A couple of years back I was phoned by 4-4-2 Magazine. Dunno why they picked on me, apart from the fact that I Know Everything, (By The Way). They wanted to know what the best Hearts team was.'The one that won Quizball ,' I said, unhesitatingly. Turns out that wasn't what they wanted at all. They wanted the best XI, picked from across the decades.
So I went away and consulted two of the oldest men in the world, Les Mowbray and Ian McNicoll who've been grousing since Nineteen Oatcake and remember the time when Jimmy Lightbulb broke the goalpost with his shoulder (it was Archie Kelly - Ed). However, after a measured debate (quarter-gill measures, that is) we came up with a team, and it was faxed to 4-4-2. Whether or not it was printed I do not know. Perhaps I pressed the wrong SpeedDial button and it got faxed to Big'Uns 40 Plus by mistake. It's easily done.
It was going to be an impossible task. We started at the front and worked backwards, but ended up with two defenders and no goalie. And Hearts have had a lot of fine goalies over the years - Jack Harkness and Jimmy Brown were regular internationalists Gordon Marshall the most successful: and if you replay your videotapes you'll realise that Henry Smith was as good as any of them. But we went for Jim Cruickshank . For many London Hearts members he is an icon of Heart of Midlothian - resplendent in that yellow jersey, the immaculate haircut with the wee curl at the front, and in his later years that 'tache. But two words won him the vote: Tommy Gemmell. Five measly caps for Scotland. I ask you.
Defenders nowadays are better footballers than predecessors, though not necessarily better defenders - we liked Albert Mackie's description of Isaac Begbie (Captain, 1896) as 'tough-tackling' - I'll bet he was! Likewise, the Pictorial History cites Nick Ross (Captain,1883), saying he was '..deadly coming forward. His tactics laid the foundations to scientific soccer, particularly his use of the passback to the goalkeeper.' He went on to play for Preston North End's 'Invincibles' when they won the Double in 1888-89. Such a footballing Einstein should have made our XI, but now that the pass-back law's changed, he might struggle. But the best defender Hearts might ever have had is Craig Levein . He was something quite rare in football - a player ahead of his time. For a year I thought he was going to develop into a genuine libero - not a sweeper, but a midfielder who played behind the defence in front of it and sprint into any position on the field at a moment's notice (providing Sandy Jardine gave him the nod, mind). We were lucky enough to have a Hearts side with a great team spirit and structure to allow him to do that without worrying about keeping shape, position, all that guff. He started out in midfield but when he dropped back to the defence he took his midfielder's skills with him. He had a lot to learn, but it was obvious he could learn as quickly as he could run. Levein never recovered from that first injury - mentally, rather than physically. He had lost two years of learning to read the game - that footballing sixth sense had gone. We was still good - but only good. Perhaps he would never have been as great as some say, but I think so. Craig Levein has had to live with the Could-Have-Been tag, but that's better than Never-Could-Have-Been, Never-Was, or Didn't-Have-A-Clue.
Another in a similar vein is Peter Oliver , though it's fair to say we did see the best of him, if for only a brief period before two broken legs put him out of the game. In the early 1970s, when Hearts were on the slide, he dazzled spectators and opposition fans alike. One of my co-panellists gleefully remembered Oliver nut-megging Jimmy Johnstone, and the look on the wee man's face was a sight to behold. For once, he knew what it was like. Another thing: Peter Oliver was a stylish footballer, but he looked stylish at a time when style mattered. The rest of them either looked like refugees from National Service days or were attempting to anticipate Glam Rock.
To be honest, I can't remember who got the nod for the third spot: certainly Freddie Glidden was a possibility, although he was a centre-half (but this team is in danger of not having any defenders). But Hearts have had two outstanding right full-backs (no! no! don't even think it) and either would slot in: Bobby Parker, captain of the early 1950s side which ended a 48-year trophy drought (and we thought we had it bad) and future Chairman: but surely Andy Anderson , 23 Scotland caps and captain on top of that, must carry the day.
If three defenders doesn't sound very many, it's enough if Dave Mackay was playing in front of them. His record with Hearts and Tottenham Hotspur speaks for itself, but without Mackay there would have been no Brian Clough and the rest of it. Indeed, without Mackay there was no Heart of Midlothian for fifteen years or so, because he was due to be Hearts' Assistant Manager in 1967 when Clough persuaded him to join Derby & you just have to read Chapter 7 of Clough's autobiography to realise that Dave Mackay was a man who made history by being there (Derby) and not being there (Hearts). That's greatness. Obviously it would have made sense to play the marvellous John Cumming next to Mackay: but that would have deprived us of one of the two finest inside-forwards to grace the maroon and the dark blue. And both went by the name of Walker.
Bobby Walker is the best player ever to play for Hearts. His glory days were between the Cup wins of 1901 and 1906 and made 29 international appearances at a time when 29 was a big number of anything. And Craig Brown wasn't in the habit of picking players from the East of Scotland then any more than he is now. He retired in 1913 and his National Testimonial was launched by Sir Harry Lauder. The SFA contributed £100 at a time when the weekly wage was less than a fiver. Contemporary accounts put him among the footballing immortals and no-one's arguing.
Tommy Walker is the most influential man ever to be associated with Heart of Midlothian. His marvellous career at Hearts was truncated by the war, but his goals for Scotland at Wembley (the winner in 1938, and his penalty equaliser in 1936 after the ball had twice rolled off its spot) have earned him his place in history. Arsenal were ready to pay a world record £12,000 for him, but he stayed. He never won an honour as a player for Hearts but as manager he won everything - Leagues, Cups, the lot. He was the greatest Hearts man there's been.
To pick four others would either be very easy or very difficult. We decided to make it easy.
Alfie Conn, Jimmy Wardhaugh and Willie Bauld aren't legends for no reason. The Terrible Trio first played together in 1948 when Hearts beat East Fife 6-1, and that set the pattern for the next ten years. Here's the damage they did:
Jimmy Wardhaugh (46-59) Games 517, Goals 375
Willie Bauld (48-62) Games 510, Goals 356
Alfie Conn (44-58) Games 407, Goals 219
In 1957/58, Hearts won the 34 -game League, scoring 132 goals and conceding 29.
In that side was also Alec Young , the Golden Vision - ahead of his time and everyone else's.
That's the eleven. Of course, it's a line-up that might not work at all - too many great players and not enough grafters, not enough wingers, whatever. But I'd pay to see it. Alas, no room for
Percy Dawson (sold for 2.5 in 1914, a world record)
Barney Battles (11 goals in 3 games in a month against Hibs in 1929: 44 league goals in 30/31)
Willie Hamilton (very sorry to leave him out - probably the most gifted of the players mentioned here): and none of those players mentioned ever had to play in such bad sides as
John Robertson did, and still get 300
goals. Were the Trio not inseparable, he'd be there. And one personal choice: in
his ten years at Hearts, Dave McPherson has been superb. Like Robertson, he never gave anything less than 100%, and often gave more. When McPherson lifted that Cup, he knew he'd finally achieved something. When Robertson lifted the Cup, we all knew that we'd achieved something.
And Finally. It could be suggested that the greatest Hearts side was the one which volunteered to a man to join the 16h Royal Scots in November 1914, despite being top of the League having recorded eight successive victories. It doesn't pay to be too sentimental, but it does pay to remember.
Oh, who's the manager of our Best XI, you ask? Tony Ford. Got to be.
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