WORDS: JOEL SKED
From the outside, it might look as though the last decade has been a dystopian nightmare for Hearts supporters. Tynecastle has been the setting for some of the most bizarre scenes in Scottish football in recent times but one Jambos fan explains why he has been thoroughly entertained by the chaos…
Three days before Christmas in 2007, Heart of Midlothian welcomed Inverness Caledonian Thistle to the capital following a 2-1 defeat to Rangers at Ibrox. A little more than 18 months after splitting the Old Firm and lifting the Scottish Cup for the seventh time, Vladimir Romanov’s quest to make the Tynecastle side the best in Scotland was floundering under some unusual signings and even more unusual decisions.
With stars from one of the best ever Hearts team having departed, the football was unable to cover the cracks at the club. The club were languishing in the bottom half of the table, where they would finish for the first time since the 1998/99 season.
This wasn’t what it was meant to be like when the mysterious Mr Romanov rode into town in 2004 to save the club from the ignominy of selling the iconic and atmospheric Tynecastle, which the club had called home since 1886. His arrival did not only stop the impending move across the Western Approach Road to Murrayfield rugby stadium, but it promised a brighter future. One in which the club would no longer live hand to mouth but would instead see the club prosper and challenge Scotland’s Old Firm while making a name for itself in Europe, evoking days of beating the might of Bayern Munich.
On that dark and dreary Saturday afternoon in 2007, with many in the crowd fed up at the decisions being made, a game was played out that I won’t forget from the Romanov era. It will be remembered alongside the two Scottish Cup wins; the countless victorious derbies; the splitting of the Old Firm; the players; and even the European nights. Yet it was a game in which the Jam Tarts lost.
Inverness led 1-0 at half-time despite the home side creating a plethora of chances. But nobody would have imagined what was about to transpire.
Keeping goal for Hearts was Eduardas Kurskis. An erratic Lithuanian goalkeeper would be the nicest way to describe him. The previous week the club were heading to a creditable draw at Ibrox when Kurskis inexplicably dropped the ball allowing Rangers to net a late winner, but the main event was going to take place this particular afternoon.
Soon after conceding a penalty he, according to the club’s own website, “became afflicted with the sudden inability to catch the ball”. A quite surreal sight witnessing your goalkeeper lose the plot in front of your eyes as he did his best not to save shots. But more was to follow.
Already on a yellow card, he tussled with an opponent when he went to get the ball for a goal kick. Again from the match report, “Kurskis brought his calamitous afternoon to a premature end by shaking Russell Duncan warmly by the throat”. Well, at least he did it warmly.
At that point, Hearts were attempting to fight their way back into the game, at 2-1 down with three minutes remaining, but with all the substitutes having been used, it fell on left-back Lee Wallace to tend goal for the remaining few minutes.
Remarkably, Hearts then equalised with a penalty in the 90th minute, but this ludicrous game wasn’t finished.
Deep into injury time, with any semblance of tactics or subtlety long-since forgotten, Inverness striker Graham Bayne, with a swipe of his right foot, won the game for his side, as Wallace appeared to forget that his hands could be used to keep the ball out.
I remember sitting there laughing in disbelief as I realised what I had witnessed was comedy at its highest level. A few days later, as St Mirren closed in on a 1-0 victory at Tynecastle, a chant of ‘We’re shit and we know we are!’ rang around the ground.
With so much happening at Tynecastle it was hard to pinpoint this as the nadir of the Romanov Revolution, but it would certainly have made the shortlist. After all, that season ended with a 1-0 defeat to a Gretna side already relegated having been deducted points for falling into administration. A Gretna side that ended the campaign on 13 points.
There was success but there was just as much – probably even more – comedy. This was Heart of Midlothian. There was almost an expectation around the place that Mr Romanov’s arrival was perhaps too good to be true, but some, including myself, wanted to let it ride and see where it would take us. Despite all the times of crisis, all the times The Sun would have pictures of the Hearts badge broken in two, all the turmoil, the jokes about the fax machine choosing the team, I will always remember those days fondly.
My father, who I cannot repay for introducing me to Heart of Midlothian, only sporadically took to me to games. So I saw, at most, half a dozen games a season, the occasional European night and the odd away trip to Fife. My intake included no derby games, no Old Firm games and, most galling of all, no 1998 Scottish Cup final, as the club ended its 36-year wait for a trophy.
It wasn’t until the 2003/04 season that I began to attend games regularly, with two school friends, and I got my first season ticket the following year. By the time George Burley had arrived in 2005, and talk of Scottish football domination was in the air, I was the only one of the three to still have a season ticket. Boy, did those two miss out.
From Dennis Wyness, Ramón Pereira and Graham Weir, I was now watching Champions League winner Edgaras Jankauskas, European Championship winner Takis Fyssas and the best striker of the ball I have witnessed in Scottish football – Rudi Skacel. Thanks to Mr Romanov.
For three months we were allowed to dream. At times it felt we were living in a dream. Tynecastle was clad in Maroon. There was sunshine. There were fireworks. There was a derby win. A win over Rangers. There were goals. There were large travelling supports. There were wins. And there were more wins. After 10 games there were eight wins and two draws. We were top of the league.
Then came confirmation that the Romanov Revolution was not going to be a dream. It was going to be real life. Highs. Lows. A right bitch. I was in Canada visiting a relative when my father told me the news over the phone on the day of the Dunfermline game. George Burley had gone. It is a departure which still prompts a ‘What if?’ reaction.
So Burley had gone. Graham Rix was controversially appointed. He was then sacked and the Lithuanian Valdas Ivanauksas took charge. More and more Lithuanians arrived over the next couple of years (some of who were very good players, others not so much). Money was squandered. There was a managerial merry-go-round to the point where the merry-go was still going round but there were actually no managers left on it. There were peculiar statements. More money was squandered. Mr Romanov had an impromptu boxing match with a striker. Mr Romanov won Lithuania’s version of strictly come dancing.
Then, in the simplest terms, the money from UBIG, the company which controlled Hearts, stopped.
So much happened between 2004 and 2014. So much happiness, so much disappointment, so much bad football, so many bamboozling decisions, so much comedy, so many nerves, so much quality. So much fun.
We are now in the Championship, a stable club heading towards supporter control with an exciting young manager at the head of an exciting young team. Opposition fans still mock Mr Romanov and his spell overseeing the club but for me, and many other Hearts fans, if I was offered the chance for a different route 10 years ago, knowing what I know now, I would have to flat-out refuse it.
My favourite memories are in the last 10 years. My favourite players. My favourite matches. Okay, the means by which we achieved them may have been controversial but I don’t really care. Fyssas, Jankauskas, Skacel, Bruno Aguiar and Christos Karipidis. Cult figures such as Saulius Mikoliunas, Deividas Cesnauskis and Mauricio Pinilla. Paul Hartley, Craig Gordon and Andy Webster. Paulo Sergio, Marius Zaliukas and Suso Santana.
And then there were the games. From the tension of a home win against Aberdeen to secure Champions League (qualifying) football to almost taking Liverpool to extra-time after leading at Anfield in the Europa League. There were wins at home against the Old Firm and even wins away. There were countless derby wins.
Yet on Sunday April 2, 2006 I did not think it could get much better than a 4-0 win over rivals Hibernian in the Scottish Cup semi-final. My nerves were such that I could barely stand before kick-off, but as the atmosphere built in the home end, it became clear we weren’t going to lose, especially not with Paul Hartley in our side. But the pinnacle was yet to come.
May 19, 2012. Heart of Midlothian 5 Hibernian 1. The Scottish Cup Final. My emotions simply can’t be relayed in words. The pinnacle.
I am glad about where the club is now. It is being run by sensible people, both on the pitch and behind the scenes. There is a new feeling that something good is just beginning – something different to the Romanov Revolution – and I, for one, am looking forward to it…
…and the day Mr Romanov returns to Tynecastle.