Hearts lead may not keep Rangers at bay - MacDonald

It’s Scotland’s game of the season and even before all of the leaves have fallen there is excitable chatter about Hearts being uncatchable if they win. But Alex MacDonald dismisses it with the sort of defiance that once made Saturday’s opposition so feared.

Alex MacDonald celebrates giving Rangers a 1-0 lead over Aberdeen in the 1978 Scottish Cup final. Picture: SNS
Alex MacDonald celebrates giving Rangers a 1-0 lead over Aberdeen in the 1978 Scottish Cup final. Picture: SNS

“Is nine points insurmountable? Come on, it’s Rangers you’re talking about,” he said.

“They’ll still be challenging and don’t forget there’s a January window coming up. Maybe by then Hearts will start to feel the pressure.”

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An old Ranger and proud of it – that’s MacDonald, 66, a hero of Barcelona. But he also speaks warmly of the club he once almost managed to a title, being hugely impressed by Hearts’ unbeaten run which began with a last-minute win at Ibrox.

Alex MacDonald cant wait for Saturdays game. Picture: SNS

“I was on my holidays and so missed that one, but I’ll be at Tynecastle on Saturday. I can’t wait and it’s going to be a very difficult game for me to watch, what with trying to find out what’s happening to St Johnstone and Airdrie.”

MacDonald is joking. He retains affection for the other two clubs in his life but this is the big one. “It’ll be the biggest game of the season, no doubt about that, and it’s coming in the Championship. The top league has had nothing to compare.

“I was interested in what Gordon Strachan said the other day about manipulating the set-up to get Rangers, Hearts and also Hibs back into the Premiership because they’ve been badly missed. I think quite a lot of people in Scottish football have neglected the bigger picture. They’ve been too busy staring at the smaller picture. I don’t know what we do now – apart from wait, that is. It would be nice if three Saudi princes were to show up, give these clubs a million quid each and in return were allowed a game a month at left-back.”

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MacDonald’s Hearts once beat Rangers four times in a season. Form like that would almost certainly guarantee the current team the Championship. “I’ve been very impressed with Robbie Neilson’s side, they’ve been consistently good,” he added. “They seem to be the right blend of youth and experience, which was what we had in 1985-86.

“The kids Hearts were forced to play last season have grown up and they’ve added some guys who’ve been around the block. The manager is pretty low-key, which as a new guy is a good policy. Judging by Hearts’ performances and results it looks like a great policy. I’m sure he won’t want to change anything he does now.”

What of Rangers? “They had a good wee run there, and the expectation went up again, and then came that setback,” said MacDonald, referring to last Saturday’s loss of two points at home to Alloa Athletic.

“I’m sure they’ll be annoyed about that and they know they have to do what Hearts have been doing and go on a right good steady run. Draws with Alloa are no good. You lose touch.”

MacDonald sympathises with Ally McCoist and backs him. “It must be hard for Ally. Things at Ibrox are changing every day, new people are always coming in, there’s no money and the supporters are split. The club need someone to say ‘This is the plan’ and for everyone to get behind it.”

MacDonald then talked about expectation, how it’s there every time Hearts, Hibs and Rangers take the field in the Championship, especially at home. “Rangers and Hibs seem to have struggled with that while so far Hearts haven’t.

“I think it might be in Rangers’ favour that they’re away on Saturday. At Ibrox there’s always a helluva pressure on them to win whereas the fans who travel get right behind the team.”

When he moved to Tynecastle, first as a player, MacDonald experienced both triumph and despair in games against his old club. “I remember Hearts losing at Ibrox three-nil when I scored a late consolation. The whole place shot up, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I don’t think the Rangers fans would have been so kind if I’d scored the winner. In fact, I’m sure there would have been a sniper in the stands not liking that at all. Then when Graeme Souness was in charge we seemed to face a new £6 million player every time we played Rangers. We didn’t win many of those games.”

In 1985-86, though, after losing an early game at Ibrox, Hearts embarked on a long unbeaten run which included four successive wins over Rangers – three in the Premier League, the other in the Scottish Cup – only for their Double dream to be dashed at the death. MacDonald passes all the credit for that sequence to his players. “It’s the guys on the park who do it. We went under the radar at the start of the season and then came this momentum. It was a team effort, there were no stars – well, they were all stars, actually.

“I don’t really remember the pressure increasing and increasing, to be honest. There’s pressure on every manager, whether they’re at the top or the bottom. There’s even pressure in friendlies when you’re trying to blend a team. Who’d be a manager? Only a lunatic!”

So how does this lunatic think Saturday will go? “I think mistakes could decide it. Everyone says Rangers can’t afford to lose but I don’t reckon either team can. This is what makes football exciting. It’s what we’ve missed in Scotland this past couple of years.”

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