Hearts legend John Robertson reveals Tynecastle's secret past

'What do they say about magic? The more you look, the less you see. This is the opposite.' So says John Robertson while pointing out another rich detail of a much-loved main stand that Hearts are preparing to bid farewell to.

Former Hearts striker John Robertson pictured outside Tynecastle's main stand which will soon be rebuilt. Picture Ian Rutherford

It’s particularly poignant that, on the verge of saying goodbye, the Archibald Leitch-designed structure has been revealing itself, as if in one final burst of glory. The demolition of outbuildings, including an ugly modernist social club on stilts and the club’s own administrative hub, has opened up a view of the rear of the stand that has lain largely concealed since around the late 1960s.

This pleasing discovery hits as you turn the corner off Gorgie Road into McLeod Street, past the Tynecastle Arms. The stand seems to be extending itself one last time, stretching out as if in defiance of the wrecking ball that is due to begin swinging after the last home game of the season.

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But the reason we are here now is because change is happening apace: a main girder truss that will support the replacement stand is due to arrive early next month. Initially delivered in five pieces, it will be fastened together and then hoisted into the sky by two 750-tonne cranes.

Next Friday’s game against Aberdeen will be the last time fans will see the old main stand as it has been seen since early last century, before it starts being swallowed up by the enormous 7,200 capacity structure rising behind, like a stadium version of Pac-Man.

It’s a neat trick, one that would certainly impress Mr Leitch, the Glasgow-born master builder of stadiums. Tynecastle was his 18th commission in British football. No one could describe this project as his meisterwerk. Construction was beset by problems, chief of which was the rising cost, while its comparatively utilitarian design, although seductive to the eye now, seemed unremarkable back in the day. But Leitch would be gladdened to know some original steel girders are being incorporated in the new design.

So the stand, complete with its idiosyncratic kink at its Roseburn end, has more than lasted the test of time since being opened just as the First World War was breaking out. This kink was due to land ownership issues and is a less extreme version of the jack-knifed juggernaut shape of the main stand at Dundee’s Dens Park, where Hearts play tonight in what could be termed an “Archibald Leitch derby”.

Along with Dens and Tynecastle, Ibrox has the only other surviving Leitch stand in Scotland. By next summer, when the main stand at White Hart Lane has joined Tynecastle’s in being reduced to dust, the number left in Britain will be reduced to single figures. As opposed to when the handsome hand-painted wooden gates at the Tynecastle Terrace entrance dating back to 1928 were scrapped in the mid 1990s, Hearts are alert to the importance of salvaging such items as original turnstiles.

“We have got so blasé over the years,” says Robertson. “Now you see things, and you go: ‘I didn’t realise it was there, or how ornate it was’.”

Robertson is wearing the hard hat that is conditional on being allowed to walk around building sites. Plenty of players, referees and managers over the years will have wished they were wearing such protection in this marvellous bear pit of an arena. But nothing stays the same forever.

There might be architects and designers better qualified than Robertson to explain the splayed steelwork supporting the stand’s roof, an instantly recognisable Leitch feature, or point out the Art Deco lights in the original boardroom, another signature touch.

But few others could capture the stand’s soul like the club’s record league goalscorer. Now club ambassador, there is an extra relevance to being escorted through its higgledy-piggledy interior by Robertson. In this ground, in front of this stand, he celebrated such moments as breaking Jimmy Wardhaugh’s scoring record by grabbing his 207th goal for Hearts in a game against Rangers in 1997.

But last month it was almost the place where he breathed his last – in section P, standing for punctured lung perhaps. This was sustained in a fall down a set of stairs. He also suffered broken ribs.

“It could have been worse, it could have been back, spine or neck,” he says. “But as anyone with broken ribs will tell you, it’s one of the most painful things you can get. For six weeks, every sneeze or cough is just agony.”

While in the process of taking an inventory of all the items Hearts might wish to keep or make available for sale, he stumbled down a flight of stairs after taking a photograph of a sign warning: “Any person committing a nuisance in the grounds will be prosecuted”. Like any centre forward worth his salt, he quips, he knew how best to fall.

Robertson grasps the black comedy better than anyone, particularly since his accident occurred just the other side of the wall from his eponymous lounge. But it was nearly very serious indeed. He was in hospital for five days.

“Had I been knocked out, no one works in here now,” he explains, back at the scene of the incident. “It is not like the other stands, with people walking about. People would have said ‘where’s Robbo?’ ‘Oh he has probably just gone home to Inverness for a few days’. I could have been lying there for days technically speaking.”

But the drama where one of the club’s greatest players almost perished on a set of stairs is now just another tale to add to lore.

There’s a certain irony in hoping the bulldozing of the last part of the old Tynecastle will re-connect Hearts with treasured items from the club’s storied past. So warren-like are the corridors, cupboards and rooms, some of which have been concealed during renovation work, there’s scope to find cherished items long presumed lost, like the two Scottish Championship flags won in 1958 and 1960.

Robertson himself helped find a stash of memorabilia early in his career. More accurately, Hearts were grateful to the less-than-sure first touch of Dave Bowman, whose skewed pass while playing head tennis in a corridor dislodged a panel in a roof outside the old boot-room.

Like a scene from a Famous Five adventure, the gang of apprentices were agog when they saw a trapdoor. Being the smallest, Robertson clambered on to the shoulders of a team-mate and opened the hatch to find an Aladdin’s cave of goodies.

“There were minute books, pennants, trophies, gifts from other clubs,” he recalls. “We were like: ‘What do we do now? How do we tell Les Porteous, the secretary, we have found this door with all these trophies, without getting into trouble?’ We came up with some cock and bull excuse that we were washing the walls down and someone knocked a tile…”

More used to unlocking defences, Robertson is proving a dab hand with a set of keys, flinging open doors to rooms where soon the echoes from the past will be abruptly silenced.

We have already stuck our heads into “Jimmy Bone’s tea-room”, a space no bigger than a cupboard where Bone, pictured left, and Willie Johnston would sit and grant access to fledgling first-teamers depending on how they’d played on the previous Saturday. Just outside is perhaps the stand’s crowning glory: a mosaic featuring the club’s original badge. “Every single player who has played for Hearts since 1914 has walked over it,” says Robertson. Despite the footprint of the new stand being significantly larger than the current structure, this feature will be retained, just not near the new entrance.

Onwards we go, past the home dressing room, and its twin cast-iron roll-top baths, past the old referee’s room, now a drug-testing area, where David Syme was once locked in by a Hearts director after what was adjudged to be a particularly poor performance in a match against Rangers in the late 1980s. Then it’s up to Brown’s gymnasium, named after WCP Brown, a wealthy director.

“My very first training session for Hearts was in here,” says Robertson. “I signed in January ’81 but because it was the Christmas holidays they brought me into training early. The pitch was frozen so the reserves came up here to do a circuit.” This was also where Bowman (him again) had his eye socket broken by Bone (him again) during a particularly competitive game of head tennis, which is how Hearts used to warm up before training.

Players and their families now use the room after games. Even here, if you look beyond the discarded children’s toys, there’s treasure to be found. In a cupboard at the back, stashed beside music instruments left by the Hearts in the Community department, are medicine balls dating back to Willie Bauld’s time.

Stuffed in a box are several pairs of ancient looking trainers, sand from the Tynecastle pitch still stuck in their tread. From the mid 1980s, Robertson identifies, specifically a period when there was a succession of games on a frost-bound pitch. “That’s what you wore when the pitch was brick hard,” says Robertson. “As long as the pitch was flat and sanded the game went ahead.” His own pair are probably still there (“size six, they didn’t make five and-a-halfs, my real size!”)

But it’s easy to retrieve items such as trainers, turnstiles, signs and, hopefully, a mosaic. What Robertson says he will miss most is harder to recover: the inimitable cacophony created by feet drumming on a wooden floor as fans respond to events heating up on the pitch.

Heard most recently against Rangers in the 2-0 win last month, it’s an evocative sound that has hailed moments to treasure at Tynecastle going all the way back to 1914.