where there was evidence that the high-energy attacking football could work.

To say it was all good would be pushing it though. The spring board that the league win over Rangers in January could have provided, was quickly flattened by defensive frailties exposed as the team let a lead slip against St Johnstone before snatching a 3-3 draw, and the Kilmarnock game at home saw the team go 3-0 down before very nearly coming back to draw 3-3, eventually falling a goal short.

The defensive weakness wasn’t helped by his key January defensive midfield signing, Toby Sibbick, contracting glandular fever. Sibbick would only feature in two games for the club: the win over Rangers and the following game in Perth. He has since gone on to claim a first team starting jersey back in the English Championship for Barnsley and had a great game versus Chelsea recently in the FA Cup.

Perhaps the biggest case for the prosecution of Stendel’s time at Hearts was his persistence in goals with the Manchester United loanee Joel Pereira, the goalkeeper who many have speculated had hands made of poppadum, such was his inability to save even the most basic of shots.

I’ll confess, I personally bought into the hype around our new found high defensive line and the need to have a sweeper keeper, and defended Pereira because I reasoned that he was good with the ball at his feet. Yet, Pereira was so bad at saving shots, that we might have been as well playing a midfielder in goals if that was the case. It is possible that there were punitive clauses in Pereira’s loan deal that meant it would cost the club more not to play him, but no single player contributed more to the club being bottom of the table.

In Stendel’s last game, the team lost 1-0 away to St Mirren, having played poorly, leaving them adrift at the bottom of the league and in scope for demotion when the league was called. It was very poor by all accounts of those who were there.

Yet, it is perhaps the excitement of those high-tempo exciting wins over Hibs and Rangers that gave a tantalising glimpse of what could be. The hairs still stand up on the back of my neck whenever I watch the Bozanic goal at Easter Road, the memory made all the more visceral by the wild celebrations in the packed away end when the ball hit the back of the net.

It all creates a feeling of ‘what if‘? What if Stendel had been given more time to build his own squad? What if he had more time to train the players in his preferred style? What if he had come into a more stable and successful club?

The truth is that Robbie Neilson is probably the right man for our current circumstances and, as mentioned earlier, there has been a consistent decline in the team’s performances since he left first time around. But, whenever the team churns out another dull and pragmatic performance, it is perhaps too easy to hark back to the brief tenure of Stendel and place disproportionate emphasis on those swashbuckling attacking performances, forgetting the dreadful ones and wondering what could have been?

Given the circumstances the club found itself in last summer, appointing Robbie was a pragmatic choice due to his track record in achieving promotion and, despite some ropey performances this season, I hope in the longer term that he will take the club back to where we all want to be – contending for European places in the Premiership. However, there’s still plenty of room for improvement and, given how short his tenure proved to be, there will always be some debate as to whether we did indeed have a diamond in Daniel Stendel.