Hearts new boy Kyle Lafferty remembers coming to a hostile Tynecastle as a Rangers player and jokes that he was pelted by everything, including an old woman’s false teeth. Whether or not that colourful memory is the embellishment of a fine raconteur, he says that passion is one of the reasons he chose to join Hearts rather than entertain the advances of city neighbours Hibernian.
Dismissing claims that he had been disrespectful to the Easter Road side after he snubbed signing talks with Neil Lennon to put pen to paper in Gorgie, the Northern Ireland striker said that after several days of talks with the Tynecastle hierarchy it would have been a greater slight to break away from those discussions to enter fresh negotiations with Hearts’ rivals.
Claiming that his heart was never in a move to Hibs, the 29-year-old insisted he has joined the biggest club in Edinburgh, hailing Hearts as the third force in Scottish football and refusing to rule out the possibility of bettering either of the Glasgow clubs over the course of the upcoming season.
Those assertions will win him few fans in Leith, or at last season’s second-place finishers Aberdeen and they are unlikely to sway the opinion of his detractors at both Celtic and former employers Rangers. But Lafferty says all that matters to him now is what everyone at Hearts thinks and the impression he can make on Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill.
“I don’t want to be known as the player who ignored Hibs, I want to be known as the guy who scored 20-25 goals with the first trophy in the new stand,” said the striker. “I want to be known for performances on the pitch. In my early days in Scotland, I wasn’t known enough on the pitch but I’ve been given a second chance and I’ve come to one helluva club to put things right.
“Being part of the Old Firm, I didn’t help myself to be honest but I was a young boy. Having the Celtic fans hate me, I thrived on it and it’s probably going to be the same here, especially with what has happened over the last couple of days. I believe I’ve joined the right club to progress my career and get Hearts to where they deserve to be and bring European football to the club. I think we can reach those heights. I’ve joined the biggest club in Edinburgh and the third in Scotland – I’ve made the right decision.
“Everyone knows Hibs were interested in me but I’m not going to waste four days negotiating with Hearts and it being 99 per cent done, then go across the city and show a lack of respect to Hearts by speaking to another team. I was fully focussed on Hearts and my decision was made. It was an easy decision once I saw the inside of the club and the history of the club, and even meeting Ann [Budge, the club chairwoman]. She brought a good vibe to everything and it was the right decision.”
As far as he is concerned the Hibs issue is now closed but he is not naive enough to believe that others will be as willing to leave things in the past.
“When I come to play Hibs, I’ll shake Lenny’s hand. I’ve no problem with Neil Lennon, I think he’s a fantastic manager and I think he’ll do very well this season but I’m a Hearts player and that’s all I want to think about.
“This year is very important for me, I want to grab the number one position back with Northern Ireland. I want to get to the World Cup with them and I want to win trophies with Hearts. Where they want to go and where I want to go match and it all clicked. I don’t have any doubts about joining Hearts and come the end of the season I’m sure both parties will be absolutely delighted.”
The last time Lafferty played in Scotland, between 2008-12, he was a youngster who proved something of a marmite figure. Courting controversy due to a high profile act of simulation in a contentious Rangers v Aberdeen clash, he was also involved in a training ground bust up that saw him suspended by the then Ibrox boss Ally McCoist. He ultimately infuriated Rangers fans by walking away when the hard times hit and liquidation meant a drop into the lower reaches of the game.
“Everyone knows why I left [Rangers]. Do I regret that decision? I’ve said before that I do. But you can’t go back. I will give 110 per cent for Hearts because I am a professional and I will look to play my best and get the three points.
“Maybe if I score twice against Celtic in the first game of the season then maybe I will get a slightly better reception at Ibrox. But I am fully focused on Hearts and I’m sure I will get a few boos no matter who I am playing against.”
In between the controversies, though, Lafferty did enough at Ibrox to establish himself as a player opposition fans loved to hate due to his football contributions. While he struggled to get all the game time he wanted, he did showcase his ability, popping up with vital goals to seal league titles and settle key clashes.
With all that in mind, he may have been advised to steer clear of a return north of the border after his time at Norwich City came to an end. There was scope to do that but, having chosen to buy into Ian Cathro’s vision for Hearts, he says he is a more mature version of his former self.
“I had a lot of options,” said Lafferty. “I was surprised by the number of clubs that were interested in me. I could have made a lot more money going abroad. But my house is here, my family are here and there are good football reasons too. It felt right. I want to get playing football, scoring and being happy again. I want to take my country to the World Cup and put silverware in this new stadium. I’m joining a top team in Scotland and I’ve got a chance to put things right. Not many people get a chance to put things right and I’ve got a chance to do that. I’m at Hearts to prove people wrong.
“I have definitely matured. I’ve learned there’s a time and a place to be the class clown. When you cross that white line you roll your sleeves up and do everything for your teammates. That’s what I’ve been doing and with the national team I am in a place where everyone believes in me and I have responded with good performances and goals.”
Handed the Hearts No 9 shirt, he accepts the weight of responsibility that comes with that. At Rangers he was used to things being black and white. Wins were demanded, strikers were expected to score and hostility had to be accepted. Things were rarely more intense than in Old Firm clashes and trips to Tynecastle.
“My Tynecastle memories are absolutely awful. I always thought: ‘Oh Christ, I think I will have a sore hamstring that week.’ It’s an awful place for an opposition team to play.
“I remember scoring a freekick and making it 1-1 and I made the mistake of running too close to the Hearts fans. I was pelted with bottles, coins, everything – I’m sure a granny even threw her false teeth at me! But I’m here because of the history of the club and how passionate the fans are. If I go out and do as well as I can and score goals and help the team I’m sure I will get on very well with the fans.
“It was a terrible place to come and try to play football even with 17,000 people here, so an extra 3,000 people will make it even worse for away teams. To have those fans right behind us is going to push the team. I can’t wait for the first home game of the season to hear them in full voice and I want to repay the fans, the coaching staff and the team by scoring goals.”