THE year 2011 came in like a lion for Hearts but is going out like a lamb. From a title challenge in January to unprecedented chaos by December, it has been another tumultuous 12 months at Tynecastle as the madness of Vladimir Romanov touched new heights.
Most clubs would point to a managerial change as the focal point of their year, a move which often revitalises players and supporters alike. Hearts did change their guard in August when Jim Jefferies was sacked and replaced by the Portuguese coach Paulo Sergio. However, that was one of the least notorious episodes of the last 12 months in Gorgie.
Wage delays, player walkouts, transfer requests, financial uncertainty, needless rants from the owner and the Craig Thomson affair all damaged the club’s proud reputation. On top of that, Romanov now wishes to sell his majority shareholding in Hearts with an enforced player clearout expected to cut operating costs.
Most supporters will hope for a brighter 2012, although this year hasn’t been without positive news. European football returned to Tynecastle following a third-place SPL finish in May. And, just like in 2010, Hearts went undefeated against their Edinburgh rivals Hibs during 2011.
A coveted quartet of new players arrived in the summer as John Sutton, Mehdi Taouil, Jamie Hamill and Danny Grainger spurned other clubs in favour of Hearts. And, in recent weeks, youth academy graduates loaned out to prepare for first-team football in the New Year provided much encouragement.
If there is one positive to emerge from the turmoil engulfing Tynecastle, it is that Jason Holt, Jamie Walker and others like them may now get the exposure they deserve at senior level. A team comprising mainly home-grown talent is to be the future, according to the board, and fans are rightly excited by such a prospect having grown tired of inflated salaries being paid to some distinctly ordinary footballers.
So 2011 is ending disappointingly, but it certainly didn’t start that way. Quite the opposite. Hearts welcomed in the new year with a 1-0 defeat of Hibs on January 1, Kevin Kyle scoring four minutes from time to spark bedlam in the Tynecastle stands. The match was the ninth of an impressive 11-game unbeaten league run through the winter which prompted talk of a title charge. Three weeks later, Rangers lost at Tynecastle, leaving Hearts two points behind the Ibrox club and only seven shy of league-leaders Celtic with a game in hand.
The wheels came off with two successive midweek league defeats in Glasgow to both halves of the Old Firm. With top goalscorer Kyle injured, the team began to toil, even though Andy Webster had unexpectedly rejoined Hearts to reinforce the defence. Of the last 12 league matches of the 2010/11 campaign, Hearts won only once – a 3-2 defeat of St Mirren in March. They also endured goalkeeper Marian Kello being dropped due to a “private matter” and captain Marius Zaliukas being ordered off the team coach before a trip to Ibrox because Romanov did not want him to play in case he was red carded. Nonetheless, form earlier in the season was sufficient to secure third place and a coveted spot in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League. Midfielder Ian Black was arrested in connection with a drugs offence on an end-of-season night out and is still to have his case heard. Brighter news arrived in the form of Sutton, Taouil, Hamill and Grainger, who were paraded as new faces.
As Hearts again headed to Italy for pre-season training, Craig Thomson’s prosecution for sex offences on the internet brought a dark cloud over their Il Ciocco hotel complex. The defender was placed on the sex offenders’ register but Romanov refused to sack him. He was eventually shipped off to FBK Kaunas, the Lithuanian club controlled by Romanov. He played there until November and remains a Hearts player but is no longer welcome at Riccarton.
Defender Lee Wallace agreed a £1.5 million transfer to Rangers as the new campaign was about to begin. That put him in the opposition camp when Hearts travelled to Ibrox on the opening day of season 2011/12. David Obua scored in a 1-1 draw and the Ugandan was then embroiled in passport issues attempting to enter Hungary days later as Hearts confronted Paksi SE in the third qualifying round of the Europa League. Obua eventually played as Jamie Hamill’s penalty secured a 1-1 draw for the visitors before a 4-1 home win in the return leg. By then, all had changed on the managerial front.
Jefferies was dismissed along with his assistant Billy Brown as the Tynecastle hierarchy lured Sergio and his assistants from Portugal to implement a more European style of football. Gary Locke remained as first-team coach. The new manager’s debut was that 4-1 defeat of the Hungarians which propelled Hearts to the play-off stage and a glamour tie with Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur. The first leg in Edinburgh saw Tottenham’s class shine through in a 5-0 defeat for the hosts, although a 0-0 draw in the second leg at White Hart Lane brought much improvement.
League form remained in different during the initial weeks of Sergio’s reign. Highlights were undoubtedly victories over Hibs and Celtic before the severity of Hearts’ financial problems was bared in October. Players’ wages, due on the 16th of each month, took 19 days to arrive. Romanov declared his wish to sell Hearts, Kaunas and the Belarussian club he finances, Partizan Minsk, and claimed he had become bored with football. He put a price tag of £50 million on Hearts alone despite club debt exceeding £30m.
A statement from the board stated January departures were inevitable to cut squad size and that young players would be promoted to the first-team squad sooner rather than later. With that in mind, Holt, Walker and David Smith were all loaned to Raith Rovers whilst Kevin McHattie joined Alloa.
Goalkeeper Janos Balogh was first to leave after settling his contract, due to expire in January, early. Calum Elliot followed and Jason Thomson has also been told he is surplus to requirements. Another board statement on the club website attempted to blame others for Hearts’ financial predicament, accusing Gary Mackay, George Foulkes, Phil Anderton, George Burley and Graham Rix of using the club to service their own agendas.
November’s wages took a full month to arrive and December’s are still outstanding. In the last seven days, winger Andy Driver has submitted a transfer request, Ryan Stevenson has walked out and the third of three outstanding tax bills has been settled by Hearts after winding up orders were lodged at the Court of Session by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. In contrast, the last two results against Dunfermline and Motherwell provided some on-field encouragement.
Scottish football is at its lowest ever ebb financially and Hearts appear to harbour most money worries. However, the light at the end of the tunnel must surely be the youth academy graduates eager to establish themselves in 2012.