ANY Hearts supporter looking for consolation in the wake of Sunday’s 7-0 drubbing by Celtic could be forgiven for believing their search would be long and futile. With a signing embargo currently in place and no prospect of an early exit from administration, there is no chance of reinforcing a desperately threadbare squad any time soon.
Out of the Scottish Cup and bottom of the Premiership, the Tynecastle team do not have a lot to look forward to in the second half of the season. Even the League Cup, in which they play Caley Thistle in February’s semi-finals, might be no more than a distraction from the battle against relegation.
That’s the picture as it seems at initial glance anyway. A bleak, chill landscape without even a glimmer of light to cheer the scene.
Yet a more detailed examination reveals some grounds for hope. Not the unrealistic hope that led some fans to believe that a semi-retired cavalry of old pros like Rudi Skacel would ride to the rescue in January, but a hope based on the will to rebuild the club brick by brick.
First, there are a few remarks to make about the match – obvious remarks, but ones which were widely overlooked amid the utter humiliation of the fourth-round defeat. Yes, the result will remain an infamous one, but in itself it counts for little.
For a start, the scale of the loss has no practical effect: lose 1-0 or 7-0, either way you’re out of the Scottish Cup. And goal difference doesn’t come into it in knockout competitions, so if you are going to suffer a heavy loss, better not have it in the league.
Also, Celtic played rather well on the day, giving the best performance in his 200 games in charge, according to manager Neil Lennon. No matter the deficiencies shown by Hearts, you do not make major changes to your footballing strategy as a consequence of a heavy defeat by the best, and richest, team in the country.
You do your best to learn from games like Sunday’s, and clearly, Gary Locke will have to do a lot to restore the spirit of his squad before Saturday’s league game at Tannadice. But there is nothing to be gained, by players, coaching staff or supporters, from dwelling on it.
A one-off game went very badly. Now move on, and bear in mind that it does not even count as the Tynecastle club’s worst ever competitive defeat. That remains the 1-8 Scottish Cup loss to Vale of Leven back in 1882. It is another result from far closer to the present day, however, that offers a more useful comparison than that defeat by the old Dunbartonshire club.
In April 1981, Hearts lost 6-0 at Parkhead – their worst competitive result against Celtic before Sunday. They were relegated as a consequence, for the third time in four years. They had no money, attracted pitifully small crowds, and were largely reduced to a playing squad of youngsters. Seventeen-year-olds Gary Mackay and David Bowman were in the team that day, and came up against a Celtic side including Pat Bonner, Danny McGrain, Roy Aitken, Tommy Burns, Murdo MacLeod and Davie Provan.
The future looked black then, but the recovery was just around the corner. Wallace Mercer took the club over the following month, and the long march back to respectability began. Five years later, Hearts were runners-up in both league and cup.
The difference this time is that the recovery has already begun. The Foundation of Hearts have agreed terms for a Company Voluntary Arrangement with the club’s creditors and shareholders, and if they can get Lithuanian company Ubig to part with their 50 per cent stake, they can then start to take Hearts out of administration.
That remains a big if, but the Foundation remain ready to act. They have a budget for the remainder of this season and the following two. There are no grandiose presumptions about winning trophies, entering Europe or dramatic swoops into the transfer market; on the contrary, they have budgeted to break even no matter if they stay in the Championship for the next two seasons, presuming Hearts are relegated at the end of this one.
Over time, there will be changes to the playing staff. Not all of the present squad will prove able to hold down a long-term place in the team.
Some, though, will prove all too able, and move on to a bigger club –something that could happen, in a couple of cases, next month.
That’s the way it goes in football, and the same will be true for the coaching staff. Just as Jordan McGhee and the King brothers would not in normal circumstances be in the first-team squad yet, so Locke knows he would not have become Hearts manager this early in his coaching career but for the calamitous collapse of the Romanov regime. He too needs to prove himself in the longer term, and if it is decided in the summer that he needs a more experienced coach above him, he might well accept that change as in the best interests of the club.
But such changes, if they happen, would come after long and careful reflection by the new board of the club. There will be no panic measures.
And that potential future for Hearts should be the biggest consolation to those fans still hurting from Sunday. No matter how dark things may look on the park, the conditions are in place for a slow, sane, sustained revival.