IT WAS a humbling experience at Tynecastle on Saturday, when a sellout crowd of more than 16,000 turned up to demonstrate that a lifetime of loyalty still counted for something.
The hard-fought victory, which arrived courtesy of a deflected shot by Danny Grainger, earned Hearts three vital points but, more than that, it rewarded fans for their moving response to a crisis.
Just before kick-off, it was announced that £500,000 had been raised by the share issue launched only three weeks earlier. Think about that. Half a million pounds. In three weeks. War veterans, Children in Need and countless other charities could all claim, with some justification, to be more deserving recipients of that money but here it was, given to a football club by its supporters.
Now, there are moral questions to be asked here, not least of Vladimir Romanov, the club’s majority shareholder, who has allowed his badly-run plaything to be rescued by supporters who have already paid through the nose for season tickets and could just as easily have spent the money on their family’s Christmas.
These questions, as Hearts rather conveniently argue, are for another day. On Saturday, it was about paying tribute to the supporters who have kept their club alive. The knock-on effect of their commitment was that players and staff agreed to defer wages. How could they do otherwise when those who pay to watch them are forking out to keep them in a job?
The tragedy is that, while the immediate threat of extinction appears to have receded – this was not, as billed, their last-ever match – another challenge doubtless waits around the corner. John Robertson, whose face adorned the cover of the match programme, has repeatedly stressed that more needs to be done if Hearts are to survive in the long term.
Even if they avert the worst-case scenario, difficult days lie ahead. There have been repeated suggestions that the club is destined to go into administration, a development that would cost them, amongst other things, a 17-point penalty. Even without that punishment, a firesale of players in January, together with Dundee’s improved fortunes, add up to a possible relegation battle.
All of which means that, wherever Hearts play their football next season – the SPL, the First Division or, whisper it, as a relaunched club in Scotland’s bottom tier – they will be heavily reliant on young players.
Just as Rangers have turned to Lewis MacLeod, Barry McKay and Fraser Aird, so will the Tynecastle club be at the mercy of teenagers.
The good news is that Hearts are well off in that department. Jason Holt (19), Callum Paterson (18) and Jamie Walker (19) all started against St Mirren. Holt and Paterson were joined by Kevin McHattie, also of Hearts, in the Scotland under-21 team which lost 3-2 in Portugal last week.
Holt, in particular, was impressive on Saturday, frequently providing the spark in a midfield otherwise bogged down by what was an emotionally tiring afternoon. While Grainger’s goal – which spun in off Kenny McLean’s leg – grabbed all the headlines, Holt was many people’s man of the match.
Having figured prominently in Hearts’ lauded under-19 team, he was awarded a three-year contract last season and farmed out to Raith Rovers on loan. When he returned, he marked his first start, against St Johnstone in March, with a goal. Now that his club are in trouble, the chances are coming thick and fast. This was his second consecutive start in the first team. “If you’re good enough, the gaffer’s going to play you,” said Holt. “The opportunities are there for everyone. The future of the club is really bright. It has a lot of good young players.
“That’s been proven in the under-20 games, which are going really well. So the future is fantastic at this club.”
In the circumstances, “fantastic” is probably not how Hearts’ future should be described but you know what he means. If anyone can benefit from the club’s parlous condition, it is Holt, a Hearts fan who joined his team-mates in walking out to the centre circle before Saturday’s match to applaud the supporters’ efforts.
“It’s absolutely fantastic what the fans and the backroom staff and the people behind the scenes have done. I can’t thank them enough. When you’re out there clapping and you see all the fans standing and applauding, you can’t ask for more than that. It was brilliant.”
If there is anything positive to emerge from these dark days at Tynecastle, it is the likely development of players such as Holt. It’s just a pity that they were not given the same chance in years gone by. If they had been, Hearts would not be in this mess in the first place.