Tynecastle side split Old Firm but fail to win over neutrals

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DESPITE feverish investigation, it has not been possible to confirm Celtic's rumoured desire to sign Rudi Skacel. It is said among the Parkhead club's followers that Gordon Strachan intends to play the Czech beside Maciej Zurawski in a striking partnership that will be known as Spit and Polish.

Like many examples of football fans' occasional genius for satire, this one carries dark undertones. Beneath the wicked allusion to the Hearts midfielder's alleged part in the altercation with Neil Lennon last Sunday lies a rumbling - and ever more widespread - uneasiness over the Tynecastle side's general comportment.

At a time when Hearts' achievement in splitting Celtic and Rangers in the Premierleague should make them the darlings of every non-Old Firm supporter in the country (Hibernian's excepted, of course), they are being talked about for less admirable reasons.

However vehemently Skacel may have protested his innocence over last weekend's affair, his previous association with a highly offensive practice has left him tainted. In tandem with a number of instances of alleged cheating by some of his team-mates throughout the season - diving being the principal objection - Hearts are perceived in many quarters as a team whose accomplishments are blemished by their behaviour.

Naturally, anyone connected with the club will take exception to the accusations, arguing, with a certain justification, that such claims are almost invariably rooted in sour grapes and/or envy. That rebuttal, however, is weakened by the present circumstances.

For more than a decade, those not aligned with the big Glasgow clubs have longed for the chance to celebrate the arrival of authentic challengers who would put an end to the Old Firm's wearing, and ultimately damaging, duopoly. Now that it is finally here, the majority of neutral observers are unlikely to find fault with the emergent heroes for petty reasons.

The disciplinary figures show that Hearts, with five, have incurred more red cards than any other SPL club this season, while their 67 yellows also put them high up the table, in fourth place, in that category.

Bald statistics, admittedly, can be misleading (especially given the vagaries of referees' judgments), but the Tynecastle side's reputation is more impressionistic. Recent random conversations with supporters of several different clubs confirm that many, without thinking, regard Hearts as disturbingly offensive.

But, if their image is slightly tarnished, it is not solely as a result of their players' endeavours on the field of play. The unbridled hostility of the club's owner, Vladimir Romanov, towards a wide range of targets has made a significant contribution to the dulling effect.

So far, those at whom Romanov's public rants have been directed include George Burley, Phil Anderton, George Foulkes, Graham Rix, Jim Duffy, some of his own players, the Tynecastle medical staff, referees, the SFA, opponents, agents, the media and Andy Webster's parents. This may be some people's idea of good, knockabout stuff, but, for Hearts, there could be harmful side effects, the recognition of which should cause those closest to the Lithuanian banker to counsel more prudence.

While referees and SFA administrators, for example, are, as a matter of course, paragons of neutrality where their work is concerned, they would be less than human were they immune to insults and incapable of bearing a grudge. They are, in fact, as inclined as any other offended party towards retribution at the first opportunity.

Many Tynecastle supporters will, quite properly, cherish Romanov as a man who fights his club's corner, and nobody would advocate the instant transformation of Hearts into shrinking violets for the sake of the quiet life. It's a hard business, and only the mentally tough succeed. But there is a difference between plain speaking and rudeness. And, in the enclosed world of Scottish football, there are sound practical, as well as moral, reasons for making the distinction.

END-OF-SEASON purges rarely pass without providing at least one reminder of football's capacity for producing young players whose apparently exceptional potential seems, somewhere along the line, to have been ambushed.

Simon Donnelly could not be said to have been a failure in terms of making a career out of the game, but his release by Dunfermline this week recalls the fuss that attended his early days at Celtic and his subsequent slide to the lower levels.

When Lou Macari became manager at Parkhead, he discovered a teenager of some promise who was earning groundstaff wages of 100 per week. Macari, without consulting his directors, immediately doubled Donnelly's salary, assuring him of much better when, within a short time, the player would be offered a new contract.

The increase, taking the player's earnings to around eight times the level when Macari arrived, duly materialised. But, in negotiations with Donnelly's representative - his father, Tom, a former Rangers player - the manager was shocked by the swiftness and the firmness of the rejection.

"The way he was talking," Macari recalled later, "I thought we were discussing the new Kenny Dalglish. I told his father that the lad had a chance, but, at that stage, that was all he had. He still had a long way to go to be a proper Celtic player."

Despite 146 appearances in six seasons at Parkhead - only 12 in the last of them before moving to Sheffield Wednesday - Donnelly never did become the reincarnation of Dalglish. In this respect, of course, he is not alone.

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