EVERY football club likes to talk about its supporters as the 12th man, and much of that talk is misplaced.
Fans are prone to moan as much as they are to praise their team, and a lot of the time they just sit there in silence, passive spectators.
But things are a bit different now at Hearts. Not only because the supporters have been so vocal in their backing as Gary Locke’s young squad try to overcome the 15-point penalty with which they began the season, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because of their role away from match days.
More than 7,000 Hearts fans have now set up direct debits to back the Foundation of Hearts, the group named as preferred bidder to take the club out of administration. That’s money coming out of their bank accounts every month, starting on 2 September, in addition to what they pay for match tickets; in other words, a commitment above and beyond the usual allegiance of fans to their team.
The Foundation sponsored Saturday’s match at Tynecastle, its chairman Ian Murray addressed the crowd at half-time, and the home support left the ground delirious after 17-year-old Jordan McGhee’s late header gave Hearts a 2-1 win over Aberdeen. There is a spirit of togetherness around the club that has not been felt for some time, and that could play a critical role in helping Hearts avoid relegation.
It’s going to be a tough fight, of course. That 15-point deduction for going into administration would have been a significant obstacle in itself, and the embargo on signing over-21s for this and the next transfer window has made Hearts’ predicament all the more daunting.
It’s about as far as the authorities could have gone without simply relegating the club automatically. And it may yet prove to be fatal to Hearts’ hopes of staying up, just as chopping three limbs off someone isn’t quite the same as immediate capital punishment, but amounts to it pretty quickly.
Hearts’ haul of seven points from their opening four matches would have had them fourth in the table but for their points penalty, and has heightened their hopes of pulling off a remarkable escape. At that rate, allowing for the 15-point deduction, they would end the season with around 50 points – more than enough to reach safety.
But that simple calculation on paper is unlikely to translate to reality, for two related reasons. First, Hearts’ resources will be stretched, not strengthened, as the season wears on. And second, other clubs, even those without much in the way of disposable cash, will still be able to attempt to trade their way out of a crisis.
Already this season, Hearts have lost Ryan Stevenson, one of their most experienced players, to injury for a couple of months. Kevin McHattie’s sending-off on Saturday could deny Locke his first-choice left-back, while the injury which forced Brad McKay off during Saturday’s second half has led to a doubt over another influential member of the defence. That’s the other side of the coin to those seven precious points: three potential losses of personnel. If that rate of attrition were to be replicated over the course of the season, Locke’s team would be unrecognisable by Easter.
Other clubs could be as well, but for a different reason. Already, Danny Lennon at St Mirren and Derek Adams at Ross County are talking about getting new players in to address the weaknesses laid bare in their opening games. Any other team that suffers an on-field slump will also be able to recruit.
Being all too well aware of the need to conserve his resources, the Hearts manager has told his players to take special care to avoid unnecessary bookings. You cannot legislate for injuries, but you can cut down on suspensions.
And, just as the Hearts players will need to exercise self-discipline, so will the supporters if they want to do their utmost for the club. There will be less heady times than these: times when their team are three or more goals down on a freezing Tuesday night somewhere; times when that team will need the fans’ backing every bit as much as they got it on Saturday.
In fact, that collective self-discipline will be required far beyond this season. If Hearts do go down, they will need their fans more than ever; and even if they stay up, their financial problems will not be over.
Similarly, whatever division the club is in next season, a successful takeover by the Foundation will not spell the end of Hearts’ present woes. Run efficiently, Hearts should be able to have a sizeable wage bill and still make a small profit, but they are nowhere near that position yet, so will probably need those direct debits for several years to come.
The immediate euphoria of moments like McGhee’s goal is an indispensable part of football, but so is cold, sober, logical planning. The Foundation of Hearts is in this for the long haul: if the supporters stay with it, the magical moments of these early-season games may be only the start of a sustained revival.
Hypnotic journey inside the mind of Shankly
A man was reading a book on the radio. The book was about Bill Shankly. The book was about Bill Shankly and Liverpool Football Club. About Bill Shankly and Liverpool Football Club and the remarkable rise of the two, all the way from 1959 when Bill Shankly became manager of Liverpool Football Club.
The man was speaking in a meticulously pronounced Scottish accent. The way in which there were no glottal stops made the accent a little reminiscent of Bill Shankly’s precise, terrier-like delivery, but a lot more reminiscent of William McIlvanney, whose TV series Only A Game? gave birth to the long-running Only An Excuse?
The man was called Gary Lewis. The man called Gary Lewis was reading a book by another man called David Peace. The book by David Peace that Gary Lewis was reading was called Red Or Dead.
David Peace did not know Bill Shankly and he did not support Liverpool Football Club. Some people thought that meant that David Peace was not qualified to write a book about Bill Shankly and Liverpool Football Club.
But as the man Gary Lewis read the book on the radio every night, 15 minutes at a time, you could tell that David Peace had used his imagination to find his way into the remarkable character of Bill Shankly. The remarkable character that transformed Liverpool Football Club and took it almost every step of the way from the Second Division to the European Cup. Almost every step of the way, boys. Almost every step.
You could hear that David Peace had captured the stoical joy of Bill Shankly. And you could hear that David Peace understood the sadness of Bill Shankly.
And as you listened to Gary Lewis reading the book on the radio every night, you thought: This is a lot different from your run-of-the-mill football book. This does not tell the story of a football man from the outside. This puts you inside the mind of Bill Shankly like Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel put you inside the mind of Thomas Cromwell. Or at least makes a damn good attempt to do that.
But as you listened to Gary Lewis you also thought: This repetitiveness is exhausting. This is only 15 minutes on the radio for ten nights, an edited version, but Red Or Dead the full book is more than 700 pages so would take a lot longer than 150 minutes in all to read.
And you also thought that there is a fine line between the hypnotic and the merely soporific.
• Red Or Dead by David Peace is published by Faber.