HEARTS first took part in European football as far back as 1958, in only the fourth season of what is now the Champions League. Participants in both the European Cup and the Fairs Cup during the first half of the 1960s, they also enjoyed a brief run in the Cup Winners’ Cup in the 1970s, beating Lokomotive Leipzig before losing to Hamburg.
But their best season in Europe to date was 1988-89, when they reached the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup.
And the culmination of that run, ultimately unsuccessful yet a great occasion all the same, was the last-eight tie in which they beat Bayern Munich 1-0 at Tynecastle, only to lose 2-0 in Germany.
It was 25 years ago today that the great German club came to Tynecastle for the first leg. Hearts had already beaten St Patrick’s Athletic, Austria Vienna and Velez Mostar to get to the quarter-finals, but they knew they would have to raise their game considerably merely to keep the tie against Bayern alive for the return match in Munich.
And yet, for all that many outsiders predicted the worst, the Tynecastle club had steadily grown in confidence over the course of their run. Their 4-0 aggregate victory over St Pat’s was no more than expected, a competent if uninspired result against a relatively anonymous side that did, however, include one man the Hearts support would get to know a lot better more than two decades later – future Hibernian manager Pat Fenlon.
Their 1-0 aggregate win over the Austrians was tougher, particularly after the first leg at Tynecastle ended goalless, but a Mike Galloway strike in the second leg was enough to take the Scots through. The third round was tougher again, especiallly the return leg in Mostar, a small city in Bosnia Herzegovina.
A glass was thrown at the visitors’ dugout and smoke bombs and fireworks were set off throughout the game – the first experience for many of the Hearts team and fans of such a volatile atmosphere. But the 3-0 lead they held from the first leg helped Alex MacDonald’s side remain fairly calm, and they only lost 2-1 on the night because of a goal a couple of minutes from time.
Three months on from the Mostar match, Tynecastle was packed for the Bayern game, despite the fact the tie was being broadcast live on television. It hardly seems credible now, in an era when hundreds of matches are screened every week on TV, but Hearts owner Wallace Mercer was later fined for going ahead with the broadcast without the permission of the SFA and despite the opposition of the German authorities. Hearts appealed against the penalty, only to have the size of the fine more than doubled.
But all that only happened in June. Back on that dreich February night, few people inside the stadium were bothered about the politics of the game. There had been some grumbling about the ticket prices – a steep £20 to stand behind the goals, if memory serves – but once inside the ground the crowd simply wanted to see their team give a good account of themselves against the former European champions. And that is exactly what they did see, as Iain Ferguson scored the only goal of the game with a blistering 25-yard shot after Tosh McKinlay had rolled a free-kick sideways into his path.
The Hearts squad of the time contained some of the club’s best players of the past 50 years, among them John Robertson, Craig Levein, Dave McPherson, John Colquhoun and Gary Mackay. Ferguson, who had joined the previous year from Dundee United, started more than 30 games in that 1988-89 season, but he was only included from kick-off against Bayern because Mackay was struggling for fitness.
“I had a hamstring injury so was left out of the starting line-up,” Mackay recalled this week. “Putting me on the bench was the right decision – especially when you saw the way Fergie scored.”
A lifelong Hearts supporter, Mackay had watched some of the club’s previous European ties from the Tynecastle terraces, and has seen hundreds of games in the quarter-century since. But the feeling inside the ground on the evening of 28 February, he remembers, has never been bettered since.
“The atmosphere that night was incredible. The only thing that has come close to replicating it was the game against Aberdeen at the end of the 2005-06 season when we qualified for the Champions League. Prior to that, the Lokomotiv game in the 70s was incredible too, because the team came back from being 2-0 down after the first leg to win the second leg 5-1. Those games were special.
“And the thing about qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup was how quickly the club had progressed. It was only six years earlier that we had been in the old First Division, so to make it through so far in Europe was a phenomenal achievement.
“I remember it being quite a tight match against Bayern – the first half was goalless and there weren’t too many incidents of note. But then came Fergie’s goal ten minutes into the second half, and that just took the roof off the stadium.”
While Mackay saw the 55th-minute strike from the cramped confines of the dugout, McPherson was in the thick of the action. “Fergie’s always had a great strike on him,” the defender said. “It was a greasy surface, and a windy night, and that helped. But it was a spectacular goal all the same. That night was electric. From the time the draw was made we just wanted to get out there and see how we measured up against Bayern. The whole run in Europe had generated a good momentum, and Bayern was a massive tie.”
Almost certainly the youngest person in the crowd of 26,294 that night was McPherson’s son Chris. Now a Hearts employee, Chris was born on New Year’s Day 1989, so was just over eight weeks old at the end of February. “I still have my ticket from the game, so I was there,” he told The Scotsman. “Or so I’m told – funnily enough, I can’t remember a thing about it.”
His memory may have failed him. But, for everyone else who was there, that night was unforgettable.