In the 34 years that have passed, Sandy Clark has come to terms with the events of 3 May, 1986. But, that doesn’t mean he has managed to find a way to erase the hurt.
For the most part, it lies dormant, as day-to-day life takes over. It definitely hasn’t gone, though.
“It is like grief, I suppose. I know there are more important things – we’re all seeing that just now – but at the time it honestly felt like losing a loved one,” he explains. “It hurt like hell. But like grief, you bury it or learn to live with it.”
That is until a reporter comes along looking for a meander down memory lane.
On that day in Dundee, Hearts stood within a point of defying the odds and delivering the club’s first league title in 26 years.
Even if a Tynecastle side who had gone 27 games unbeaten prior to that trip to Dens Park somehow lost, second-placed Celtic still had ground to make up if they were to pip them on goal difference. They needed a win and it would have to be substantial.
Hearts should have had a penalty
The recriminations, which persist to this day, tell the tale of woe. Out-of-favour Dundee striker and self-confessed Celtic fan Albert Kidd netted a late double to wrestle Hearts’ fate from their own hands. At Love Street, St Mirren slipped to a 5-0 defeat to gift Davie Hay’s Parkhead side league glory in the most dramatic – and, for Hearts, devastating – fashion.
“I’ve spoken about this a lot over the years and it doesn’t get any easier,” admits Clark, the former Gorgie striker who still rails against the oft-offered description of that team as bottlers and bristles at the first-half penalty he was denied when he was clattered by Dundee’s Colin Hendry.
“I can guarantee you that that group of players were not bottlers. We had a great team spirit and we travelled up to Dundee that day convinced we could win. I know there was tension in the stands but I wasn’t really aware of that at the time; I don’t think any of the guys were. We just didn’t play as well as we could.
“Maybe that was just the law of averages. After so many games unbeaten, you’ll always lose one eventually.”
He remains adamant that the spot-kick decision didn’t help, though.
“It was a penalty! But the referee, Bill Crombie, was a Hearts fan and he should never have been put in that position. If it had been anyone but Hearts or any other day, I’m convinced he would have given the penalty but he was put in an untenable position and didn’t want to be accused of bias. It was a massive call.
“Obviously, we don’t know what would have happened if we had got that penalty, we might have lost 2-1, but I have no doubt that wee Robbo [strike partner and penalty taker John Robertson] would have scored.”
So much respect for Alex MacDonald
A team which had been playing matches while other teams, including Celtic, had players juggling international duties with domestic, the capital outfit had assumed pole position almost without anyone noticing.
“We just played Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, but the World Cup qualifiers against Australia meant that other teams, like Celtic, who had boys turning out for Scotland, had to come back and play catch up.”
But, while Celtic had hit a winning stride at the right time, Hearts were the team who were tiring. Mentally and physically.
“If you look back we only used about 14 players, or something like that, throughout that season and I think that maybe caught up with us in the end.
“I think we were shell-shocked by the first goal and, because there was so little time left, I’m not sure we thought we could come back. The second finished it. The final whistle and getting back to the changing room is all a blur. I saw all the pictures and TV coverage of the fans crying afterwards and that hurt because they had been great all season – still are. But at the time I couldn’t take it all in. I just remember the silence as we got changed and on to the bus.
“Looking back, having gone from being a player to a coach and manager myself, I don’t know how Alex [MacDonald, the Hearts manager] and Sandy Jardine [his assistant] did it. They came in and tried to lift us and say all the right things and keep us positive because we had the Scottish Cup final the next weekend.
“Alex is the one I really feel for now because he was the man-manager and he had got so much from the team over the course of the season – we all had such a bond – and he deserved the title. He must have been hurting but he didn’t show it. I have so much respect for how he handled it because I’m sure I’ve read since that he went into the toilet on his own and cried.
“Even talking about it all now I’m feeling emotional. The deeper we go into things, the more it stirs up all the feelings.”
Cup final defeat followed
If they were grieving a lost league opportunity that day, it was, he says in all honesty, the day the cup hopes also died. “That defeat shattered us,” he confesses.
With the stuffing knocked out of them, and up against better players, Hearts lost 3-0 to Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup final seven days later.
“Man for man Aberdeen were better than us, but we had a better team,” reasons Clark.
Tired legs felt like lead on Hampden’s wide expanses and weary minds were unable to process the disappointment quickly enough to allow them to contend with Alex Ferguson’s men. A season that had promised much, delivered an overwhelming sense of loss.
But, while grievances have been aired over the years, Clark sees no value in playing the blame game any longer.
“Celtic did their job, we didn’t do ours,” he laments. And, there is pride in the fact he and his team-mates contested a league containing Celtic and Rangers as well as Aberdeen and Dundee United sides in their prime, and so very, very nearly got the better of them all.
In truth, that was no mean feat, given the clubs’ respective strengths at that time. It does not cancel out the regrets, though, as what-ifs linger more than three decades on.
“It wasn’t just that day at Dens, I missed a sitter in a derby that finished 0-0. If I had scored and we had won, that extra point would have made all the difference and, speaking to the other guys, we all have games like that from that season. We beat Clydebank 1-0 [the week before the Dundee game] but it should have been four or five. Those goals might have made all the difference.”
Even now, the ghost of what might have been haunts those involved.
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