Eight years ago today Hearts were in a state of flux. Nowhere near as desperate as the situation they are currently in, but one which had supporters slightly concerned about the season ahead.
As we entered the dying days of June 2005, Hearts had no manager, a skeleton first-team squad in which Graham Weir was the only recognised striker, and were fearing the prospect of losing their two prized assets, Andy Webster and Paul Hartley. At that point, no-one had any idea whether or not new owner Vladimir Romanov was the real deal. There’s an argument that we still don’t.
The Eastern European businessman eased the uncertainty on June 30 by appointing the highly-regarded George Burley, a manager who, at that time, would ordinarily have been out of Hearts’ league. He then backed up this bold move by sanctioning the signing of a raft of players of the quality Hearts could usually only dream of. From no-hopers in June, Hearts fans were brimming with optimism by the end of July.
The rest is history, as they say. Hearts stormed clear at the top of the SPL, winning their first eight games of the season with some of the most exhilarating football ever seen at Tynecastle. The fans feasted on it, understandably so, as an unlikely title dream started to look like a real possibility. Then Burley was axed. For no apparent reason.
It remains one the most ridiculous decisions Scottish football has ever witnessed and, despite all the buffoonery that has gone since at Hearts, the George Burley months represent Romanov’s chaotic reign in a microcosm. Fill the fans with hope, then trash their dreams. The madcap owner had a bewildering penchant for sabotage. He proved on so many occasions that he had the ability to do good. He appointed fine managers like Burley, Csaba Laszlo, Jim Jefferies and Paulo Sergio. Yet none of them were given the time or the chance to build anything long-term. He also had an eye for a player as he recruited plenty who would become fans’ favourites. Yet then he’d infuriate everyone at the club by insisting that a key man be left out of the team for some obscure political reason.
Perhaps he would have been given a jolt had the fans protested en masse the day Burley was sacked. Instead it was left to the media and the rest of Scottish football to question the sanity of a man who, in the eyes of some Jambos, was above reproach. He used this flak from outside to generate a siege mentality, which at times bordered on paranoia. The main reason fans didn’t turn on him, of course, was that he was the only show in town and they felt they couldn’t rile him in case he pulled the plug.
Even those supporters who grew fed up with his crazy ways would often be won over again by a good period on the pitch. And there were quite a few. Much of the ill-feeling for sacking Burley disappeared when Hearts finished second in the SPL and thumped Hibs 4-0 on their way to winning the 2006 Scottish Cup. Then, after the grim days of Eduard Malofeev, the Riccarton Three, and lurching into the bottom six under a hapless managerial triumvirate, Romanov redeemed himself by bringing in Laszlo, who brought a third-place finish.
Even when Romanov’s empire was crumbling, Hearts still managed to beat Hibs 5-1 in last year’s Scottish Cup final. He had an uncanny knack for pulling things out of the fire. Until now.
There are many who feel that Hearts fans are now getting what they deserve for lording it in the good times under a regime which has long looked destined to lead their club towards this doomsday situation. But what were they to do? Say “no, I’m not going to celebrate these Scottish Cup wins because we’ve probably spent above our means to win them?” Of course not.
Most sensible Hearts fans have known for some time that their club was in serious peril. But what, realistically, could they have done to change things? They just had to go along for the ride and hope for the best. They ended up on an almighty eight-year bender and now they need the mother of all hangover cures to rouse them from their stricken state. Many will say it was worth it because they brought home two Scottish Cups along the way and sampled a second-place finish in the SPL.
Yet the galling thing is that, with a bit of savvy applied, Romanov could, and should, have delivered more than that. Without taking Hearts anywhere near the precipice.