MUCH has been made of the Hearts supporters whose financial backing has so often come to the club’s rescue, but as the dark art of administration gives way to the dawn of a new season, their emotional investment could be almost as valuable.
Dunfermline 1 - 2 Hearts
Scorers: Dunfermline - Thomson (64); Hearts - McKay (9), Hamill (pen 18)
Referee: J Beaton
Of the 4,538 spectators who were at East End Park for the pre-season friendly against Dunfermline Athletic on Saturday, around two-thirds were from across the water, giving a welcome boost to the gate receipts that were to be split evenly between the imperilled clubs.
That was good news for the administrators, but it was also encouraging for Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, who spoke later of the lift he got from walking out and seeing two sides of the ground coloured in maroon. He said also that it explained his team’s flying start.
His young players raced into a two-goal lead after just 18 minutes, a gushing response to the kind of atmosphere that is rarely to be found in a friendly. In the warm-up beforehand, the Hearts players stopped to applaud their fans, who in turn gave them a standing ovation. The kick-off was then delayed by ten minutes to let the rest of the supporters in.
Although Hearts faded in the second half amid a flurry of substitutions and a goal by Dunfermline’s Ryan Thomson, they held on to win something called the Supporters Direct Scotland Fans Cup. Jamie Hamill, captain in the absence of Danny Wilson, rather sheepishly collected the trophy at full-time as his team-mates looked on.
“My first captaincy, and I got to pick up a wee trophy,” he smiled later. “The boys stitched me up though. Everybody was supposed to go up and get it but I looked like a plonker going up myself. Not to worry. To go into our second pre-season game and get a wee trophy, it was ideal, a real lift for the fans, who stayed right to the end. They were magnificent.”
Hearts must hope that they can start the season as well as they started this game, when a header by Brad McKay and a Hamill penalty put them in easy street. An early platform is important in any league campaign, but with a 15-point handicap, they need momentum and they need it quickly.
The fans can play a big part in that, which is why it is important to capture their imagination as soon as possible. If the two can feed off each other from the start, it has the potential to be an emotional journey. Hearts would not be the first crisis-hit club to find strength in adversity.
“It’s really important to start the season well,” says Hamill. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re minus 15 or you’re starting from scratch, you’ve still got to have a good start, but hopefully, we can make up the points sooner rather than later, rather than getting to Christmas and you’re still trailing.
“Obviously I think it’s salvageable or I wouldn’t be in this situation. Fifteen points was always going to be a big ask, but at the end of the day it’s [a challenge] I’m looking forward to and the rest of the boys in the dressing room are exactly the same. We’ve got a good group in there that’s capable of getting the 15 points back.”
To do that, those players must come of age. However young and inexperienced, they are adults now, men with responsibilities to a big, passionate support.
“The gaffer keeps stressing that they’re not kids anymore,” says Hamill. “If you look at the team, every one of them has made a first-team appearance.”
Dunfermline, of course, are in worse trouble, relegated to the Second Division with a squad even younger than Locke’s. Although their players dominated the second half here, it will not be easy for them in Scotland’s third tier, especially with Rangers for company.
More worryingly, many of their supporters appear not to be moved by the threat of extinction. Although Pars United, a fans group, is the preferred bidder, too many of their colleagues stayed at home on Saturday. While supporters of other troubled clubs have rallied round, the Fifers, once so plentiful at East End, now seem afflicted by apathy.
A few of them chanted Jim Jefferies’ name, but so too did the Hearts support. No wonder the Dunfermline manager, who spent most of his coaching career at Tynecastle, made a point of heading for the centre circle at full-time to acknowledge the crowd.
Later, he paid tribute to both sets of supporters, but especially those of a Hearts persuasion, who will be a much-needed 12th man for their team in the weeks ahead. “You can see how well the Hearts supporters got behind their club today,” said Jefferies. “The players know that they’re behind them all the way.”
Dunfermline: Hrivnak, Millen (Drummond), Whittle (Williamson), Young, Potter (Martin), Kane (Ferguson), Geggan (El Bakhataoui), Husband (Byrne), Wallace (Smith) (Buchan), Falkingham, Thomson (Spence).
Hearts: MacDonald (Ridgers), Hamill, McHattie (Trialist), McKay, McGowan, Tapping, Stevenson, Robinson (B King), Carrick (A King), Holt (Walker), Smith (Nicholson).