DCSIMG

2008 Jambos review - Hearts' rudderless ship back on course

A PROPER manager was restored to the hotseat after well over two years without one, and, as a result, belief was allowed to return to the Tynecastle stands.

Csaba Laszlo swanned into Edinburgh just under six months ago and since then he's barely put a foot wrong in transforming an aimless bunch into a thriving team laced with players now being touted for multi-million pound transfers.

The Hungarian's presence alone means Hearts fans are entitled to enter 2009 with at least a semblance of optimism.

However, 2008 wasn't all about bright new dawns for Hearts. Far from it. There was the despair of an eight-place finish last season; the shabby treatment of Stephen Frail; falling attendance; the realisation that decent strikers are an increasingly rare species at Tynecastle; and the late wage and bill payments which then brought talk of financial strife and reports of impending player sales.

But the year couldn't have got off to a more uplifting start for Hearts fans had they been first-footed by John Robertson.

On New Year's Day, with the team in tenth place on the back of a five-game losing streak and in danger of being drawn into a relegation battle under Angel Chervenkov, Anatoli Korobochka and Frail, the club issued a statement vowing to bring in a new manager with full autonomy over team selection.

Frail, meanwhile, was named caretaker manager. A crushing defeat against Dundee United at Tannadice the following day would do little to quell excitement among fans who were salivating at the prospect of their side having a proper manager for the first time since, some would argue, George Burley was dismissed in October 2005.

A 1-0 win at home to Hibs on January 19 would prove to be the high point of Frail's tenure. Within days of that derby delight, Hearts crashed out of the Scottish Cup after losing their fourth-round replay with Motherwell at Fir Park. A League Cup exit followed at the end of January when Frail's men lost 2-0 to Rangers in the semi-finals at Hampden.

After the early-year optimism, the absence of fresh talk on the prospective managerial appointment allied to a lack of January transfer activity – Fernando Screpis was the only new recruit, while Michal Pospisil headed for Belgian side Sint-Truiden – and the recent cup exits, had seen a cloud of gloom return to Tynecastle. Frail, however, was making a decent fist of things. He presided over a 12-game unbeaten sequence in the league against non-Old Firm opposition which ran from a draw with Kilmarnock in his second game in charge until a 2-1 loss away to Falkirk in early May.

The only SPL defeats in that period were a 3-0 thrashing against Celtic at Parkhead in February and a galling 4-0 caning at home to Rangers later that month when it appeared some players had blatantly given up on the cause long before the end.

Despite his relative success in difficult circumstances, some fans became frustrated with Frail, particularly over his insistence on playing the confidence-shorn Calum Elliot.

The Edinburgh-born striker's only real high point of the season came when he netted a double in a 3-0 win at Inverness just three days after the Rangers debacle, but there was to be no further revival from the much-ridiculed player.

Other figures of ridicule, Eduardas Kurskis and Ricardas Beniusis, saw their disastrous spells in Edinburgh brought to an end when they were sent back to Kaunas in March. But the departure of another Lithuanian a couple of weeks earlier wasn't so well received by fans.

Andrius Velicka, Hearts' top scorer, as well as their only obvious source of goals, was unexpectedly sold to Norwegian side Viking Stavanger.

It was this move which many fans attributed to Hearts suffering the ignominy of missing out on the top six for the first time since the inception of the split, a fate confirmed by a 0-0 draw against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park in early April.

With five meaningless games ahead, Frail took the chance to pitch in youngsters such as Gary Glen and Jason Thomson, but the season ended in typically abject fashion, with three consecutive defeats against Falkirk, Kilmarnock and Gretna. Robbie Neilson's testimonial match provided fans with a brief lift as a host of Hearts legends returned to pay tribute to the long-serving right-back. But that sun-kissed day in May couldn't mask the fact Hearts were in dire straits and in grave danger of driving away fans who had become disillusioned with the apparent lack of progress on the managerial front.

Ibrahim Tall, one of the few players to have earned pass marks, left the club at the end of the season to return to France, but still there was no sign of a new manager.

Then suddenly, towards the end of May, Mark McGhee looked to be on his way to Edinburgh, but a last-minute change of heart from the Motherwell manager saw him snub Hearts. By this point, season ticket sales were extremely slow as many fans vowed not to renew until a manager was installed.

Gudjorn Thordarson and Vladimir Weiss emerged as contenders for the role in June before Frail, despite doing a stellar job in lifting the club from tenth to eighth in difficult circumstances, was discarded by Hearts in early July.

Others to leave Hearts around this time were Jose Goncalves, who joined FC Nuremberg on a season-long loan, the injury-prone Mauricio Pinilla, who was released, and Screpis, whose contract was controversially terminated.

Then finally a manager arrived, although it wasn't the box-office appointment fans had craved. Csaba Laszlo, who had been in charge of the Ugandan national team, was unveiled as the Tynecastle side's new manager on July 11.

For some fans it was just another Vladimir Romanov puppet, but the majority were simply relieved to have a manager and opted to give the new man a chance.

The appointment did little to boost season ticket sales, although there was a notable buzz about the place.

Marian Kello, Janos Balogh, David Obua, Mike Tullberg and Adrian Mrowiec were all recruited at various points in the summer, and Jamie MacDonald returned from his loan spell at Queen of the South, as Laszlo set about whipping his new charges into shape.

Pre-season results provided little reason for optimism and, as a result, a little over 14,000 fans were coaxed to Tynecastle for Laszlo's first league game in charge against Motherwell. But Hearts produced a scintillating display to win 3-2, and Laszlo swiftly won over some of his doubters.

The second game of the season against Rangers at Ibrox saw goalkeeper Steve Banks banished by Romanov, with MacDonald handed an unexpected start as Hearts crashed to defeat.

Kestutis Ivaskevicius returned to Kaunas and Elliot's hell was over when he was allowed to join Livingston on loan at the tail end of August, while Hearts exited the League Cup with a penalty shoot-out defeat at home to First Division Airdrie, in between successive SPL wins over St Mirren and Hamilton. A September defeat at Falkirk took the wind out of Laszlo's sails before reports that players hadn't been paid emerged on the day Hearts ground out a 1-0 win over Inverness at Tynecastle.

With Christian Nade not yet fully fit and no other obvious forwards to call on, Hearts embarked on a five-game run without a win, although a 1-1 draw against Hibs at Easter Road in mid-October did offer reason for optimism as Bruno Aguiar marked his return after 18 months out injured with a goal. Meanwhile, Mirsad Beslija's wretched time in Edinburgh was ended when he was released by Hearts. Then, with all of their key man returning to full fitness, the Gorgie side initiated a completely unexpected five-game winning streak, starting with a hard-fought triumph away to St Mirren on November 8. Hamilton, Inverness and Falkirk were also vanquished before Rangers were brought to their knees as Laszlo enjoyed his best moment so far at the end of November. That 2-1 victory at Tynecastle was blighted somewhat as it emerged that wages hadn't been paid for a second time, and in the following days it was reported that the club was in financial turmoil and would have to sell off its chief assets in January.

The high-flying players shrugged aside such talk to chalk up draws against Celtic and Dundee United and take their unbeaten run to seven games before a defeat at Aberdeen ended the year on a slight downer.

Despite the eighth-place finish last season, much of the damage had been done at the tail end of 2007. Had the campaign run from January to December, Hearts would have finished 2008 in third place – a testament to the efforts of both Frail (who took 28 points from a possible 54) and Laszlo (31 from 57).

Regardless of the difficulties which 2009 may bring for Hearts, 2008 will go down as the year when leadership, respectability and a touch of normality returned to Tynecastle.

FOUR GAMES THAT SHAPED 2008 FOR HEARTS

HEARTS 1, HIBS 0 (January 19)

A GOAL from Andrius Velicka, left, saw Hearts end a shocking ten-game run without a win. This derby victory then sparked a fine run of league form under caretaker boss Stephen Frail.

HEARTS 0, FALKIRK 0 (March 22)

WITH Velicka having not long left for Viking Stavanger, Hearts were bereft of a goal-scorer and it took its toll in this goalless draw which all but ended their hopes of making the top six.

HEARTS 3, MOTHERWELL 2 (August 9)

A SCINTILLATING display on the opening day of the season saw Csaba Laszlo make a winning start to life in the SPL against the previous campaign's third force. Hearts took the lead twice through Michael Stewart and Audrius Ksanavicius only to be pegged back by Motherwell. Then Saulius Mikoliunas, pictured, hit a superb late winner.

HEARTS 2, RANGERS 1 (November 29)

TEN-MAN Hearts cast aside the furore over unpaid wages to make it five wins on the spin and keep hold of third place. Marius Zaliukas, pictured right, and Larry Kingston scored in the first half before Rangers hit back through a Christos Karipidis own goal. And, although Lee Wallace was sent off in the second half, the Jam Tarts held on for a famous win.

 
 
 

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