Why Bjorn Johnsen epitomised Hearts' decline post-Robbie Neilson
Wednesday 30 November. Tynecastle Park. Hearts v Rangers. Robbie Neilson’s last game as manager of the Jambos.
Knowing what we do now, the game is almost tragic for the Hearts support. Like good company shared with a loved one for the last time, the particular moment in time acts as a reminder for the heartbreak which would ultimately follow.
With any change of manager there is always a sense of trepidation, whether they’re experienced or not. We’ve witnessed it in football too many times before. There are no guarantees. It could all go spectacularly wrong. Even a team like this one, which just grabbed second place with pure, uncompromising and unapologetic force, could drop like a stone.
However, there was good reason to think it wouldn’t happen on this occasion. Even if Ian Cathro couldn’t sustain the standards of second place, a dramatic downturn was unthinkable from a team which had just dominated Rangers at Tynecastle. Even in Hearts’ Scottish Championship winning campaign, where they finished 24 points in front of the Glasgow side, there wasn’t a victory as comprehensive as this one.
Robbie Muirhead was the hero of the piece, netting both goals in a 2-0 win, though he was far from the only star in maroon. Arnaud Djoum turned in a masterful performance in the No.10 role, playing the game at a different pace to the 21 others on the park, operating with a cool composure as the connection between midfield and attack. Jamie Walker retained his usual menace, Callum Paterson brought a threat from deep, while Don Cowie did his best to cover every blade of grass. But the best individual performance was reserved for the team’s lone striker.
Bjorn Johnsen arrived at Tynecastle with a sketchy pedigree having hauled himself up through the lower leagues of Spain and Portugal before ultimately landing in Bulgaria. When Litex Lovech were banished from the top flight - following a mass walk-off by the players at the insistence of the owner during a game where Johnsen was sent off - they were reformed in the second tier. This meant some of the star players, such as Johnsen, were allowed to leave. But Litex wouldn’t give up without a fight. A registration wrangle meant the 22 July signing didn’t make his debut until a late August victory over Inverness CT.
Though he would play his part in the 5-1 win with a delicious through-ball back-heel for Sam Nicholson to score, it soon became apparent this was a very raw player. He was 6ft 5in but had the build of a stork, while he was equally capable of trapping a tricky pass instantly as he was at stumbling over a routine touch. An away match at St Johnstone also revealed an almost wilful ignorance of the offside law.
Neilson quickly relegated him back to the bench and there was a growing sense that Hearts had recruited themselves another dud. Bit by bit, though, Johnsen began to build himself up. A promising showing in an away draw at Inverness soon led to another in a similarly high scoring stalemate against Hamilton. The player was beginning to blossom and the newly polished Johnsen heralded his arrival in a 3-0 win over Motherwell, scoring twice and having another wrongly disallowed. It was a seriously impressive performance, but he still had more to show.
Against Rangers the striker was almost faultless. Finally using his tall frame in ways which seemed alien to him at the start of the campaign, he gave both Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan a torrid evening. The much-maligned Ibrox pair were helpless in their attempt to stop Johnsen acting like the fulcrum to the Hearts attack. With Muirhead, Walker and Djoum operating around him, Johnsen’s job was to get the ball in isolation, hold off incoming challenges and feed play to his team-mates, while his pace in behind helped stretch the game and gave Hearts the perfect outlet in their direct strategy against the possession-obsessed Rangers.
He didn’t score, thanks only to some terrific stops from Wes Foderingham, but he did lay the opener on a plate for Muirhead running in at the back post, and he was at the centre of everything the hosts did in attack.
From there he should have went from strength to strength, and may well have done had Neilson not walked out of Tynecastle that night for a final time.
Even in Cathro’s first game, a return fixture with Rangers at Ibrox, he appeared subdued. Instead of trying to ragdoll Wilson and Kiernan, he meekly bowed to the middling authority from the centre-backs, as Hearts lost 2-0.
He would score in the new manager’s first home game, a 1-1 draw with Partick Thistle, but things quickly disintegrated from there. Only one further goal was plundered before the end of the campaign, as his confidence visibly seeped out of him on the park. A young girl calling for an increase in playing time for the American/Norwegian was met with guffaws from the crowd at a Meet the Management event, and with good reason. Barely in the side, when he did feature he contributed nothing, and his exit became inevitable.
Walker and Djoum suffered similar downturns of form, but both had stored enough credit in the bank and, to this day, represent Hearts’ best chance of recouping a significant transfer fee for any of their assets. A brand new batch of players coming in during the summer, not to mention a bust-up with Cathro in the penultimate weekend of the season, made Johnsen expendable.
It’s a further indictment of the club’s struggles with recruitment in recent years that Johnsen was allowed to complete his move away from Tynecastle a day before Cathro was relieved of his duties. The next manager stepping through the door may have immediately looked at Johnsen and, in the same vein as Neilson, salivated at the prospect of putting all his raw abilities into a complete package.
Fittingly for this tale, his final game, a 2-0 defeat at Celtic Park, saw flashes of his talents for the first time in months, as the Jambos succumbed to an expected yet valiant defeat at the home of the champions. But it was too late to save Johnsen’s Hearts career.