Locke’s Hearts rise to the sound of death rattle

EIGHT years ago yesterday to the day, Hearts defeated Hibernian in one of several demolition derbies that have taken place in recent times. Now every small triumph counts.

Gary Locke punches the air after Hearts level the score. Picture: SNS

EIGHT years ago yesterday to the day, Hearts defeated Hibernian in one of several demolition derbies that have taken place in recent times. Now every small triumph counts. In salvaging this last-gasp draw Hearts have ensured that this anniversary is not now tinged with sorrow. The Tynecastle club’s top-flight flame flickers on.

Most had expected Sunday’s victory over Hibs to be a magnificent last stand. But they are clearly enjoying teasing those who have pre-prepared their obituaries. Again last night they trampled across the expectations of others when Jamie Hamill’s late penalty secured a draw. They cocked a snook further by performing this comeback with only ten men after skipper Danny Wilson was red-carded. Hearts seem almost to enjoy this death rattle existence.

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Aberdeen have not been cast as executioners once more after consigning Dundee to the drop last season. Indeed, they have not beaten Hearts this season – the only team in the Premiership to fail to do so. Had Aberdeen managed to inflict the ultimate pain on Hearts it might have been viewed as a mercy killing. Hearts and their admirable supporters could then concentrate on the real task at hand. That said, even manager Gary Locke accepts the race has been run after a season when they were not given a chance of avoiding relegation.

At least they are in good company when it comes to clubs who are not permitted to sign players. However, Barcelona, who were yesterday hit with a signing embargo, do not have the additional trauma of knowing their future is in the hands of the creditors of two Lithuanian-based firms. As everyone involved at the club and elsewhere have been insisting, the biggest challenge of all is one in which, fortunately, their hopes remain alive. It is the fight for survival of another, more critical sort, which features most prominently on their agenda. But here they managed to put off the reaping of a bleak harvest, the seeds for which were sown a long time ago.

Relegation – when it comes – will not be the consequence of a poor run of form stretching back to the start of the season. It can be traced to the application for administration that was filed on 18 June and the sanctions thereafter imposed. In truth, the seeds were sown even longer ago than this.

“Vladimir Romanov!” sang the away fans, in mock tribute to the man who remains the central figure in this chapter in Hearts’ history. Of course, we cannot know what might have happened had he not stepped in. Perhaps this grim fight for survival would have been waged several years ago. But there is no question that Romanov’s profligate spending coupled with his more recent run to the hills has given opposition supporters an obvious target. A few Hearts fans sarcastically applauded the swift “tribute” from the Aberdeen supporters. But their reaction to the taunt sounded slightly mournful too; as if they also knew this was the price that had to be paid for days like the Scottish Cup semi-final derby win at Hampden Park on 2 April 2006 – and of course the final victory two years ago.

There was always likely to be a reckoning.

“The fact is we are going to go down but at the end of the day we had to make sure it wasn’t Hibs who put the final nail in the coffin,” wrote Locke in his programme notes. “We did that.” Understandably, the manager has sought to skirt around the issue of relegation. It doesn’t do for a manager to be viewed as being negative, even if he risks looking foolish by denying the inevitable. However, now even he has accepted that Hearts will not be playing top-flight football next term. His wish – and the wish of almost everyone in Scottish football – is that there is still football being played at Tynecastle next season.

Of course, it was foolish to expect any sympathy from the away supporters. Football fans are football fans. They tend to be at their most insufferable when they have something to celebrate, as the Aberdeen fans currently do. They reprised that plaintive melody from Leigh Griffiths’ oeuvre that landed the Celtic striker in such hot water. “The Hearts are going bust” was gleefully chorused from the school end. Griffiths might come seeking royalties.

“Peter Pawlett could nutmeg a mermaid” read one banner. The midfielder returned from injury here. Peter Pawlett Baby, the song that has become the soundtrack to a season that still explodes with possibilities for Aberdeen, was heard as expected yesterday. The inspiration for this tune – the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me – topped the charts in the year when Hearts were last relegated. When the end was confirmed – after a midweek trouncing by Celtic, on April fools’ day 1981 – the song This Ole House, as performed by Shakin’ Stevens, was at No 1. Hearts are not condemned. Not yet.