BILLY Brown is an intense, passionate man at the best of times, never mind when he feels he has been backed into a corner, as he clearly does now.
This perhaps explains his outburst at the end of last week, when, stung by defeat the previous evening against Hibs, the Hearts assistant manager questioned what good it was doing anyone maintaining the signing embargo in place on his club.
Brown insisted that it was doing untold damage to the Scottish game, damaging its credibility and ruining the prospects of several youngsters whose development was being hampered by their need to play on a regular basis before they are ready to do so. Wherever Hearts are now, the point is they could be in a far, far worse position, and it is only because of the support of their fans that they have been able to reach the stage where they are being beaten with what is dispiriting regularity. What was (and perhaps still could be) the likely alternative scenario is still very much bleaker.
Yesterday, despite the distance between them and their nearest rivals at the bottom having been extended the previous day due to Ross County’s victory, another impressive crowd of over 13,000 turned up at Tynecastle stadium for the 2-0 defeat to Partick Thistle. It was notable that the loss was met by what was resignation, sure, but also stoicism. It isn’t defeats that are spearing fans, because they are still turning up. What disturbs them is when the players are guilty of making elementary mistakes, as they were in the first half yesterday. A sharp volley of boos greeted the half-time whistle. After Hearts improved in the second-half, the verdict from the stands had softened to the extent that barely a jeer was heard at the end.
Liquidation has been averted – certainly for the time being, assuming a Company Voluntary Arrangement can eventually be delivered, after it was agreed in principle late last year – and that is down to the efforts of supporters who have signed up to a direct debit policy that is relieving them of hard-earned cash each month. Like the supporters, Brown must accept that this is a hard, hard road on which the club are travelling, and sadly, the cost will continue to be felt for some time yet; for years, rather than the matter of months the embargo has been in place for.
This is the consequence of financial mismanagement over a lengthy period of time and the current punishment is designed to bite for as long as it takes for the club to exit administration, which is when the signing embargo, which is preventing Hearts turning to even veteran players well disposed to the team and who might be convinced to play for nothing, will be lifted. Brown’s belief that “we’ve had our punishment and it has to stop now” does not wash.
And yet it isn’t hard to feel sympathy for Gary Locke, who has already endured so much in a short managerial reign. Appointed temporary successor to John McGlynn last February, his first taste of life as a permanent manager was a League Cup final defeat against St Mirren. “The opportunity has come a wee bit earlier than expected but I certainly aim to take it with both hands,” he said then. Even he could not imagine to what degree his motivational qualities would be tested while his coaching ability is being forensically examined in each game, as critics question why he is not able to ensure players are marked at corner kicks, for example – one of yesterday’s failings. Locke is of course in a unique position since his prospects are directly hitched to the labyrinthine workings of the Lithuanian courts. As long as he cannot bring anyone in, these hands he hoped would seize the opportunity are tied.
As he said yesterday, what remains most frustrating is not having the depth of numbers available to be able to drop players who are making persistent mistakes, as almost every other manager in the land has the luxury of doing. But this, again, is the purpose of a sanction – it takes away options and removes room to manoeuvre.
It certainly provides perspective for those occasions when we hear the squealing and complaints of managers elsewhere, with Ally McCoist’s strange outburst last week a case in point. He has been exercised by the demands placed on his Rangers players in a period when they were asked to play four games in 11 days, three of which have been in those far-flung, hard-to-get-to locations as Airdrie, Dunfermline and Stenhousemuir. Imagine that – four games in 11 days, in what is meant to be a busier than normal spell during the festive break. Arsenal, for example, have played five times since 23 December, and though of course their resources are deeper than Rangers’ at present, McCoist has a far bigger squad from which to choose than the part-time clubs who make up their fixture list this season.
This was something Stenhousemuir player John Gemmell felt moved to point out in rather blunt style on Twitter on Saturday, as he digested McCoist’s words. They had of course amused someone used to fitting in football fixtures around a full-time job, as most have to do in League One.
McCoist has not had it easy either, but to make such a trivial complaint makes him look foolish and detracts from the work he has done to steer his side through a period of turbulence at Ibrox. It also looks particularly absurd in light of Locke’s travails.
No-one at Tynecastle is being paid the sums many at Rangers are pocketing, and when the Ibrox side were themselves hit by a signing embargo, it was a punishment they were able to withstand due to the calibre of players already at the club, and the standard of opposition they were obliged to play in what was then the Third Division.
This was the point made by Gary Mackay last week, when he wondered if it might have been better had Hearts taken what would have been an 18-point deduction at the end of last season. This might well have led to almost immediate relegation, rather than the death by 38 cuts that it seems is their fate in the current campaign.
The former midfielder chose to deliver this argument in the context of an attack on chief executive, David Southern, and director of football John Murray, the two men who he felt should have made a call which was not, presumably, theirs to make, considering they were not directors.
However, it is indeed true that Locke’s young side might have been better served playing in a league where they had a better chance to express themselves rather than being ground down on a weekly basis, as is presently the case.
Following yet another home defeat yesterday, the chance to rebuild in a lower division will come before long, and judging from several comments heard in and around Tynecastle during and after the game, this will feel like a blessed relief.