PERHAPS more so than any other club this season, Hearts have been in need of calm reassurance. Normally this might come from the manager, but when he, too, is feeling his way in the job, there are times when it pays to turn to a higher power.
Gary Locke yesterday paid tribute to the contribution made by club chaplain Andy Prime, who is a member of a backroom staff the manager is keen to credit with the team’s turn-around in fortunes.
Although they are headed for the Championship, the Tynecastle side’s recent renaissance could yet earn them the satisfaction of knowing that without the 15-point deduction they would not have finished in last place.
Locke, who is coming to the end of his first full season as manager, yesterday saluted those less well known figures who have helped keep the players’ spirits up. They are the unseen members of Locke’s team, although no less essential for this. One of them is Prime, whose work is conducted often in private with players who seek him out in times of trouble.
Prime is at Riccarton training complex early every Thursday morning, and his door is always open.
“They may not want to tell a team-mate, the physio or the manager what is going on regarding their problems,” he explained yesterday.
You would not know his occupation as an associate pastor from either his manner or bearing. For a start, there is no dog collar. And secondly, as he admits, “I’m a 27 year-old trapped inside the body of a 14 year-old”. He could very easily be mistaken for one of the throng of youthful looking faces that make up the bulk of the Hearts first-team squad.
Dressed yesterday in official club training kit, Prime admits he sometimes joins in when they need an extra player.
“I’m a ball collector mostly,” he added. On the face of it, he is one of the boys. On his first day at the club he was given the kind of nickname footballers specialise in handing out. Who are you? The chaplain? Then we’ll call you “Charlie”. And this is how he is now known.
Prime fulfils a role that sounds as vital to the well-being of those at a modern day football club as that of a nutritionist, except the nourishment he offers is of the spiritual variety.
“It’s a role for the sake of the players, to make sure they’re happy and doing all right,” he said, as good-natured invective was hurled at him from players standing on the balcony above.
“As you can see, they are very kind to me!” he added.
But his worth to the club is clear. Locke had already spelled this out earlier, when reflecting on how everyone had to pull together in the bleak times earlier this season, when defeat followed defeat, and off-field events, or lack of them, were getting everyone at the club down.
The manager also name-checked Dave Sykes, the club’s sports scientist, as someone who has helped both him and assistant manager Billy Brown when the cycle of defeats was getting hard to break.
Prime arrived at Hearts two seasons ago in a scheme operated by Sports Chaplaincy UK, and when John McGlynn was manager. “Almost every professional club in Scotland has a chaplain now, there are only two that don’t, I think,” explained Prime.
“It’s deliberately a background role,” he added. “A chaplain’s job is done well when he’s unseen. It’s great to get to know the guys as individuals before football players. They’re husbands or dads, sons and brothers.”
Prime is associated with an independent church in the centre of Edinburgh, where he grew up before heading to bible college in London to study. He is a Crystal Palace fan.
“That was my dad’s burden – he is an Englishman,” he said. “But you can’t help support the boys once they become your mates.”
He can certainly offer something different. Asked to reflect on the season, he said: “Gold is refined in fire. And for some of these boys, this season has been a bit of a furnace.”
He made sure these young players understood that there is always hope. Prime believes that the players’ character has been bolstered by the suffering this season. Perhaps now they are
finally beginning to see the light as they continue to enjoy playing football in relaxed circumstances, with the slightly more wound-up Kilmarnock, who occupy the relegation play-off place, due at Tynecastle on Sunday afternoon. They are the ones in need of some salvation now.
Locke denied Hearts are enjoying playing the part of kingmakers – or perhaps should that be jestermakers. They have edged Hibs nearer the stocks courtesy of last week’s victory at Easter Road, and can now ensure Kilmarnock spend a few more nervy days in second-bottom place. Now their fate is sealed, Hearts are playing more expansive football, and the results are improving as a consequence.
“I am not sure if enjoying it is the right word, but I think it’s great we have a part to play,” said Locke. “We have set targets ourselves. We want to get within 15 points of the teams above us, so we still have a lot to play for.”
BT Sport Q&A: Rangers | Hibs | Neil Lennon
THIS week’s BT Sport video Q&A looks at whether Rangers fans will buy season tickets and if the club’s supporters will force a change of ownership.
The form of Hibs under Terry Butcher is also examined following the Easter Road side’s derby defeat while the future of Neil Lennon is also considered following the announcement that his assistant Johan Mjallby is to depart at the end of the season.
• Email your Scottish football question for the BT Sport panel to answer. The next show will be recorded on May 7 after St Johnstone v Celtic with the video available on The Scotsman website the following day. You can also tweet us @TheScotsman.
A line-up of experts will handle your questions after each BT Sport game. Most match days, the team includes Darrell Currie, Derek Rae and Gary McAllister.
Over this season, BT Sport will air 30 SPFL matches plus 10 Rangers games from the SPFL League One.
• T&C We can not guarantee which presenters will answer your questions. Questions are vetted and no correspondence will be entered into.