Frank Liddell: A Hearts title-clinching hero

Frank Liddell leads the Hearts players' lap of honour after his goal sealed the title in 1980. Picture: TSPL

Frank Liddell leads the Hearts players' lap of honour after his goal sealed the title in 1980. Picture: TSPL

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WHO was the last player to score a title-clinching goal for Hearts? After last weekend, that is a pub quiz question which is open to semantics.

Was it Jamie Walker, Genero Zeefuik or James Keatings, who all netted in Hearts 3-0 win at Falkirk last Saturday? Or was it Lee Wallace or Kenny Miller whose goals in Rangers’ 2-0 win at Hibs the following day formally confirmed Hearts as winners of the Championship?

Liddell rises to score the goal that won the championship. Picture: TSPL

Liddell rises to score the goal that won the championship. Picture: TSPL

Thirty-five years ago, the previous occasion when the Gorgie club won the second-tier title, there were no such grey areas.

With just three minutes left to play at Tynecastle on 30 April 1980, the considerable figure of Frank Liddell rose imperiously to meet a left-wing cross from Malcolm Robertson and power a firm header beyond Airdrie goalkeeper Ernie McGarr for the only goal of the game.

It was the final match of a tumultuous season for Hearts and Liddell’s dramatic intervention secured the victory they needed to win the old First Division, edging out an Airdrie side who only needed a point on the night to claim the silverware.

Liddell, now a successful financial advisor in Brisbane where he has lived for almost 30 years, still cherishes the memory of that dramatic occasion which prompted a pitch invasion and wild celebrations from the Hearts support.

Liddell as he is today, living in Brisbane

Liddell as he is today, living in Brisbane

“I’ll never forget that night as long as I live,” Liddell told The Scotsman. “I’ve got a reminder of it every day as I kept the match ball from the game and I’ve got in on display in my office.”

The ball sits beside a reproduction of a newspaper cartoonist’s depiction of Liddell at the time as The Incredible Hulk, prompted by the big central defender’s likeness to actor Lou Ferrigno in the TV series of the time.

Liddell was every inch a super-hero for the Hearts fans in the final weeks of the 1979-80 campaign, in the midst of the club’s “yo-yo” years when they were relegated three times in five years. The victory over Airdrie was the only occasion in that period when Hearts were promoted as champions.

Not only did Liddell score the title-clinching goal, he also netted the goal which secured promotion in a 1-1 draw at home to Berwick Rangers the previous midweek. Again it came from a Malcolm Robertson cross, again it was a bullet header.

Remarkably, those were his first two goals for Hearts since joining the club from Alloa for a £15,000 fee two years earlier. He went on to score just two more, one of them a winner against Rangers in the Premier Division the following season.

“I used to wind our main striker Willie Gibson up about that,” laughs Liddell. “I told him that while he scored most of our goals, it was me who scored the important ones. The build-up to the last few games of that season was pretty tense.

“There was a lot of pressure ahead of the last three games of the season especially.

“We still needed a point to make sure of promotion, while the actual title was still very much in the balance between ourselves and Airdrie.

“We scrambled that point with my equaliser against Berwick.

“We didn’t play well in that game, we actually got booed off at half-time when we were 1-0 down, but my goal changed the whole mood among the squad. A lot of the pressure was lifted and then we went up to Perth on the Saturday and beat St Johnstone 3-0 to stay in the hunt for the title.

“When it came to the Airdrie game, we were all desperate to win it. We wanted to go up as champions, not runners-up, which had happened the previous time Hearts were promoted two years earlier.

“It wasn’t a brilliant football match against Airdrie, to be honest, but the atmosphere was fantastic. It was Tynecastle at its best.

“After the game, Bobby Moncur came in to the dressing room and told us we had to go back out on the park because the fans wouldn’t leave until we did. We all ran out bare-footed, because we’d already taken our boots and socks off.

“The reception we got from the fans was incredible and it’s something that will live with me forever.”

A miner from the Stirlingshire village of Fallin, Liddell combined his duties at the pit with part-time football for Alloa. He was a key figure in their promotion to the First Division in 1977, which would lead to his move to Tynecastle.

“Alloa were promoted the same year that Hearts were relegated from the Premier Division for the first time in 1977,” he recalls.

“So I played against Hearts in that ‘77-78 season and did well against them, including a game at Tynecastle near the end of the campaign.

“I played that game on the Saturday, met the Hearts manager Willie Ormond on the Tuesday and signed. I was actually about to move to Australia at that point, because I’d been contacted by a couple of clubs and I fancied doing something different.

“But when the chance came to join Hearts and go full-time, I wasn’t going to turn it down.

“I can’t claim to have been a Hearts supporter as a kid – everyone in Fallin supported Rangers.

“It was a fantastic opportunity for me, though, to play in the Premier Division. I’d worked in the mines for four years and had just left to become a maintenance inspector at an aluminium plant when Hearts came in for me.”

Liddell recalls his time at Hearts with fondness, despite two relegations book-ending that First Division title-winning season and the constant boardroom dramas at the club at the time. “There was a lot of stuff going on at Hearts off the pitch and it wasn’t long after that title win before the club was put up for sale,” he says.

“Archie Martin was the chairman and was great mates with the manager Bobby Moncur, who had replaced Willie Ormond halfway through the season we won the title.

“Wallace Mercer eventually won the takeover battle for the club but Archie had backed Kenny Waugh’s bid. So Wallace got rid of the guys who hadn’t supported him, including Archie. I always remember Bobby Moncur wouldn’t shake the new chairman’s hand for a photo.

“When Bobby went and Tony Ford got the job as manager, I knew my time at the club was coming to an end. It became clear he didn’t fancy a few of us, including myself, John Brough and Jim Jefferies.”

Liddell left at the start of the 1981-82 season, after 114 appearances and those four goals for Hearts, and moved to Australia for the first time for a two-year stint with Brisbane City.

He returned to Scotland for spells with Dunfermline, Stenhousemuir and St Johnstone before returning to Brisbane, this time for good, in 1986.

“I’d got into the financial services game when I worked with Jim Jefferies at Legal and General when I came back from Australia the first time,” he adds.

“I’ve now been in Brisbane for almost 30 years, which I find hard to believe, and I have my own financial services firm which has been successful. The weather’s great and it’s a good lifestyle.

“I’ve been back to Scotland three or four times for Christmas over the years and I always get invited to a game at Tynecastle by one of the Hearts supporters’ clubs, which is nice.

“I’ve been interviewed on the pitch at half-time and the reaction from the fans is amazing. It feels like I’ve never been away and it’s great how so many of the supporters remember me. I think having scored that goal helps.

“I was delighted to see Hearts win the league last weekend. When I looked at it at the start of season, with Hibs and Rangers there too, thought it would be really tight. But Hearts have won it easily and it’s great to see them back where they belong.”

QUIZ: can you name these 16 Scottish footballers from the nineties/ early 2000s?

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