Eamonn Bannon on the future of crisis-hit Hearts

EAMONN BANNON does not have the entrenched love for Hearts that Gary Mackay, Gary Locke and other former Tynecastle favourites will take to their graves.
Eamonn Bannon. Picture: Phil WilkinsonEamonn Bannon. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Eamonn Bannon. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

He didn’t grow up supporting the club he served with distinction in two spells as a player; in fact, he didn’t support any club in his youth, and he believes that men who serve a number of different masters during their playing careers cannot know the kind of unfiltered football fidelity that exists in the stands. Bannon even played once in the green and white of Hibs.

All of that said, he is a fan of football, if not of one particular football institution, and an Edinburgh man. So it follows that any threat to an Edinburgh football institution makes him go pale with worry. Besides, many of his greatest memories were made in Gorgie.

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Hearts go into the first Edinburgh derby of the season with their existence under threat. Now, there are various levels of threat when it comes to football extinction, but Hearts are unarguably in the clear-and-present-danger category.

No matter what happens, there will always be a maroon presence on the city map, always some kind of Hearts, just as there will always be a Rangers in Glasgow. But what makes Bannon shudder is that Tynecastle itself could be the victim if this incarnation of Hearts suffers a debt-ridden downfall in the coming months.

Aside from the obvious physical displacement that would result from the Gorgie Road site being cashed in to feed hungry creditors, the problem with that bleak scenario is that the identity and heritage of a homeless club becomes much harder to protect than one that still pulses from its original, beating heart.

Bannon, the dynamic utility midfielder who had long spells at the club either side of a glorious departure with Dundee United and brief fling at Chelsea, knows a thing or two about crises in Gorgie, having been sold to Chelsea in 1979 to raise money to keep Hearts solvent.

But he has never known a mess like this, and more immediately he worries that the outlook for Hearts followers could deteriorate tomorrow with a bad result against a Hibs side who still have no Cup to sing about and who are out of Europe, but whose problems look trivial in comparison with their rivals’.

Lose, Bannon acknowledges, and Locke’s mission of overcoming a 15-point handicap to stay in the top division could be written off by many pundits and fans just three hours of action into the season.

“It’s like the wheel has turned 360 degrees. Hearts were in big financial trouble to the tune of £100,000 or something, and now it’s £28.5million so it’s just the figures that have changed. When we were relegated they sold me to Chelsea for £116,000 or something, and I didn’t want to leave because I was studying to be a PE teacher.

“When Hearts were relegated, the great team of the Sixties and Seventies was split up. When I arrived Donald Ford was there, Jim Cruickshanks, Alan Anderson and Jim Brown, and we got relegated and they got emptied – the whole lot of them.

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“All of a sudden we had this inexperienced, young team but then in the 1980s Wallace Mercer took over and slowly but surely, it grew. It took a few years to get back on track. It could take them a lot longer this time.”

But isn’t this just football boom and football bust, an economic cycle that repeats itself until assets are consolidated and a new climate of realism lasts until eyes widen again?

“I would have agreed with that until the Rangers situation. That changed everything for me and I never believed that Rangers would ever end up in the third division, and now another major one is on the brink of extinction,” says Bannon.

“The football club will never disappear – Hearts will always be here – but there’s a real danger they will lose the ground, there’s a real danger they will go into liquidation and have to resurface under another name, and it’s a really bad time for the club.

“Losing the stadium rips the heart and soul out of a club, doesn’t it? Everyone’s saying ‘we could ground-share, we could do this or that’ but the ground is the focal part of the club. I don’t know how they managed it, but it was quite clever the way Rangers kept Ibrox and Murray Park separate from the club; I think it was Gavin Masterton at Dunfermline who got the ball rolling by isolating the ground and ring-fencing it.

“Hearts haven’t got that luxury and the asset is the ground. The value is in the land and I just worry because if it was a Scottish bank that was involved, a Scottish investor, they would maybe appreciate more what was involved in getting rid of Tynecastle. But a foreign bank, they don’t really care – they want to maximise the money they are getting for their creditors.

“So unless there’s a lot of money raised or some sugar daddy comes marching in from America or something like that, they could lose the ground – they could. And in that situation it’s difficult to see where Hearts would end up. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Wikipedia would have us believe otherwise, but Bannon never played for Hibs in an Edinburgh derby. The only match he played after crossing the divide to earn his coaching stripes under Alex Miller was against Motherwell, and he played (at centre half, aged 35) without feeling uncomfortable or guilty.

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Fraser Mullen should not feel uncomfortable or guilty tomorrow, either, he states.

“I couldn’t say a bad word about Hibs as a club. I thought there was a great family feel about the place. I worried about being accepted as an ex-Hearts player but in actual fact, I can honestly say I never got one single bit of bother off anybody. But I wasn’t playing, I was coaching,” he recalls. “I think you have to differentiate between players who play football and supporters who support clubs. They’re a different breed of people and you don’t get them overlapping that much. When my generation was young we didn’t have time to support a team because you’re too busy playing, and it just so happened I ended up at Hearts.

“You get involved with the people at the club the longer you are there. So, at Dundee United you get to know the tea ladies and all the staff, and it becomes part of your family.

“I was there for a long time so they are the clubs that you naturally think about. I don’t look up Chelsea results or Stenhousemuir results. I watch Hearts and I watch Hibs, because in Edinburgh it’s hard to get away from them.”

Hearts and Hibs have been here before, squabbling over who is deeper in the muck because there is nothing brighter or breezier to squabble over. Bannon is in little doubt where the balance currently lies, even though this is an inglorious comparison.

“I think this derby has got extra significance because of the points deduction that Hearts have got, and the state of play. Hibs have been prudent over the last few years and I’ve said to people, even before the Hearts crisis, that I would rather be in Hibs’ shoes than Hearts’ shoes,” he says.

“Hearts were just accumulating debt, and now you’ve got a foreign businessman who is holding the chips. That’s not a good situation; you worry about that. Hibs have been prudent and sold a lot of good players that would have made them a much better side.

“Pat Fenlon, to me, has done a remarkable job getting to two cup finals with two pretty poor sides: any supporter will admit that. But supporters are fickle and they are still calling for his blood because he hasn’t won the cup.

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“You’ve got this kind of ying-and-yang thing with the two clubs: you’ve got a prudent, firm hand on the tiller in terms of spending with [Rod] Petrie, but not winning anything – zip – and struggling to survive in the Premier League, and then you’ve got Hearts, who have been splashing the cash and won the Scottish Cup a couple of times but now they are in deep, deep trouble.

“If I was a football person I would rather be in Hibs’ situation.

“If you gave any of the bottom six or seven clubs a 15-point deduction, they would all struggle. So it’s a big ask for Hearts to survive this, and their team last Saturday, which is probably as good as it’s going to get, is just full of kids and inexperience, and if you get suspensions and injuries you’re in big trouble.

“If Hearts don’t get relegated, it’s a remarkable achievement for Gary. But I mean, before that they might go into liquidation. Who knows what might happen?

“But considering the playing squad he’s got, it would be a remarkable achievement to stay up. And to be honest, it’s hard to make Hearts favourites even though it’s at Tynecastle.

“If you’re a player at Hearts, you’re kind of worried at the moment. In any job if you know there’s going to be redundancies, that somebody is going to swing the axe and you’ve got a mortgage and kids, you could be out of a job, you’re not settled and that’s the trouble that the Hearts boys have got.

“What happens on the park is profoundly affected by what happens off the park. You’re only on the park for 90 minutes on a Saturday – there’s a lot of things going on away from that. And Gary will be saying that they have to focus on the training – ‘we can only focus on the football side, leave all the rest to others” – but it wouldn’t surprise me if Hibs won this derby.”

Bannon played in multiple Edinburgh and Dundee derbies and managed to squeeze two other, very special, neighbourly ding-dongs into his long and varied career.

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He was a Scotland player back when there was a talent logjam stretching down the Hampden steps, a congestion of quality so thick that a player of Bannon’s high calibre was restricted to 11 caps. Two of his appearances saw him summoned from the bench at the 1986 World Cup, and two of them pitted him in starting roles against England.

If only his memories of those encounters – England won 2-0 at Hampden in 1983, and 2-1 at Wembley three years later - were as striking as his recollections of the beery behaviour from compatriots that appalled him on his first visit to the old Twin Towers. More than a good game, he will be hoping for reports of supporter restraint on Wednesday, as unlikely as that may be.

“I don’t get it, personally,” he says when asked about the rivalry that channels debauchery. “The game that Kenny Dalglish scored through Ray Clemence’s legs in 1976, I was at that game and fast-forward to 1979, I’m now a professional footballer and I’m at Wembley as a spectator.

“I was living in London so a lot of my mates came down to London and stayed at my house, and I was absolutely mortified at the state of Scottish people down there – mortified. I couldn’t believe some of the sights, and it’s no wonder to me that basically the English people just handed Wembley to the Scots.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Who are these people?’ I mean they’re my fellow Scotsmen but they just went mad when they went down to London, and afterwards the Tube drivers all went on strike because someone had given one of them abuse, so we had to walk back from Wembley away back in to London.

“If I had been English I wouldn’t have wanted to go in amongst that lot. I just hope that next week there is a more balanced crowd, because the English just gave up on it and said it’s not worth the hassle. I hope it’s a 50/50 crowd because it’s a different era now, and it could be great.”

Bannon’s wing prowess was first identified at Tannadice by Jim McLean, who paid a Scottish record £165,000 to prise him back from Chelsea and then realised he was the only natural left-footer in his squad, and posted him there.

The switch became permanent and it meant he would have to overcome the likes of Davie Cooper, Tommy Burns and Peter Weir if he was to have an international career, albeit that he would have had Graeme Souness, Gordon Strachan, Brian McClair and a young Paul McStay in his way had he stayed in the centre.

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“The England games I played in were great, a great experience. I was playing against Phil Neal, I remember – I was left-sided and Phil Neal was 6ft 2in, pacey, played for Liverpool, and I didn’t get any change off this guy at all. Normally you can get by them, do something.

“It was a good England team, and a good Scotland team as well. I thought myself fortunate to have got 11 caps. Again, footballers are different from fans. Footballers by and large have a great respect for each other. They know what it’s been like to get there; what they’ve gone through. There is no particular animosity.”

Bannon is talking on the lower-ground floor of the Edinburgh guest house he bought soon after hanging up his boots in the late 1990s. His wife, Kathleen, greets us warmly when she arrives home and the only thing this conversation is interrupting is his round of golf in the sunshine.

A balloon has survived the clean-up after a joint 30th birthday celebration for the Bannon twins held the night before, and the whole scene points to the 1987 Uefa Cup finalist having found genuine domestic bliss outside of football.

He had a great club career, and it goes without saying he would have accumulated far more than 11 caps had he been born a decade or two decades later. But that is not something that deprives him of sleep.

What does rankle slightly is that he felt he was never given a proper chance to cut his teeth in management, having been sacked by Falkirk after only a few months in his first managerial posting, and then becoming “disillusioned” after taking them to court.

“When you’re a player, you are in control of your destiny but when you’re a manager, I very quickly realised that players control your destiny,” he says. “Out of a hundred players, only one or two will make it big in management and one thing’s for sure: you’re going to get the sack. There are very few exceptions to that rule.

“You hope you can get back in and survive but the analogy I use is that it’s like a ship, you’re chucked overboard and unless you clamber back onto a raft that’s being towed along or something, the ship sails away and after six months or nine months, they’re not interested in the guy that’s been lying back there in the water.”