Grouser’s End Of Season Report 2000-01

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It will no doubt cheer up any stupid Hibernian-supporting depressive to know that I was not a little disappointed Hearts didn’t qualify for Europe.  We’ve been so damned lucky over the last few years – things have actually been pretty good, if you hadn’t noticed (even in 1998-99 the first and last two months of the season were brilliant) - so why did our luck have to run out?  Why can’t we keep on getting away with it?  What’s the point of having your cake if you can’t eat it?  All the plans we hatched in the Gorgie Rool for sending heartfelt thanks to Our Good Friends At Easter Road, whose very presence in the Cup Final ensured that by finishing fourth we could knock them out of the UEFA Cup next September, are now torn up and flushed down the crapper.   Orders for commemorative tea-towels and souvenirs have been cancelled because Celtic’s team Didn’t Do What It Said On The Tin but instead produced a highly inferior product on the final day.    Cannae blame them, mind, but I think it only fair that they field that same side against us first time up at Tynecastle next season.

However, it has been a season to remember; again we plumbed some real depths, hit some glittering heights.   But you get the odd feeling that we’re better off now than this time last year which is very strange, because 12 months ago Hearts had finished a gritty third and qualified for Europe, the Under 21s had won the League and the Under 18s the Cup at Hampden.   As good things go, you can’t get a lot better than that.  And best of the bests, I was there to witness it all.  Yet still there was this underlying sense of unease that things weren’t really going anywhere.  Probably my cynicism set in three years ago after I declared The Age of Aquarius to have dawned when we won the Youth Cup on the eve of the Scottish Cup victory.  

In 1999-2000 Hearts succeeded by getting the right results at the right time with one of the best defences around.   We drew a lot of matches we could have lost, and players who could at their best be inspirational won us some otherwise turgid games.   But some of the professionals didn’t look as though the medium-term was much on their mind and the early throes of last season confirmed that, quite frankly, no-one could be arsed.  That first game against St Johnstone… I’ve got to laugh because, late off a train back to London, I walked into the Rob Roy to watch the last twenty minutes of football and two Hearts goals.    But it was dire, shapeless, stuff, without determination or direction or leadership.  

Jefferies’ departure has put more onus on the players to come up with the goods.   The most encouraging thing about Levein was to be heard after beating Motherwell in April:  “I’m not worried about the result or our place in the table or qualifying for Europe.  If we just concentrate on performance then the results will happen for us like today.   And we’ll look at the League position after that.”    Jefferies often had a result in mind and put a team out accordingly.   When it worked, it worked wonderfully well, but a single cog out of place or a faulty mechanism meant the whole machine was pranged.   Levein seems to have got the players together and told them to get on the park and play.   There’s a fair bit of talent on show: we’re not actually short of people who can play football.  They know what they’re meant to do, they know where they’re meant to play.   We’re still short of genuine quality in some areas, notably up front and in the wider areas, but if the young players come on, and the older players are injected with a serum of nasty determination and desire to win the ball and win the game, I can see us finishing third next year.  It might not happen, right, but I can’t see why not.   Are Kilmarnock going to be better than this year?  Are Hibs going to improve?  Not bloody likely.   The qustion is, can Hearts improve enough?   Do we want it badly enough?  I would like to know which five players Levein said he would buy if he could.  

The main problem Hearts have is creating chances.   The Glasgow Herald produced a marvellous set of stats which showed that although Hearts were well down on shots on goal, 50% of them were on target and our goals-per-chance ratio was second only to Celtic’s (and all-round, passes completed, tackles made, etc etc we rated third behind the two Glasgow clubs!  Doesnae get your passport out the drawer, more’s the pity…)   But the demise of Stephane Adam has been something of a tragedy for Hearts and for him.    Without him (and unless Juanjo has a full-time role to play, something that’s never been certain) there is no natural width, no-one leading the line and running into channels, keeping the game fluid and creating space.   Neither Kirk nor Wales has got a footballing brain.  So width has to come from the natural wide men, and what Levein has to decide is what kind of formation he’s thinking of, or if he can mix and match to suit an individual game. 

Full-backs (442) or wing-backs (352) are the two most important positions if your strikers aren’t creating width.  Thomas Flogel is to my mind is something of a hero.  People say he’s played out of position, but his midfield talents suit the Continental game and he’s rarely been effective in the middle of a scrappy old game in the Scottish Premier - and certainly not up front where he doesn’t have the speed or the physique.  Having a right-back (or wing-back) who is so technically gifted is a huge boon in Scottish football, because that is where the space is.    He would always be my first choice.    Robbie Neilson, for sure, is slow but he does realise he has to get forward into space.  My abiding memory of Gary Locke is not, strangely, hurling himself to the ground nor standing in front of a yellow card, but standing off at right-back behind the centre-halves.   Nae use.   I think Neilson’s got a good future.   He seems to have the temperament to become a regular, if not top-class ability.  He’s still enthusiastic but has stopped diving into bookable tackles.   It seems invidious to mention his long throw, but it’s bloody useful and he’s not afraid to use it. 

However, I don’t think Austin McCann is any good and  I can’t see him getting any better.   He hangs back overmuch,  he seems to hesitate on the ball,  and it’s obvious to all which way he’s going with it.  His crossing needs to improve, and his corners aren’t usually dangerous.  Yes, he’s young, but he’s the same age as Kevin McKenna and I don’t mind using him as a benchmark for the sort of talent Hearts should be looking for; he has the class you’d hope anyone who plays international football would have (eh Fitzroy?) and if our stereotypical notions of Germany were blown out of the water when Bayern Munich bought Alan McInally, it’s still not a place for those without decent technique.  The game in Scotland is still pretty quick, if not pretty, and the ability to use the ball well under pressure is a prerequisite for any defender.  He certainly wasn’t up to speed in his earlier matches, but he’s determined, good in the air, two-footed (not in the Locke style, I hasten to add) and learned a lot about leadership when Rangers murdered us.  He wasn’t a very happy man by the end of the day, but the experience and Pressley’s departure did him a lot of good.  It was encouraging that we didn’t miss Elvis overmuch in the subsequent matches; and most encouraging of all, we seem once again to have at least one, and maybe two or three defenders who can play football and take the ball out of defence.  

Webster could well prove to be something special.   Perhaps not.  But his horrific mistake on a wet pitch in Kilmarnock wasn’t punished and he didn’t let it affect him.  He seems to have a nice touch on the ball, has a teenager’s strength in the aerial duels and it wouldn’t surprise me if… no, mustn’t tempt fate.   It’s impossible to know if Levein will gamble with three at the back, with Severin or Tomaschek standing in front of them being the midfield linchpin, but both McKenna and Webster have enough footballing talent to risk it in certain games.  Even Darren Goldie could slot into one of those roles if need be.   I’m not sure he’s good enough – yet - to be part of a central defensive pairing.   But these are young men, and hopefully both Simmonds and Sloan might break through to challenge for a place in the midfield.   I still miss the inventive mind of Kris O’Neill, and I wonder if he could ever have played just behind the front two.   Unless there is another Stephane Adam waiting for us to whistle, there seems no alternative to playing Wales and Kirk in the same side.   Not ideal, but at least you know they’ll never give up.   Getting the ball is one thing, but keeping it is another matter entirely.

The midfield is working because we don’t have specialists anymore.  Cameron, Boyack, Tomaschek – even Makel - they’re all passers and runners.   It’s risky for Hearts, because we’re not so guaranteed to win possession of the ball, but it’s more risky for the opposition because they are players who can really make the game go.  Once we’d taken the lead against Dundee, the football began to flow, and as for that second goal… but what there is to fear from other teams, what it was we saw from Hibs and Kilmarnock this year, is know-how, professionalism, solidity.   That counts for an awful lot at nil-nil, and might count again in view of Hearts’ youthfulness and our lack of a big bastard in the middle of the park.   No matter what Hearts did in the first half against Dundee it fell to bits in their hands, and had Caniggia and his pals been there it could have been a sadder story.   As it was, heads were held high at the end of the day, and also at the end of a season when it could have gone so wrong.

A few personal notes: a thank you to Colin Cameron, who had an outstanding season.  He wasn’t brilliant in every game, but at least he played in nearly every one and he was brilliant in quite a few.  Sometimes we expect too much.  But his performance for Scotland versus Croatia was the finest seen from a Hearts player in dark blue since, errr…  you choose. 

Pressley – you know.   Niemi – better even than Cruickshank. 

But three other players to commend.   Juanjo, who had a great 2000, from bit-part player to spectacular goalscorer and near-regular.   2001 didn’t happen for him, however, so we must wait and see if there’s a place for him.  It would be a shame if there weren’t.  Then Andy Kirk, another man who’s come to the fore.   He still doesn’t read the game quickly enough but the more games he plays, the more he’ll improve - and if he can learn to smile some more he might score some more, rather than the other way round.   Lastly, my of-course-perverse choice for player of the year, Robert Tomaschek, who has started to influence games with his presence and vision and who was immense in our victories over Dunfermline, Motherwell and Dundee.  I always thought he was pretty useful and it’s a relief he’s starting to prove it.  Scoring the goal of the season helps.

And finally: 7-1.   I ain’t never seen nothing like it.