Hearts and minds

Two years ago life looked quite good for Hearts fans as they took the field for the Europa League Play-Off against Liverpool at Tynecastle.  They had finished the previous season in fifth place but had taken the silverware and city bragging rights by destroying their local rivals, Hibernian at Hampden Park in the Scottish Cup Final. Talk around Edinburgh was of a push for second spot in the Rangers-less SPL. Dreams were of repeating the 2006 feat of reaching the Champions League Qualifying Rounds, and nights of hosting more European greats at one of Britain’s oldest used football grounds.

20140726-202446-73486584.jpgInstead a series of “unfortunate events” off the pitch saw the club lurch from one financial crisis to another. Lithuanian owner Vladimir Romanov, having failed in attempts to buy Dundee United, Dundee and Dunfermline took majority control of the club in 2005. He underlined his knowledge of the game by sacking manager George Burley after the club had won their first eight games of the season and were top of the Premier League. The Lithuanian’s time in charge would see nine managers appointed in just seven seasons, with many of those ejected through the revolving doors in a similar brutal way to Burley.

During this period debt mounted as the complex ownership structure of the club failed to deliver any re-assurances to the authorities or the fans that the club had a viable future. Last summer the club, saddled with debt close to £25 million, entered administration and received a 15 point penalty and a transfer embargo. Even the most ardent Hearts fan knew that avoiding relegation would be akin to climbing Arthur’s Seat dressed with both legs tied together.

But light came at the end of the tunnel in the form of The Foundation of Hearts. Once again, a supporter-led initiative had shown football the importance of the fans voice. Administration and the painful memory of the Romanov decade officially ended on 11 June 2014. Having been through similar experiences, albeit at a smaller level with Lewes FC, I know that feeling of despair when it seems there is no future for your club.

20140726-202449-73489010.jpgFast forward six weeks and Tynecastle would be hosting its first ever Petrofac Training Cup game.  As they say in the East End, “just like my dreams, they fade and die”. Instead of welcoming the likes of Gerrard, Suarez, Sturridge and Andy Carroll again it would be the Messrs Swinglehurst, McNiff and Carcary that variety lining up for Annan Athletic, currently plying their trade in the fourth tier of Scottish Football. This was to be the first meeting between the two sides – a event of such historic proportions that I simply had to be there. Well, the fact I was already in town for the Commonwealth Games was just pure coincidence.

This was my first visit to Tynecastle, long overdue having done every other major club in Scotland. The ground is a mixture of old and new. Three modern, uniform stands provide the comfort for the fans making their way down Gorgie Road, whilst the Archibald Leitch- built Main Stand, dating back to 1914, still reminds the fans of former glories.

Visitors Annan Athletic’s biggest claim to fame is beating Rangers two seasons ago when they were bed-fellows in the Scottish Third Division. Elected into the professional leagues after the demise of Gretna in 2008. They couldn’t have asked for a tougher draw in the Challenge Cup, although with both clubs sharing the gate receipts, they would at least get a nice windfall from the game.

The Scottish Challenge Cup, this season sponsored by Petrofac Training, is an interesting concept. All clubs below the Premier League enter the cup at the first round stage, with “wildcard” entries this season Brora Rangers and Spartans adding some junior league spice. With Hearts, Hibernian and Rangers all in the First Division this season, it may well be the most competitive yet.

20140726-202447-73487013.jpgThis was the traditional Fuller Family trip to Scotland, with a visit to the Commonwealth Games in the cards for tomorrow. While the girls headed to spot Yuang Guang and Tian Tian at the Zoo, I headed down the Dalry Road to find Tynecastle. Thirsty from my long walk I decided to have a spot of refreshment in The Tynecastle Arms. Despite my feeble attempts at trying to disguise my English accent, asking for a pint of Belhaven was like the scene from American Werewolf In London where the two backpackers enter the pub in the Yorkshire Moors. I was saved by a man coming in, wearing a pair of Stuart Pearce’s Italia 90 shorts, shrunken in the wash, who diverted the majority of the pub’s attention for me to disappear into a dark corner.

A quick trip round the Club Shop revealed a complete lack of Heart- shaped merchandise or even any jam tarts so I made do with my customary pair of socks, although the Littlest Fuller will be disappointed to hear that maroon-coloured Loom bands had sold out, before heading for my seat in press box just as the sun disappeared behind the ominous grey storm clouds. Welcome to Scotland.

Heart of Midlothian 3 Annan Athletic 1 – Tynecastle – Saturday 26th July 2014
When Hearts opened the scoring in the 8th minute the surprise was it had taken so long. Billy King’s pile-driver into the roof of the net was their fourth shot on target in the game that appeared from the first few seconds to be a complete mis-match. It was good to see the PA announcer also taken by surprise, having to ask a chap sitting next to me who scored – people don’t realise what a tough job it is, especially when you are playing Scrabble on your iPhone.

Hearts looked like they meant business. Very smart deep claret, or as I’m told, maroon shirts, no sponsor’s logo (tick) and their manager Robbie Neilson looking very smart on the touch line in his Barbour. One became two in the 20th minute when Osman Sow was allowed to overlap on the right and placed the ball into the corner of the net, then almost added a third seconds later. The group of vocal Annan fans (well, children) positioned at the top of the away stand who had been so vocal about their hatred for Edinburgh fifteen minutes previously were now silent.

20140726-202448-73488108.jpgThe third arrived in the 40th minute when full back Callum Paterson headed home unmarked from a corner. Paterson’s happiness would turn to tears just five minutes later when on the half-time whistle he fell awkwardly after a challenge and was stretchered off the pitch.

Fair do’s to the stadium announcer. He was obviously under orders to slip in the sponsor’s name at every opportunity and he didn’t waste the chance in a break in play to remind us where we could find all the latest Petrofac Training news, Petrofac Training reaction and even Petrofac Training Instagram pictures. My attention though was caught by the number of birds in the stadium. They were everywhere, sitting ominously on top of the stand opposite, waiting for their chance to swoop and head one in. A lone duck-like creature (sorry, I have no idea on ornithology) patrolled the Annan penalty area in the first half and could well have had the last touch on Sow’s goal.

20140726-202445-73485661.jpgThe second half didn’t quite have the same storyline. Hearts continued to attack, using pace to get to the byline but the Annan keeper, Alex Mitchell, was in inspired form. Then in injury time Scott Davidson gave the fifty or so away fans something to shout about when he scored the goal of the game for Annan, striking home from distance.

Just over 6,700 had come out on a sunny, then windy, rainy and sunny again afternoon to see the “New” Hearts. Whilst it was only the Challenge Cup, the fans cannot complain that the team hadn’t taken it seriously. With the huge images on the sides of the stands of bygone heroes such as Tommy Walker looking down on today’s players, there is a sense that the club is once again starting to build for the future.

To donate to The Foundation of Hearts, the organisation behind the revival of the club, click here.

Daggers the Brave

Whilst the rest of us spent an afternoon in the shops as our games fell by the wayside, the Daggers Diary team headed north to take in a couple of games in Scotland.

I know that I am quite lucky to be able to do what I do. Most weekends I attend a game, whether it be with the Daggers, or venturing slightly further afield. Take this weekend for example. A whole hour before the coach leaves Victoria Road for the Daggers trip to Rochdale, Dagenham Dan and I are sitting in Southend airport for the first time this month, waiting for a flight north to Edinburgh for a two game weekend.

Despite the fact that Scotland is next door (and for the moment) still part of the UK, this will be only my second football trip north, while this will be Dan’s first ever trip across the border. The only other game I have ventured to in Scotland was up in Inverness, for a comprehensive win against Dundee United, in September 2012. Hopefully our two games this weekend will be as good as that one.

Although we have done plenty of these trips, the early alarm is still a shock to the system, and when it shatters the silence at just after 4am, it is at a snail’s pace that I clamber out of my pit for our trip to Southend airport.

Our flight up is by not full, so we have plenty of space to spread out. We are also the first flight out, and leave roughly on time. With a flight time of an hour, it won’t be long before we are back on the ground, and in the Scottish capital.

Saturday 1st February 2014, Livingston v Queen of the South, Energy Assets Arena

IMG_3268Not only is this Dan’s first game in Scotland, but also his 1300th in total. It’s taken just over twenty-two years to get to this total, which works out at a fairly decent average number of games per year.

Having spent the morning at Edinburgh castle, we head out to Livingston around 1pm, for our first game of the weekend. The journey from Edinburgh is not too bad by train, with it taking only about twenty minutes to reach our destination station. The twenty-minute walk at the other end is thankfully completed without it raining.

As a club, Livingston FC didn’t exist twenty years ago. Ok, that isn’t quite true, as it was formerly Meadowbank Thistle (and previously Ferranti Thistle). Back in 1995, the club moved from the Meadowbank stadium in Edinburgh where they had been for twenty years, to the new town of Livingston, meaning not only a new stadium, but a change of name as well. The clubs history pages in their website makes it clear that the move was simply because the owner at the time, Bill Hunter, felt that there was limited potential sharing a City with Hibernian and Hearts, so the club was moved twenty miles down the road.

The early part of the 21st century were clearly good for the new club, finishing third in 2002, and winning the league cup two years later, but financial problems have beset the club in recent times. Now though, they appear to be stable and promotion back to the top flight of Scottish football must be the aim. Continue reading