iT MUST be here somewhere, I said to myself. The car was parked close to Palmerston but, coming away from the match on Saturday night, all the surrounding streets looked the same. I could have blamed my disorientation on tiredness and the lack of pies. Or maybe it was delirium from having been treated to a choice chunk of 1970s soft-rock as part of the half-time entertainment – the Doobie Brothers’ China Grove.
Three times I trudged back to the ground to set off along a different grove or avenue. In normal circumstances this would have caused a severe sense-of-humour failure. But how could I be annoyed when it was this proximity to community life – to where people live and send their kids to school – that had helped Palmerston become my new favourite place to watch football?
I liked it in January, my first-ever visit, and I liked it even more in May with the evening sun dappling the rooftops you see beyond the Terregles Street End. You can see hills beyond the Rosefield Salvage Stand and, presented with such a vista, who could possibly argue that that structure’s name is not romantic? This is the newest part of Queen of the South’s home, a concession to progress and modernity. But traditional elements abound: The wooden main stand; the terracing stanchions – and, hark, was that the gentle birling of a rattle? And, as I say, the stadium is slap-bang in the middle of real life – real life well capable of swallowing up a car.
Tynecastle is another such ground. When you glimpse its roof from the train it looks terribly squashed-in, like its position in the west Edinburgh hugger-mugger is positively painful. And yet claustrophobia is Tynie’s principal charm. The stadium is tight up against the Gorgie tenements. The pitch is tight up against the stands, so that not only can an opposition full-back preparing to take a throw-in feel the hot breath of row A on the back of his neck, he can tell if the fans brushed their teeth before coming out. Meanwhile, in the oldest part of the ground, the leg room on offer would surely interest students of the evolution of man. Here is cramp-inducing proof that he wasn’t always as tall as he is now.
This stand has the same mix of wood and corrugated iron as the one down at Dumfries. It reeks of history and also bombastic, thwarted ambition.
It is knackered and wheezing and, once again, minds are being exercised on what should be done, and indeed whether Hearts should continue to stay snug at their current address. This time, though, there seems to be a determination to do the right thing, rather than the biggest thing.
This time, no one is talking about taking over Hibs or Champions League football within three years or building a new stand incorporating hotel and conference centre or selling up and moving in with the rugger folk at Murrayfield. Ann Budge, the Hearts owner, has restarted the debate like this: “Ideal world? We stop here. Let’s try and make that happen.”
This is a change in philosophy and surely Tynecastle’s location has played no small part in the Hearts revival.
At times of crisis for football clubs, what do the faithful do? Flock to the ground. Hang about outside waiting for news. Take it in turn to do the coffee/soup run. Use the ground as a drop-in centre for mutual support, a place where they can stay informed, dream of fund-raising wheezes, show they care.
When Hearts were in administration and not knowing where their next game was going to come from, far less their next title, Tynecastle was there for them. And it was where it always was – past the old Tivoli picturehouse (saw Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot in Shalako there), under the railway bridge, turn right at the Tynecastle Arms.
What would have happened if, a few years previously, Hearts had flitted to some out-of-town site, to a new ground devoid of corrugated iron but also lacking heritage? Would the maroon-clad denizens have been mobilised to the same degree? The fans would say yes. Your club is your club, wherever in the new world they’re required to call home. But surely the old place, with its ghosts of past heroes and memories of great endeavours down the decades, served as a vivid and ever-present reminder of what it meant to be a Hearts supporter – and, furthermore, that the symbiotic connection could be easily refreshed after a few short hops on a No 25 bus.
The fans are thrilled with the regeneration under Budge’s ownership. But they are also delighted that it has happened in EH11 and not out at Ingliston or, perish the thought, even further out at Straiton as part of a groundshare arrangement with Hibs. Over the years since those schemes were floated, some must have wondered what a new ground might have looked like.
After all, without a proper, living, breathing community to have to, as it were, budge up alongside, there would be no need for the stands to be so steep. Thus, would Rangers and Hibs have found “New Tynecastle” to be such a fortress this season – would poor Cowdenbeath have conceded ten goals in one game?
Such questions are immaterial and Budge is doing everything possible to ensure they won’t apply at some future date. She admits that before taking over at the club she probably would have favoured a move to a new home.
Now that she has enjoyed the best seat in the house all season long and heard the noise the old one makes, the emotions it stirs, there has been a change of heart on change for Hearts.
The club song suggests that “the old Castle Rock” is the ultimate in indomitability. There’s some way to go before Old Tynie can be assured of the same permanence. The tumbledown stand must go; a new one will obviously cost. But its prospects are better than they have been in a while.
Mind you, I think I still prefer Palmerston.