11th November 2019
In “Kings, Queens and Poets” (5th May 2019), I mentioned that, when a young boy studying my mother’s football pools coupons at our home in Leeds, I had thought that Heart of Midlothian and Queen of the South were the most romantic names of the clubs in Scotland. That particular blog reported on a visit to watch the latter in Dumfries in an end-of-term relegation battle in last season’s Scottish Championship. On Saturday, I caught up with Hearts.
The Wikipedia entry for Hearts states that 16 players from the club enlisted en masse in a new volunteer battalion – later to become the 16th Royal Scots – raised by Sir George McCrae in November 1914. They were joined by hundreds of supporters as well as players from other clubs in the initial “Footballers Battalion” of the First World War. The seven first-team players who lost their lives in the conflict are commemorated at the McCrae’s Battalion Great War Memorial in Contalmaison and the Heart of Midlothian War Memorial in Haymarket, Edinburgh.
I alighted at Haymarket Station on my way to Tynecastle Park to watch Hearts play St Mirren in the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership. This was an appropriate weekend for me to see the home side play for the first time: it is 101 years ago today that the guns fell silent.
Hearts have played their home fixtures at this venue since 1886. It is a neat rectangular ground with a capacity of just over 20,000 following the completion of the newly built Main Stand two years ago. The size of the average home crowd – around 16,500 in this league season to date – means that it feels suitably full; on Saturday, the main gaps were in the Roseburn Stand to the right, where the 700 or so St Mirren supporters had not taken up their full allocation of seats.
Even this early in the season – for both teams, this was only the 12th of the 38 matches in the league programme – there was an air of relegation battle about the encounter. The two sides began the day locked together at the foot of the table – with the hosts in the higher place only on goal difference – both no doubt fearing the prospect of a long winter’s struggle ahead. (The next two sides above them – St Johnstone and Hibernian – were meeting at the same time).
Hearts had already taken some action to address their poor start to the season by relieving the respected Craig Levein of his managerial responsibilities. This occurred 12 days ago, though the timing was somewhat curious as the side’s next fixture had been the Betfred League Cup semi-final against Rangers at Hampden Park (which was subsequently lost). Austin MacPhee is holding the managerial reins for the time being. (Hibernian sacked Paul Heckingbottom as their manager last week).
The St Mirren manager, Jim Goodwin, is – for the time being anyway – probably on slightly safer ground, as he was only appointed last June. (He had been in charge of the Alloa Athletic side that I had seen play in a Scottish Cup fixture last autumn: “Recreation Park”, 26th November 2018). Hitherto, his team had revealed a sound defence – only Celtic and Rangers had conceded fewer goals in the Premiership – but serious deficiencies in relation to their attacking prowess: only 5 goals had been registered in the league prior to Saturday’s game. I was expecting a low scoring encounter.
But what do I know? There were five goals before half-time and the final score was 5-2 to Hearts. And it could have been more: both the respective goalkeepers – Joel Pereira and Vaclav Hladky – made outstanding diving saves in the closing minutes.
As the scoreline suggests, Hearts had the advantage of a more potent forward line. The man-of-the-match award went to Uche Ikpeazu – a powerful and skilful player – who had a fine game on the right-hand side of the attack. However, I thought that the afternoon’s most influential participant was his partner, the experienced Steven Naismith, who swept in the first goal at a corner after six minutes and whose headed flick-on led to the Hearts second after St Mirren had equalised. It was also his weighted pass that provided the space in which Jake Mulraney, the Hearts substitute, could advance and curl his right-footed shot to Hladky’s left for the final (and best) goal of the match. More generally, Naismith – who is one short of 50 caps for Scotland – was active throughout the match in cajoling/encouraging/berating/advising (delete as appropriate) his colleagues: it was a timely audition, should Hearts decide to take the player-manager route.
I was flanked in my seat in the Main Stand by two friendly Hearts season-ticket holders. The longstanding supporter to my left had made his regular journey from the Borders town of Lauder. He was concerned about the number of soft goals that Hearts had conceded this season, of which St Mirren’s second – when a long punt upfield found the Hearts central defence totally absent, leaving Danny Mullen to calmly stroke the ball past Pereira – seemed to be a good example. Even at 4-2 up with 15 minutes to play, my neighbour was casting nervous glances at his watch, but he was able to relax a little after Mulraney’s fine strike.
The conversation with the supporter on the other side revealed an impressive pedigree of sports-spectating, including rugby league in Leeds and soccer in Toronto. He was very knowledgeable about the Hearts players present and past: Jamie Walker is just back from a long injury break and Jake Mulraney is “incredibly fast”, whilst Pasquale Bruno – an Italian who played for Hearts for two seasons in the 1990s (and who received loud cheers when he was introduced to the crowd at half-time) – had been a very physical and aggressive player. (Wikipedia somewhat coyly refers to Bruno’s “occasional outrageous outbursts on the pitch, as well as his tendency to pick up cards”).
The game ended. I shook hands with my neighbours as they departed. On the outside the stadium, the Hearts badge shone brightly on the Main Stand in the darkness of the late autumn afternoon. The home supporters made their way contentedly down Gorgie Road. Elsewhere, Hibernian’s 4-1 win at St Johnstone meant that it had been a double success for the Edinburgh clubs. They are now 8th and 9th in the league with Hamilton Academicals and the two Saints clubs below them. It is still tight, however, and the season’s course is only one-third run.
I read the impressive match programme on the train going home. The front cover displayed a field of poppies against a background of the stadium and under the heading “Lest We Forget”. Inside, there was a notice complementing an announcement that had been made a couple of times during the afternoon. The annual Haymarket Remembrance Service – conducted by the Club Chaplain and attended by the first team, reserve team and members of the board – was to take place yesterday, beginning at 10.45am.