London Hearts Supporters Club

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John Robertson <-auth Mike Aitken auth-> Stuart Dougal
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1 of 012 Paul Hartley pen 60 L SPL A

Boys of '86 still pulling the strings at Hearts


THIS week’s return of John Robertson to fill the manager’s post at Hearts was the latest example of the continuing influence on affairs at Tynecastle of the class of 1986. Key members of the side which came close to lifting the double, only to end up empty-handed, remain as closely linked with the club today as they were nearly 20 years ago.

Following in the footsteps of Sandy Jardine, Sandy Clark and Craig Levein, Robertson is the fourth member of the team which lost the championship on the last day of the campaign and the Scottish Cup final to Aberdeen to be appointed manager. When it’s recalled how Gary Mackay has emerged as chief executive Chris Robinson’s most outspoken critic and John Colquhoun is a respected agent who brokered both the arrival of Robertson and the departure last week of Levein to Leicester City, it’s clear Hearts are still wedded to one of the best sides in their history.

The handover from Levein to Robertson means the power at the club remains with the boys of ’86 and Sandy Jardine, co-manager of Hearts alongside Alex MacDonald in the late Eighties, is not surprised two of his brightest pupils have done so well. "Robbo, like Craig, was such a quick learner and someone who never needed to be told something four or five times," Jardine recalled.

"Wee John was an intelligent lad, you could see that right away. Early on in his career, it was obvious he understood the game. Both Craig and John, as players, had the confidence in themselves to come back at you. They would argue things through. It wasn’t a debate, because, in the end, the coaches must have the final say. But you knew you had to be spot on in what you said to them - otherwise they would question you. They were bright people and the type who have what’s needed to manage. You can see how some of the things we thought were important - the work ethic, for example - has influenced their ideas. But Alex and I were only a part of their learning process; I’m sure they picked up a lot from others as well and found their own way of doing things."

It was Colquhoun who ensured the recent managerial switch was as seamless as possible and the former winger was determined any change would not be to the detriment of his old club. "It was obvious to me that for Craig to fulfil his ambitions he would have to move," the agent explained. "The next thing to do was to try and find the softest way to cushion the blow and, hopefully, helping to secure John Robertson helped do that."

If Hearts’ 1986 XI of Smith; Kidd, Jardine, Levein, Whittaker; Colquhoun, Mackay, Berry, Black; Robertson and Clark was thought to be stronger on organisation and industry than ebullience and élan, then its reputation may not be so very different from the group of players inherited by the club’s most revered goalscorer.

Since Kenny Black was recruited to Levein’s backroom team at Leicester, Walter Kidd is one of Jim Jefferies’ assistants at Rugby Park and Sandy Clark has returned to management with Berwick, the lasting connections between the ’86 vintage and the game at large are just as widespread.

In a changing football world where short-term contracts and foreign mercenaries have diluted the game’s local roots, the return of so many old boys to Gorgie to impress on a new generation what it means to play for Hearts has also become a fundamental aspect of the club’s enduring health.

Jardine believes Hearts’ continuing reliance on former heroes gives the club an edge with young players. Apart from Joe Jordan and Tommy McLean, all of the club’s managers since 1981 - MacDonald, Jardine, Clark, Jefferies, Levein and Robertson - slipped into a maroon jersey at some stage of their careers.

Now part of the commercial department at Rangers, Jardine believes the gift of handing on knowledge from one era to another at Tynecastle was established in the Eighties partly because of the innovative introduction of a players’ lounge.

"We set up a wee tea room for the players, which was a hospitality room during match days, but acted as a meeting point for our young guys to mix with the older pros and learn from them," Jardine recalled. "It helped that we were able to surround those young lads with influential older pros. Men such as Jimmy Bone, Willie Johnston and Sandy Clark all played a part. It was never just about Alex and myself preaching about the game.

"When I first joined Rangers as a teenager, there wasn’t coaching available as we understand it now. So you picked things up from the senior players. I was lucky that there were people around such as Jimmy Millar, Jim Baxter and Davie Wilson who were willing to spend a bit of time passing on advice. If you were selected to play on Saturday, they told you how to do this or that.

"The young guys we had at Hearts were very receptive to that process. It wasn’t just about the people who were telling them what to do - the players were good listeners and had the capacity to take it all in. When we started to enjoy a bit of success, even if it was on a limited scale, the players could see it was working and they picked up a foundation of good habits."

Gary Mackay, now a football agent who remains closely connected to affairs at Tynecastle through the Save Our Hearts campaign, remembers that tea-room as the focal point of the ’86 team. "John Robertson, David Bowman and myself would almost come to blows to get the chance to go in and make the tea for the older guys and hear their stories," he said. "The knowledge and the humility we picked up as players during that time wasn’t just down to Sandy and Alex - we also owed a debt to people such as Jimmy Bone, Willie Johnston and Sandy Clark. For me, that part of my career was like going to a football university. We received an education which stood us in good stead throughout our careers."

Although some wonder if the miserable end to 1986 tainted the players’ memories of that season, Mackay hadn’t forgotten the low ebb Hearts reached in 1981 when the attendances for the entire year numbered only 120,000. (More than 27,000 were at Murrayfield for the UEFA Cup tie on Thursday). "People forget how bad things had become," Mackay added. "So while I will never lose the disappointment of those last two games, the season as a whole was unforgettable and I wouldn’t trade it for anything."

Jardine, too, remembers how Hearts had fallen on hard times. "The club was on a bit of a downer when we came along and our job was to get in better players and take the club up the way. We were very fortunate that we already had Robertson, Mackay and Bowman on the books. Then we brought in other promising footballers like Craig Levein and what they all had in common was intelligence and independence."

A marvellously composed and versatile footballer in his own right, Jardine was adamant the lingering influence of the class of ’86 can be traced to the high footballing IQ of the players. "For want of a better word, we didn’t want dummies in our team," he said. "Alex and I tried to teach the game to these lads and how, once they were on the park, they had to be self-reliant. While you play within a pattern and for the good of the team, you also have to accept individual responsibility.

"To be truthful, Alex and I probably wouldn’t have got the job at Hearts in the Eighties unless the club had been struggling financially and, in many respects, it was the same situation when Craig was appointed four years ago."

Taken from the Scotsman

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