HAVING seen former clubs Third Lanark and Airdrie go to the wall, cult Hearts hero Drew Busby would hate to see the Gorgie side go the same way.
DREW Busby knows a thing or two about clubs going to the wall. He scored the last goal for Third Lanark before they went into liquidation. He spent three years at Airdrieonians, who would later go bust. Add to that a spell with Toronto Blizzard, now extinct, and you can see why he is worried about the situation at Hearts, his favourite former club. “I think I’m a bit of a Jonah,” he says. “If I was Greenock Morton or Queen of the South, I would be getting worried.”
Those were the last two teams Busby played for in a long career that included six seasons at Tynecastle, some of them quite traumatic. The 1970s are remembered down Gorgie way not just for spiralling debts, dwindling crowds and two relegations, but for the bustling, hard-as-nails striker who made the tough times easier to take. The mustachioed, all-action centre-forward, scorer of 86 goals in 257 appearances, was something of a cult hero.
Busby, who was based in the west, didn’t realise as much at the time. Only when he returned as a guest to Tynecastle, 20 years after leaving the club in 1979, did he begin to appreciate the extent of his popularity. Since then, he has paid at the gate to see some of the bigger games, such as the Europa League match in Liverpool, and last season’s Scottish Cup final.
Of the seven Scottish clubs he has played for, the one now fighting for its life means the most. “There’s something about the Hearts,” he says. “I can’t put my finger on it… it gets into your blood. I don’t know, maybe I’m getting caught up in the emotion of it all, but once you meet the fans, and get to know them, it’s just unthinkable that anything could happen to them. Hearts is what these people live for.”
Busby, 64, lives in Balloch these days, trying to make ends meet as the landlord of a Dumbarton pub. He is no expert on the crisis afflicting his old club, but he likes to think that those supporters for whom he has so much admiration will pull them through. Whether that will be enough in a few months’ time, when another bill is to be footed, he is not so sure.
It is a heavy price for the reckless ambition of Vladimir Romanov, the club’s majority shareholder. “I don’t know the guy’s agenda,” says Busby. “It’s easy to be critical from the outside because you don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes, but personally, I just wish he would go away. I don’t think he’s interested anymore.”
Hearts have suggested that this week’s match against St Mirren could be their last, a shocking admission that has stirred memories of the late Third Lanark. Just before the Glasgow club went under, Busby spent four months at Cathkin Park. Still a teenager, he went directly from juvenile football into their first team, an indication perhaps of their impoverished existence.
There was no hot water, no lights in the dressing-room. Bobby Shearer, their manager, paid the players’ wages with coins received at the turnstiles. One day, when he was expecting a visit from the taxman, Bill Hiddleston, their chairman, asked his players to hide the fruit machine. According to legend, he was also reluctant to pay for the new match ball that clubs were required to supply for every home game, so much so that he painted an old one white, and ordered his players to boot it over the stand within seconds of the kick-off. The referee would then content himself with a used one from the dugout.
Although they didn’t know it at the time, Third Lanark’s last game was a 5-1 defeat by Dumbarton at Boghead on 28 April, 1967. Busby scored an equaliser. “I was just a young boy. About five or six senior players refused to play because they were due expenses, but I wasn’t interested in money. All I was interested in was playing senior football. I had been running about the midfield that season, but I ended up playing centre-forward and I think I had a left-back beside me. We were a goal down after the first minute, but I scored with a shot under the goalkeeper’s body. I had no idea it was the last goal Third Lanark would ever score, but it’s what everybody remembers you for.”
The outlook is bleak for Hearts, but it was worse for Third Lanark, who went into liquidation that summer. They fell victim to debts of just £40,000 and had no recourse to administration. Nor was there any emergence from the rubble, no newco starting again in the bottom tier. Busby found himself playing junior football until Airdrie signed him in 1970.
There, he struck up such an impressive partnership with Drew Jarvie that Bobby Seith spent £35,000 to take him to Tynecastle. In the six years that followed, Busby became a folk hero with the Hearts support, scoring the winner against Everton in a Texaco Cup tie at Goodison, and netting twice in the 5-1 win against Lokomotiv Leipzig, arguably the club’s greatest night in Europe.
At a time when Hearts were at a low ebb, it was Busby’s character and commitment, to say nothing of his ferocious shot, that endeared him to the fans. They still talk about the hat-trick that won him a case of whisky in the 7-0 win at Arbroath in 1977. And the night he fluffed a penalty in a shootout against Dundee United. “When I went up to take it, I slipped, and my right foot kind of just touched the ball. Hamish McAlpine had time to dive, pick himself up and then walk out to collect it.”
Sadly for Busby, his time at Hearts coincided with a decline in their fortunes. He, more than anyone, deserved better than relegation in 1977 and 1979. It was a depressing period in which the club was mismanaged, on and off the pitch. “We were turning up for training, and there was nowhere to train, nobody to take training. It was a total shambles. We were just running round the track. And if the track was frozen in the winter, we went into a wee gym at the stadium, where there was only room for about ten of us. It was just ridiculous.”
In the last league match at Tynecastle before their second relegation, Hearts were watched by just 2,400 spectators. Fans demanded directors’ resignations. There were shades of 2012 about the calls for constitutional change that would allow money to be raised via a share issue. In the summer of 1979, when Willie Ormond, their manager, had a cost-cutting clearout, Busby swapped Edinburgh for Toronto.
These days, with the club at death’s door, it is as well to remember men like Busby, and what they meant to supporters. “I’ve no illusions about the type of player I was, but because they knew that you cared, and that you gave 100 per cent, that was all that mattered. I remember one game, a cup replay against Morton at Cappielow, when my right knee was absolutely knackered. I limped through the whole game, and never played again for four weeks. But I scored the winner.”
Busby’s spirit will be needed in spades if Hearts are to secure a bigger, and much more important, victory in this, their darkest hour.