• READ MORE: How Hearts planned ahead for Kyle Lafferty’s exit
Neil Lennon was, like a hopeless romantic, left stood up last summer after a brief courtship with a player he wanted. Kyle Lafferty had agreed to meet the Hibs manager as he played the Edinburgh field to see whether Hearts or Hibs were the club for him.
He met the Gorgie side first. Although it wasn’t quite love at first sight there was a connection. A feeling strong enough to renege on his word, stand Hibs up and begin a relationship with Hearts.
“I am a Hearts player and I am glad I came here,” he said not long after signing.
Hearts fans were won over instantly when he completed his move to Tynecastle. The club had recruited an international striker, a focal point, a provocative and alluring character, a goal scorer, a combative forward who will give his all. And he had rejected the club’s rivals. It didn’t take long for fans to become besotted.
It was the 30-year-old who got Hearts’ season up and running at Elgin City in the first game of the season with a 1-0 win in the Betfred Cup. Few knew it at the time but it would prove to be an illustration of what was to come that season: a disappointing performance punctuated by a decisive Lafferty strike. Yet, his four Betrfed Cup goals were not enough to save Hearts from an embarrassing group stage exit.
He failed to score in the first three league fixtures, which were more notable for gestures made towards Celtic and Kilmarnock fans, but it did not take long to realise Lafferty’s importance in a team which was lacked any sort of balance or pace and was devoid of creativity.
It was therefore a blessing Hearts had two of the most individualistic strikers in the league, Esmael Goncalves and Lafferty. It was a partnership which was always either going to thrive or dive. While the players got on well off the pitch there was no such relationship when they took to the field, the players rarely passing together let alone combining regularly.
While fans grew frustrated with Isma and his inconsistencies in front of goal, the feeling of devotion grew stronger for Lafferty. That was seen in the aftermath of his gambling revelations. Rather than taint his character, that weakness and the way he was dealing with it, out in the open, endeared him further to the support.
He was the first player who appeared capable of replacing the talismanic powers of Osman Sow, even if they were completely different players.
There are many who trace Hearts’ downturn after getting back into the Premiership to the sale of Sow. He was a fans’ favourite due to his skill and the sense of excitement when he got the ball. Lafferty was a fans’ favourite because he was antagonistic, he would battle, make it awkward for defenders with his Go Go Gadget arms and he could conjure up moments of magic.
Big moments in big matches are what fans remember. And that was what Lafferty produced. Goals against Rangers, Celtic and Hibs are how players can make a name for themselves at Tynecastle.
His role in the 4-0 destruction of Celtic will live long in the memory, as will the image of him stood in front a baying away support.
Often a super-charged Lafferty can be more hindrance than help as he is drawn into needless fouls and confrontations. But that December afternoon at Tynecastle saw his focus channelled. A fine finish was allied with a selfless all-round display.
The divisive element of his personality and character, the way he made opposition fans fume, especially those from Celtic and Hibs, fed into his mystique within the Tynecastle support. Many in the crowd would look to his attitude and imagine that was them if they got the chance to pull on the maroon jersey.
The goals he scored, the connection he built with the support, his importance within the team, it all if not masked his limitations certainly saw them overlooked to an extent. Lafferty’s awkwardness could be detrimental to his performance and that of the team.
Attacks fell apart during the season due to the erratic nature of his touch and link-play. His awareness and the way he used his body could have been a lot better when he had his back to goal. At times he would make the task of playing football look difficult, yet pop up with a pinpoint finish from an angle at distance. So often he was a contradiction.
He would frustrate by ignoring better positioned team-mates, instead opting for a shot that clearly wasn’t on. It was unlikely anyone had more shots hit a defender’s legs than Lafferty, and it was no surprise he did not produce a single assist all campaign.
This season Hearts have looked much improved, a better collective, with Uche Ikpeazu and Steven MacLean in attack. Two forwards complement one another. In MacLean, Hearts have one of the most intelligent forwards in the league, a player who will more often than not take care of the ball, whether it be through hold-up play or a crisp lay-off. Ikpeazu is a destructive presence. Pace, power, work-rate, plus an unpredictable quality.
As the team improved, the strongest, most balanced XI did not feature Lafferty. And his best performance came on the left hand side of midfield. Yet, it was a game in which he left his mark and proved decisive.
Against Celtic at Tynecastle, in front of a raucous sell-out crowd, the ball falling at the edge of the box there was only one man fans wanted to be running onto it. The best finisher the club has seen since Rudi Skacel, Lafferty produced a finish in a game few others in the team would have been able to replicate.
It was another one of those moments. The finest of parting gifts.
Lafferty talked about finishing his career at Tynecastle. Such a scenario was always unlikely no matter how much fans wanted it to be true. He was happy at the club but as soon as Rangers came sniffing it was clear he could have been happier. Hearts fans wanted more but for the player it was simply a convenient relationship until better came along.
Bigger and better players have exited before and the selling of a player in the last year of his contract who wanted to be elsewhere shouldn’t be allowed to derail what has been a positive start to the season where momentum is building and a connection between team and support has returned. Plus, there will always be the memories.
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