In the closing minutes of last night’s embarrassing defeat to Birkirkara, those remaining inside Tynecastle booed the announcement that Conor Sammon had been awarded one of the two man-of-the-match awards. It was utterly ridiculous.
Personally, I don’t like the signing. I didn’t when it was first mooted. He doesn’t fit the current Hearts set-up. His best football came in a six-month period during his time with Kilmarnock when he was playing ahead of Alexei Eremenko: a creative playmaker with near-prophetic vision and a penchant for through balls. Hearts don’t have that type of player. But regardless of these reservations, he has to be given time to settle in and see if some sort of cohesive plan or understanding can be worked out. You cannot demand that in only four games. It was particularly harsh as he was on a team full of misfiring underachievers and he was the one who actually managed to score.
The club should take their share of the blame for stoking the fire. Why announce man-of-the-match awards during a defeat while the game is still going on? Scott Wilson, the Hearts’ stadium announcer, must have sensed the tone inside the stadium and known there was a good chance of audible descent to the Sammon award. It used to be that man-of-the-match awards were announced after games. Why did that change?
Equally as ludicrous as booing a striker for failing to settle after four games is the growing desire among the Hearts support to have Robbie Neilson and/or director of football Craig Levein sacked. Neilson, like all football managers, deserves criticism for some of his decisions. Yet there’s a difference between deserving criticism and deserving to lose his job.
Having been on their knees for two years and then being relegated, it took Neilson precisely 16 months to get Hearts back to the lofty position of being the third best side in Scottish football. Prior to this, Hearts nearly died. This wasn’t some event in the distant past. This was a realistic possibility every single day between autumn 2012 and the summer of 2014. Things off the field, mercifully, reached a conclusion where the club wouldn’t go out of business, though there still remained a terrifying future ahead. Hearts had not only been relegated to the second tier, they were dropped into a league where they would have to battle for the one automatic spot with Rangers and Hibs. Say what you want about either side at the time, but they are undoubtedly two of the biggest five clubs in this country. That is a bad hand to be dealt. Alan Stubbs didn’t even do a bad job at Hibs. In fact, he did a fine job over the piece, and they still never managed it out of that league in two years. Neilson strolled it in one season - and, if we’re really being honest, the league was done when Jamie Walker’s penalty hit the back of the net against Rangers in November.
It’s no longer those who feel compelled to hire planes who want Neilson to leave. There’s a poll on Jambos Kickback, the biggest fans’ forum among the Hearts support, that is calling for the manager’s demise with 63.5 per cent of the vote (at the time of writing). It’s owed to a growing sense of entitlement. It must be bizarre for some older fans, those who suffered through Hearts going 20 years without a top three finish in Scottish football, or the club going a full 36 years without a trophy. In the last 30 years, Hearts have finished in the top three 11 times. They’ve also won three trophies in the past 18. It’s a decent haul by non-Old Firm Scottish football standards, but it’s hardly a case for demanding it every single season.
It almost feels like surpassing all expectations in their first season has been detrimental to the current managerial regime. It seems inconceivable that Hearts fans would call for a manager’s head after finishing third prior to the turbulent recent history. There’s no doubt he has blots on his CV - the cup defeat against Hibs, the embarrassment against Birkirkara - but this is not enough of a heinous criminal record that it deserves the death penalty. It just isn’t. Football may have moved on and a manager’s tenure may have an expiry date rivalling a two-litre jug of Cravendale, but it still is not enough.
The most conflicting part of writing this is the simple fact there would be no Hearts without their fans. They deserve an infinite amount of praise for the way in which they rallied and brought their club back from the brink when death seemed imminent. Without them, there is no Hearts. However, it has to be realised by some that they are being detrimental to what they want to happen more than anything else when they turn up at Tynecastle, and that’s the team winning. It should also be stated that not every fan feels this way. When Alim Ozturk, Faycal Rherras and even Sammon applauded the fans after full-time last night, they were met with an appreciative clap themselves.
Tynecastle is an X-factor for Hearts. There was a time, back in the early 2000s, under Craig Levein’s stewardship when the ground was almost a fortress. Nobody wanted to go there. The crowd were on top of everything. They screamed their team on to the death and, most of the time, they walked out of the ground to some sort of satisfaction. Around three years later, the power was gone - no, worse than gone. It had inverted on itself. Instead of frightening the opposing team, the sense of claustrophobia inside the ground began to suffocate the home players if expectations weren’t met in the opening 30 minutes. Everyone who witnessed Hearts being torn apart by Dundee United late in the 2006/07 season will remember the cacophony of boos. There had never been anything like it before. Thankfully, there has scarcely ever been anything like it since. But that tendency for Tynecastle to become a hindrance to the home team rather than a weapon has remained to this day. It doesn’t happen every week, but it does happen. And there’s only one group of people who can change that.