Looking forward: Let’s Be Optimistic For God’s Sake



If it would be pretty stupid to be happy at the state of Heart of Midlothian right now, there are reasons if not to be cheerful, then not downcast.   (We could call Motherwell and Airdrie as witnesses for the defence, but let’s keep ourselves to ourselves on this one.)  Hearts nearly went out of business in 1981, so forgive an old git’s lack of botherment at The State of Things right now.   Two years ago Hearts finished Third and I never thought I’d lived through such a long, hard, grinding bore of a season.   But if you consider that Heart of Midlothian are the third-top scorers in the Scottish Premier League this season, things are bad – not Hearts, but the Scottish Premier League.


Correct, neither The Chief Grouser nor I was at the Celtic game, but we can guess that it was all pretty shabby.   Someone correctly pointed out that most Celtic and Rangers reserves would walk into any other first team in Scotland (which isn’t too much of a shock since that’s exactly where half of them were nicked from) and I’m not going to pick on Hearts for their lack of interest.   Those players had nothing to play for and those Celtic reserves had everything to play for.    We’ve seen it with every football team – I remember Celtic losing the last game of the season at home to Partick Thistle a few years back because they simply couldn’t’ be bothered.  I’m not hugely sympathetic to anyone saying “Players shouldn’t do that, they’re professionals”.   Yes, that’s exactly the point – they’re professionals.   It’s their job.   Listen, do you always give 100%  on the Friday afternoon before you go on holiday?   I’m currently writing this when I should be giving my employer their money’s worth.  Fans don’t understand footballers: they think Gary Locke and Scott Crabbe are typical.  There was some old man on You’re On Sky Sports!!  the other day moaning away that everyone in the England squad should be able to play at left-half, considering how much they were being paid.  Yeah, right.  You needed a microscope to see the amount of credence Steve Claridge gave to this opinion.         


Good Thing Number One about Hearts is the demeanour of Craig Levein.    I have no idea if he’s any good at anything else but everyone from the people who go along to the Fans’ Forum (important one, that) to the Scottish media (even more important) are impressed with his refusal to be miserable while being realistic, his enthusiasm, his dignity, his sense of calm, his dry wit, his refusal to rise to silly journalistic bait.   So what if he hasn’t a clue?   There were plenty of times when Jim Jefferies didn’t exactly seem like a tactical genius, and he’s meant to be good at that sort of thing.  There were even occasions when he positively put players off.  Does Bobby Williamson have a clue?   Does Jimmy Calderwood?   I don’t think Levein is much worse than either.   His public persona goes a very long way in this modern telly age as any little divide is magnified by the burning spyglass of the Daily Wreckage, and the one thing Hearts don’t need right now is the media ripping us apart. 


The strange thing is that against every expectation, Hearts felt inspired enough to come back to draw at Kilmarnock and Dunfermline, and win at Fir Park, Easter Road and Pittodrie.   No doubt London Hearts’ very own Third McWhirter Twin will analyse the hell out this season, but we well know the number of important goals Hearts have scored in the last ten minutes.     No-one could call Levein inspirational or tactically inspired, but in the absence of any Deep Thought his refreshing attitude is To Hell With It, Give It A Go!   He gets the substitutes on early enough, which could be the equivalent of shutting your eyes and taking a swing, but it’s better than not doing it at all.  After calamitous first-half displays against Dundee United and St Johnstone, Hearts could actually have won both games as they went on all-out attack.  It’s tempting to think the players are doing it for Levein because they want him to do well, that he’s so naïve that he needs their help.   His celebrations on the bench are those of a little boy jumping for joy, not a manager clenching his fist in vindication and celebration.  He seems to be getting the luck, and a lucky manager is the best thing in the world.   However, good luck is not something to rely on, and if Hearts have been punching above their weight this season, with better results than performances, next season could see some reckoning: and particularly Craig Levein’s.   He knows that already: at least he’s honest about it.  No-one can deny there have been some mouthgapingly poor performances: being dismantled by Livingston in November was the lowest point, but some pretty awful football was played by some pretty awful footballers that day and I wouldn’t point every finger on my hand at the dugout on that one.  It was all put into a better perspective when Livingston did the same to Hibs (and others) shortly after.   So if you’re going to slag off Levein for those bad, bad shows – fair enough, but then there have to be a few entries on the credit side of the balance sheet.    


So it’s difficult to know if Hearts are doing well or badly or neither.  In the context of this season Hearts finished fifth in the League.  That’s good.  In the context of football played, Hearts were rubbish.  That’s bad.   And next year?   No-one knows.  We might play just the same next year only to end up embarrassingly tenth (like some team that finished embarrassingly tenth this year) but I think Hearts might well be in better shape for the first game of next season than we were at Almondvale last August.  What determines next season and the seasons after that is, of course, team leadership and the quality of (usually foreign) midfielder.   Hearts have got good young players, but getting the best out of them may prove tricky if all they’ve got are themselves to look at.    A good example is ManU a while back – they would run round in meaningless circles, but all it took was a Cantona pass to make sense of those circles, while Steve Bruce provided the necessary leadership.  Next year Aberdeen will need Bisconti’s vision and movement to operate effectively, while they may miss Derek Whyte’s experience at the back and Winters’ movement up front.   We can chortle now (and how!) but Sauzee was a tremendous player for Hibs because he provided both vision and leadership, which is why it all went so wonderfully up the creek when he stopped playing.   He made it so obvious what the others, young and crap alike (hold on a minute…) should do.   A simple pass, and suddenly football was very easy.  With only a part-time playmaker and without Pressley to inspire, Hearts have had no vision or leadership.   Pressley is magnificent.  He was only half-fit till October and it showed; we would not have lost to Inverness Caley had he played (trust me on that one); and the lack of leadership of late has been painful to behold.   I’ve got faith in Webster and McKenna and Severin and Hamill and Weir and Sloane and Janczyk – and Simmonds, by the way – they all enjoy playing football - but they need some wise old birds around them to offer some street-wise savvy and muscle, and a continental brain in the middle to make sense of it all.   On the other hand, Dunfermline accusing Hearts of Route One football was one of the funniest things heard all year. 


So our inconsistency can be explained, if not explained away.   Transition may be a cliché, but Hearts have been transient throughout the season when you compare us with Livingston over the last 9 months.   Their first game this season (when they beat Hearts) featured

Broto, Brinquin, Bollan, Rubio, Andrews, Wilson, Fernandez, Bingham, Quino, Xausa, Lovell.

On Sunday their team (when they beat Hearts) was

Broto, Brinquin, Santini, Rubio, Andrews, Wilson, Fernandez, Makel, Quino, Xausa, Lovell.  


All that Hearts had in common, apart from the poor standard of football, were McCann, McKenna, Severin, and Adam, and the first and last-named were only there on Sunday for non-footballing reasons.  No, Hearts went into the season with the wrong players, and it’s impossible to have a settled side when that happens.  Then Tomaschek was injured, Cameron left, Adam was injured, Juanjo left, Fuller arrived, Pressley got his fitness back, Gronlund arrived and the defence suddenly stopped conceding goals.   A period of decent performances with bad results was followed by lesser performances with great results.  Gronlund then broke his leg having been unable to break anyone else’s.  Pressley was injured.   Tomaschek returned.   And was injured again.   You will have your own thoughts whether Alan Maybury has epitomised Hearts’ inconsistency throughout the season, or the consistency of something thick and brown.   Add Austin McCann, Steven Boyack and a touch of Kenny Milne to the mixture and we’re not talking Bisto...


So neither I nor the Chief Grouser nor Davy Allan nor Ken Lightly has any idea what Hearts will be like next season, but the fans of other clubs will be thinking the same about their mob.   There is no such thing as a Third Force: there is only third.   Aberdeen should continue to thrive – they have the right attitude.  They want to win and they believe they can.   That’s the one thing Hearts need to learn.  It’s not impossible that Hibs could do all right, but I doubt it: Dundee United have had their moments: Dundee might finally do something right.  Kilmarnock might do very well, or they might not do at all well.   It may not be a valid comparison to use Livingston as a benchmark, however.    If their admirable standard is to maintain over the next few years, they may require many more thousands than Just Five to turn up at their little sunken ground next to the shopping centre to attract sponsorship and so eventual replacements for Fernandez, Quino, Xausa and the rest.   Either that, or a few more Lottery wins for their directors’ friends.   It will be interesting to see where they are in five years’ time.   They have done well in the Under-21 League this year (as indeed have Hearts) where presumably more than just one of their players is Scottish.   But I look forward to the day when Livvy are losing 4-0 and one of their fans finally tires of the man with the Big Drum.   I think you can picture exactly what I’m picturing.  



I Was There: December 1st 2001, 4.47 pm


"Whatever the linesman is saying to the referee,” the Chief Grouser was heard to puff from the centre stand, "You can bet he's not going to give Hearts a penalty."   Well, that's now three times he’s been wrong in the last ten years.  Once the referee starting walking to the penalty spot Dunfermline got more Athletic than they’d been all day and from our distant perch all we could see was a mob of players; and seconds later, a flag was hoisted from somewhere inside this scrimmage (“send reinforcements and tell my wife I love her!” seemed to be the semaphore message).  Only The Scotsman noticed the leg-shaver’s comedy moniker –       Ricky Mooney (one for the Spoonerists amongst you).  Simmonds slotted in the penalty.   Yesss.   And Big Big Thanks to Steven Pressley for his penalty, Antti Niemi for his signature, and Ricardo Fuller, for being the greatest footballing talent since Willie Hamilton to pull on a Hearts jersey.