Aidan Smith: Happy Hearts make up for lost time

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THE football club where my eight-year-old son plays have a tie-up with Hibernian and recently a former Leith favourite now involved in youth development came along to tell parents how the academy would work, with boys being selected over the coming months and commencing their training after the summer holidays.

So, guess what happened the very next time the laddie took the field in his Fun 4s: a man in a maroon tracksuit grabbed me at the end and introduced himself as a Hearts scout. Would Archie like to come along to Riccarton right away and try out one of their after-school sessions?

Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has enhanced his reputation. Picture: SNS

Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has enhanced his reputation. Picture: SNS

I mention this not because it says anything negative about Hibs. Their plans sound good and I’m sure the academy will be a well-run operation. But I wonder if it says something about Hearts which typifies the club, especially the way it has approached this title-winning season.

No one has hung about. The new owner, Ann Budge, wasted no time in appointing a director of football, Craig Levein, who wasted no time in appointing a coach, Robbie Neilson, who wasted no time in bidding farewell to those irascible, tattooed old warriors, Jamie Hamill and Ryan Stevenson, after it was decided that new dynamism was needed.

The fans didn’t hang about buying into the project. Some had sympathy for Hamill and Stevenson and a bigger number felt sorry for Gary Locke, forced to manage with a points deficit and a transfer embargo but still able to produce quiet dignity and derby victories during the near-inevitable tumble into the Championship. The grand plan, though, was the thing and there was no room for sentiment: Hearts needed rebuilding and the way it was going to be done was with everyone pulling together – and in the case of the supporters, believing that every time they spent some of their hard-earned wages on the cause, almost every time they opened their mouths to roar encouragement, it would make a difference.

What a simple, brilliant idea: tell the fans they’re important, which of course they are, only some clubs forget this. Previously at Tynecastle, Jambos reckoned they couldn’t have felt any more remote from the workings of their team than if Vladimir Romanov, ex-submariner, had been running operations from the ocean floor.

‘What a simple, brilliant idea: tell the fans they’re important, which of course they are’

It should be said that the re-emergence of Levein wasn’t greeted with maroon bunnets being joyously hurled into the air all the way along Gorgie Road. The faithful had loved him as a Hearts player, of course, but some had less fond memories of his spell as a Hearts manager and, remembering his dour Scotland team and one especially constipated performance in particular, they weren’t anticipating fun and frolics from him in the post of director of football.

And how was the job going to work, anyway? Beyond Tynecastle, observers of the football scene pointed to the failures of others in this upstairs role.

And because they didn’t know anything about Neilson’s managerial abilities – in truth, no one did – they assumed this was the big Thunderbirds revival that had been long mooted, with Levein as Gerry Anderson pulling the strings and the young rookie as his clunky marionette. But Neilson has been no puppet. Maybe Levein’s slight thumbprints have been detectable here and there – Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis, of course, were part of an urgent Dundee United midfield with which he persuaded people to reappraise his abilities as a coach after an unsuccessful time at Leicester City. But his profile has been so low it’s as if he’s been moving around in one of Romanov’s old submersibles discovered under the main stand.

While Hearts have wasted no time this season, their main rivals, Rangers and Hibs, have done exactly that. Rangers can point to the heavy distractions of a convulsing boardroom but, while the excuse has some validity, footballers can be remarkably self-contained animals, if not downright selfish ones, and those in light blue have to take responsibility for performances of staggering crassness.

Hibs meanwhile can argue that Hearts knew relegation was coming and could prepare for it, whereas they did not – and then it took time for their untried manager to find his feet and his best team, by which point Hearts had amassed a formidable lead.

These things are to some extent true, but they don’t tell you how well Hearts have played this season, how many goals they’ve scored, how many have been scored in the last 15 minutes, how much fitter than their rivals this has made them appear, how they’ve refused to be bullied by Rangers, how they’ve refused to be beaten by Hibs, how cleverly Neilson has blended old heads with whippersnapper vim – and above all how much Hearts, cheered on by a support which has been given back its club and is tickled maroon about that, have wanted this Championship.

Hearts have enjoyed some good fortune, as all victorious teams do, especially in staying undefeated against their main challengers when the loss of three points would have challenged Neilson more, and they have been able to build the momentum which proved elusive to Hibs and Rangers. But, as they always say about such campaigns, the league table doesn’t lie.

Maybe surrendering the unbeaten record to Falkirk was a blessing in that it removed the pressure to go on and be Gorgie’s Les Invincibles. But it still required good management and strong performances to get them over that blip. Bigger tests for Neilson and his players lie ahead. He might end up losing some of of his men, which can happen when you draw attention to yourself by clinching titles in March, and given Alex Neil’s flight to England from Hamilton Accies, maybe the manager will find himself coveted, too.

But, while Hibs and Rangers can’t yet think about where they’ll be playing their football next season, Neilson has begun strategizing for the return to the top flight.

He still isn’t hanging about. Levein still oversees intriguingly. And a small boy still dreams of becoming a footballer.

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