IN THE end it really does boil down to the football and the moments kids dream about. “Yes, there were a lot of hard times,” says Danny Grainger.
“I’ve had the worst injury of my career, wages haven’t been paid on time, we were told the club might only have days to live and we had to rely on the fans and even little kids coming in with their piggy banks to keep the club going but, looking back, not one ounce of me regrets coming to Hearts.”
As of 1 June, Grainger is a man in limbo, a man with no club. He would love to be looking forward to a new season at Tynecastle but, with cash tight and younger, cheaper players proving that they can come in and fill the void, he has to start afresh. He will move on, though, with a load of memories, pals he will treasure for life and, of course, a Scottish Cup winners’ medal from that 5-1 final win over Hibs. “I think the wages, once we got used to what was happening and the club got better at keeping us informed, we always knew we were going to get them, it was just a case of when.
“It was an issue and, especially at the beginning, it was really hard to deal with but if you look at the highs like the cup final. . . it doesn’t matter what you do in your career, if you can play in a cup final and look back on winning that then it is something to be grateful for. That’s what nine out of ten lads and lasses dream of as they kick the ball about with their dad or mam as a kid. And, if you can play in a cup final that is the biggest derby in the club’s history and win it comprehensively, then nothing can take that joy away from you. When you look at that, I can have no regrets about how things have gone.”
Grainger is a guy who was beginning to wonder if he had offended Lady Luck. His first senior club was Gretna where the good times rolled until they could be financed no more A loan spell at Brechin even rendered him ineligible for the 2006 Scottish Cup final. Then it was Dundee United where the full-back again sat out cup finals. He kick-started his career at St Johnstone but, after the relative stability of life in Perth, there was all the hassle that comes with being a Hearts player these days.
“Out of the first six months after I signed, I think there was an issue nearly every month. I did wonder what I’d got myself into.”
Grainger became part of a regular deputation to the club’s hierarchy, as PFA Scotland representatives were enlisted to talk the squad through their options as wages went unpaid. There were even days when he contemplated walking away. “I think most of us would be lying if we said it hadn’t crossed our minds at some point during those early months, when we didn’t know what was happening. My wife Heather had just had our son Oliver and it was a worrying time.”
But, says Grainger, Saturday, 19 May, 2012 proved ample remuneration.
“I don’t think anyone could understand what that day, and the day after, meant to the fans, the club, the players. It is something that those involved in could never forget. I’d missed out on so many finals before and, when we got to the semi-final, I was just one booking away from a suspension and I actually said to my dad ‘guaranteed we will be winning 3-0 and I will get a 90th-minute booking and miss the final’, there seemed nothing surer. But you can see when Beats [Craig Beattie] scores his penalty there were about four or five of us in the same situation and we all hit the brakes when he went on his run because we didn’t want to get booked for leaving the pitch so we all stayed celebrating in the corner and I think it was only Gowser [Ryan McGowan] that chased him.”
The group of players moulded into a tight-knit unit thanks to all the off-field sagas and that was cemented by the cup run. Grainger added: “From the day we beat St Mirren in the replay, Stephen Elliott was convinced it was our year and it became a standing joke and we would come back in after each round and he would be sitting there with a huge grin. By the time we got to the final, I think we all believed it and I don’t think any of us were nervous, well, apart from Blacky [Ian Black], who was a mess!”
Despite securing legendary status as part of that team and by scoring a goal, Grainger can no longer call Hearts home.
He and his family are living on his parents’ farm near Penrith in Cumbria until his next move. Along with his sisters Lisa and Kerry, his mum and dad, Les and Hilary, have been regulars at his games, travelling thousands of miles and now it’s his time for some payback.
“My dad has me working for our keep,” laughs Grainger. “I was out all day yesterday working on the farm and I’m heading back today. But I love going back and Oliver loves going out on the tractor with me. As much as I love my football, I will always go back and help my dad whenever I can.”
Still working towards full fitness following a cruciate ligament injury in November, he expects to be ready for the new campaign and there is the promise of pre-season training at Sheffield United, provided the new manager – David Weir is the latest to be linked with the job – does not renege on the deal, and Grainger has had interest from a number of other clubs north and south of the Border.
He would like to try his hand in his homeland after playing his whole career in Scotland but, with so many players out of contract, is taking nothing for granted.
“If I can get a chance down in England then more than likely I will take it but leaving Hearts has been really sad for me and my family.
“The way I felt in those first few months, that’s probably surprising but the fans and the players, we’ve all come through so much.
“On the last night, when we all went out for a few drinks, it was upsetting and there were tears, in fact quite a lot of tears between the boys, but that shows how close we had all become. There have been so many lows and then such a massive high as the cup final and through it all we have been in it together.”
Having been ready to revolt in 2011-12, when another cash crisis hit last season, the response was different. With the taxman threatening the worst unless yet another hefty bill was settled, the players agreed to defer wages and some even bought into a share issue.
Grainger added: “To be fair, we haven’t been reading about problems in the papers first, which is nice.”
That was one of the hardest aspects of last term, particularly for the families. “I’m lucky because Heather is very laid back but, for the wives and girlfriends and families, it was hard. They would pick up the paper and see things like ‘fire sale’ on the back page and a picture of their husband or boyfriend. But the good thing was the fact they all pulled together as well and, over what was a hard period, that made things a lot easier.
“I think the fans pick up the papers so often now and read that Hearts are in trouble and Hearts are this that or the other and it’s now water off a duck’s back because they have got through it so many times before but the papers aren’t making things up. This genuinely is a time when the club is in a lot of financial trouble and they do need to take this seriously and keep doing what they are doing. Just because they keep getting through it, doesn’t mean the stories weren’t true or that the danger wasn’t real. But there is only so much you can ask the fans to give because everything they have done so far has been fantastic.
“It is going to be a really hard time for the club and for Lockey [manager Gary Locke], trying to attract players when they are reading about tax bills and administration.
“Attracting players to a club like Hearts should be easy but, if they can survive and come through the other side, which I really hope they can, then the club have the fanbase and the tradition and will only get stronger again.
“I can see the arguments for and against guys like Brooks [Mileson] and Vlad [Romanov]. Brooks came in and had a dream to take Gretna to the SPL and he did that. Vlad came in hoping to make Hearts successful and make them bigger than they were and he has taken them to the CL [Champions League qualifiers] and won cups.
“With Gretna I was sorry to see a club where I had started painting the walls come through to the SPL then crumble so fast but it was always, always, always going to happen because they didn’t have the fanbase. At least Hearts have that so, while there are some comparisons, in other ways they are night and day. We saw that when things were as bad as they were before that St Mirren game and the fans rallied round and got things sorted. Gretna would have loved to have that kind of support.”
Those supporters will have to be patient with the team this term. The fact that Jamie MacDonald could be the only survivor of the 2012 cup final starting 11 illustrates how swingeing the cuts have been.
“You would think that Lockey had been in the job for years the way the boys have reacted to him but he knows everything the players want and what they need.
“It is a team of youngsters but they don’t really play like that. The young lads are confident within themselves and they know they have a good chance of going on to big things if they carry on the way they are. I would try to give Kevin [McHattie] advice because we play the same position but he was fantastic towards the end of the season – a real standout – so I can have no issue with the club letting me go when they have a boy like that in there who can play in my position, who can only get better and can hopefully, one day, make them some money.”