AT LIVERPOOL they have the ‘This is Anfield’ sign, designed by Bill Shankly to intimidate visiting teams as well as bring good luck to those players who reach up to touch it.
At Tynecastle Stadium yesterday a plaque was unveiled that could and perhaps should become as iconic as the sign that hangs above the tunnel at Anfield. It does not say ‘This is Tynecastle’. What it does say, using several more words, is: This is our story.
Even though Shankly will forever be associated with the excessive significance he attached to football, the former Liverpool manager would, of course, recognise the deeds of those who fought in McCrae’s Battalion – the first to be known as a footballers’ battalion – as being what really mattered.
They certainly mattered enough to encourage more than 200 people to attend a moving ceremony yesterday, as the drizzle fell in Gorgie. David Southern, the Hearts managing director, welcomed the gathering at the back of the Tynecastle main stand, near the main entrance to the stadium. To his left was the plaque, covered initially by a Saltire and Union flag. These were removed to reveal the Tynecastle Bronze, a 3ft x 2ft three-dimensional relief that features a team group described as Hearts’ greatest-ever side.
The plaque marks the spot where these men had their photograph taken by a Daily Dispatch photographer after 16 of them enlisted to McCrae’s Battalion, the first professional footballers to do so in significant numbers. The club’s black cat, Blackie, is also featured in the team group after running across the path of the players just before the camera shutter clicked. Sadly, seven Hearts players could not rely on having nine lives and never came home again.
Hearts manager Gary Locke, who attended the ceremony, later pondered the significance of the event in terms of a group of young Hearts players who were praised on Wednesday night for overcoming Queen of the South on penalties in their League Cup encounter. While their efforts might have been admirable, it again illustrated how language has almost become redundant when seeking to describe the heroism involved in making the greatest sacrifice of all.
It felt trite to sit down with Locke and turn to football matters with the words of Craig Herbertson’s Hearts of Glory still echoing outside. The Germany-based singer/songwriter closed the ceremony with a rendition of the song he wrote to commemorate those players who enlisted to McCrae’s Battalion that morning in November 1914.
“The finest men I ever knew had gone,” lamented manager John McCartney, when the players later left Waverley train station, bound for the western front.
These words are included on the plaque, which deserves to become a new Edinburgh landmark. “Craig sings a very touching song and for me it’s up there with the Hearts Song in what it means to the club,” said Locke. “It was very touching and moving and I certainly had a lump in my throat.”
It helps that Locke is already so deeply associated with the club. With so many young Hearts-supporting players on the books, there is, he says, a definite willingness to learn more about the club’s history. The Heart of Midlothian war memorial at Haymarket, which has been returned to its rightful position after the disruption caused by tram works, will be the scene of the Remembrance Day service in November.
With a memorial cairn having been built at Contalmaison in northern France, rectifying the previous omission of a marker on the western front, there is a sense of completion now that a tribute has been installed at Tynecastle. After all, this is where several thousand Hearts fans gather each fortnight. And it is where those who have inherited the maroon jerseys seek to bring another form of glory to Gorgie.
Locke hopes these players will allow themselves a few moments of reflection in front of the plaque, perhaps before today’s match with Dundee United.
“It’s fantastic that the players will walk past that bronze every time they play at Tynecastle, it shows you what this club means,” said Locke. “That was the greatest ever Hearts team. You have teams that win trophies but there will be no team here that has made the sacrifices that these boys did.
“I think it’s important they take a moment to look at the plaque,” he added. “There are people out there saying it would be great for the players to touch it before the game, maybe the superstitious ones might do that. It’s certainly something that I will stand and reflect on for a time when I come here. These men mean so much to the club. It could become as iconic as the Liverpool sign. That means as much to me as probably the Anfield sign means to the most dedicated Liverpudlian.”
Danny Wilson played a skipper’s role yesterday, helping unveil the plaque. Next to him stood Lance Corporal David Timmins, who lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan. Still only 21, Wilson is sensible enough to make a distinction between playing football and fighting – and dying for – freedom.
He also showed an appetite to discover more on the subject of Hearts’ – and other clubs’ – contribution to the Great War. Representatives from Hibs, Falkirk and Raith Rovers were at Tynecastle yesterday, for players from these clubs also enlisted with Sir George McCrae.
“I don’t know the full story,” said Wilson. “But today was a great opportunity to hear more about it, and I think this is a fitting tribute. At school, we did the Second World War, rather than the First World War. So I found today really interesting.
“It has always been a great privilege for anyone to pull on a Hearts jersey and this can only emphasise that, because it shows what they sacrificed so we could still be here today. This is just a small tribute for a massive, massive deed. It’s not something I’ll talk about in the dressing room. But the boys can take inspiration from seeing what people have been willing to give up. They gave up their lives. We’re at the smaller end of the scale. It’s just football.”