Ian Black opens up on Hearts, Rangers, Stuart McCall, his father and boos at Easter Road

It is almost a decade since Hearts last won a top tier tussle with Rangers at Ibrox.

Black acknowledges Hearts fans on a return to Tynecastle in 2018.

On that day, in March 2012, they conceded Steve Davis’ opening goal on the stroke of half-time, but bounced back with an Ian Black equaliser in the 58th minute and a Jamie Hamill winner 11 minutes from the end.

“The squad that year, the spirit we had, the togetherness … you look at what we would achieve that season,” said Black, now aged 36. “All that came through in that game. It showed the character we had. I was always confident that if we played the way we could and the mindset was right then we could beat anybody. It was a big win for the club.

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“When we went there we knew we were the underdogs and when you go to Ibrox it is about staying in the game as long as possible. I think we had a good squad and we were good that season and on that day everything clicked for us. I felt as if we battered them from start to finish and we definitely deserved that win.”

Black left Hearts to join Rangers later in 2012.

It was one of only four goals the tenacious midfielder scored for the Gorgie side and one he remembers clearly.

“Jamie Hamill had it and I shouted for him to lay it off and he just rolled it to me. When you hit those shots from that angle and that distance, nine times out of ten it goes over the bar, but fortunately mine went in the top corner, over Allan McGregor, and was probably the best goal of my career, to be fair. To see it hitting the back of the net was delightful. Especially at Ibrox and shooting into the Rangers fans as well.”

When the capital outfit added another win two years later, this time on the first day of a Championship season that saw both sides plotting a straightforward return to the Premier League, Black was on the losing team. Although he was watching from the sidelines by the time Hearts opened the scoring and then proved their bottle to swiftly respond to Rangers’ 90th-minute equaliser and strut out of Ibrox with a triumph that paved the way for the visiting side’s romping of the league that term.

Which is why, while the three points at stake today may not have a defining say in how the league plays out, the outcome could set the tone for the remainder of the season, according to Black, who admits that Robbie Neilson’s side knocked the stuffing out of their Glasgow rivals that day.

Black won the Scottish Cup with Hearts in 2012.

A man often viewed as a bit of a rough diamond, there are moments throughout Black’s career that sparkle like jewels. But like precious gemstones, mining them was not always easy.

Playing for boyhood heroes Hearts was set against a backdrop of missed wages and financial struggle. That saw him take on a few painting shifts that helped to put food on the table and bestowed him with cult status when he rolled with the punches and respond to derby rivals Hibs’ mocking during a 3-1 derby win at Easter Road with a cheeky message on his t-shirt vowing to ‘paint this place maroon’.

The 5-1 Scottish Cup final win over the same foes also represented his final game for the club.

He says he didn’t want to leave but the club’s aforementioned financial difficulties meant there was no new contract on offer.

Ian Black celebrates scoring for Hearts against Rangers in 2012. Jamie Hamill, pictured right, also scored that day - the last time Hearts won at Ibrox in the top flight.

So, he joined “one of the biggest clubs in the world” just as administration sent them hurtling down to the third division.

In between was his Scotland debut. Made against Australia at Easter Road – “I know, you couldn’t make it up” – he was, disgustingly, booed onto the pitch by the home support.

“Look at how many people playing in all the Scottish leagues right now who will never get that chance. But I did. So, anyone who booed can do one. How many of those who booed me would love to play for their country? How many have? Well, I have a Scotland cap and no-one can take that away from me.”

Precious moments. None easily hewed. But while Black was a dogged grafter, with a willingness to get his hands dirty, there was more to the tenacious midfielder than his ability to wind up opponents and snap at heels.

Black had a great relationship with former Hearts manager Paulo Sergio.

Black had come through the boys’ club ranks under the watchful eye of his dad, also Ian, who had played for Celtic, Hearts and Hibs. He toughened him up, kept him grounded and honed his competitive edge.

“He totally helped me to be the player I was,” said Black, who only hung up his boots this season having seen out the end of his career in the juniors. “He could be quite brutal. If I was rubbish, I certainly would know I was rubbish. Even if it was a couple of misplaced passes, he would soon tell me after the game.

“I played for him at boys club level and he made sure I had the right mentality. He always said ‘give everything you’ve got’ and I wanted to do that to make him happy.

“But, it wasn’t until I retired that he really told me he was proud of me. “

He had said something like that as they hugged and celebrated in the aftermath of Hearts’ famous Scottish Cup victory over Hibs at the end of that 2012 season.

“But it was once I’d retired that he broke it all down and explained why he hadn’t said it much during my playing days.

Black caught the eye while playing for Inverness.

“He said he never wanted to put me on a pedestal because someone would always be waiting to knock me off it. But, when I finished he told me he was proud of me and that was one of the proudest moments of my life and I realised that the way he did it was right. He kept me level-headed and that was sensible.”

There were moments when the equilibrium teetered and the red mist descended. “Angry wee man syndrome,” laughs Black. “If something had to be said, I would say it. Sometimes I couldn’t stop myself!”

But that stemmed from wanting to better himself and the teams he played for. Even when he was riling opponents, it was to gain an advantage not to belittle.

“I wasn’t brought up with a lot and I had to earn everything. I was brought up to have manners and respect and to be a winner. I always believed that you don't play any sport if you don't want to win. That’s why I don't understand managers who just go out to defend. You go out to win, even if you get beat, at least you tried to do your job.”

There is quite a lot he struggles to comprehend about the modern game. From the gentrification of the action, the softening of players, and the old pals’ act he says is rife, especially in the appointment of coaches and managers. But, over the past few years, one of the biggest frustrations has been the willingness of clubs to allow players to, in his mind, steal a wage when he and his former Hearts colleagues struggled to get their dough, despite putting in the graft.

“It has frustrated me as a fan and as a former player. My mentality was always that the fans pay your wages. So you have to give 100 per cent or you shouldn’t be there. For me, there have been a lot of players over the past few years, when people like Craig Levein was manager, who were in a comfort zone. They got a nice three-year contract on such and such money and then done nothing. Seeing boys float about clubs, taking a wage and doing nothing. That is hard to see.”

Despite winning at places like Ibrox in 2011/12 and wrapping up a tough campaign with their never-likely-to-be-forgotten day at Hampden and an open-top bus parade through the city, off the pitch the club was in a mess

“There was a lot going on in the background that season and we had to help each other out and pull each other through so that helped on the park because we all stuck together. That saw us through the whole season, with us winning the Scottish. It ended up being the best year of my career even although we went through what we went through. The manager [Paulo Sergio] and Lockey [assistant Gary Locke] were great at keeping us busy and in good spirits and on the field we could clear our heads and switch off from what was going on outside. He deserves so much credit for what we achieved and for making sure our mindset was right for every game.

“If you have a great manager like that then everybody wants to play for them. That was what happened for us that year and that has been the issue for Hearts over recent years. Nobody has wanted to play for the managers, because they have been rubbish managers and their man-management skills have been shocking, to be totally honest.”

It was also the difference between the start and the end of his spell at Rangers and he maintains they would have made the uninterrupted journey up through the leagues had the club kept faith in Ally McCoist, who ensured Black loved his first two-and-a-half years in Glasgow. Things changed when he was replaced by Stuart McCall and time has done little to dilute the acrimony.

“I haven’t met him since and if I met him in a dark street, there would only be one man walking out the other end …” says Black, in a comment that paints a familiar picture of a player who would never knowingly backed down.

But he was never that one-dimensional. Opinionated and bold, he also has a cheekiness, a degree of self-deprecating banter and a team ethic that endeared. Those characteristics seem to be replicated in a certain Aussie who currently operates in the Hearts midfield and who is quickly earning the fans’ backing.

“Yeah, I think the little boy [Cammy] Devlin has similarities with me. He is happy to work hard, put his boot in and wind people up, but he can play as well. It will be interesting seeing him against Rangers and seeing how he handles that, especially at Ibrox. Hopefully he can go out there and put in the performances he has been putting in.”

Black has traded in playing and painting for a full-time job as a tiler and a match day ambassador working the Tynecastle hospitality suites, which allows him to keep a close eye on how the team are developing. And, on the days when Hearts are away, he and his dad tend to catch up on the golf course.

He won’t be at Ibrox today – “I haven’t been back since I left, no-one has invited me. Maybe one day” – but he hopes that Robbie Neilson’s men turn up.

This will be the big test, seeing how Robbie sets up, whether they go for it and really challenge for the top or whether they are going to be mediocre and settle for top three. It will be interesting. If they come out to defend I think it’s clear they are happy to finish third. I hope that’s not what happens. The way they are playing, they should be aiming higher.

“There shouldn’t be any fear going into the game. They should have the same mentality and belief they have had so far and if I was the manager I would tell them to go out and enjoy it. He should tell them to give everything they’ve got and attack.

“Of course, you have to defend at times in every game but if they go there and just defend, I will be very disappointed. Everything is positive just now after going this long unbeaten in the league but fans want you to have a go and this is a chance to keep the fans onside.

“The way they are playing and the confidence that is in this squad, I do believe that we will attack. We should be looking forward to this game.

“I felt that all my best games were in the big games. I used to be well up for it and enjoy winding them up. You always want to prove something when the whole crowd is booing you. That egged me on. But some players would hide away from that so it will be interesting to see what character this squad has.”

Black knows all about tough but, looking back on a career he is proud of, he also knows that kind of backdrop provides the perfect stage to shine.

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Then Scotland manager Craig Levein is all smiles as he prepares to give Ian Black his first full cap in August 2012.
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