Interview: Hearts legend Ian Baird

With Hearts' scoring woes a recurring theme these days, ANTHONY BROWN caught up with an ex-Jambo who knew the way to goal.

Hearts players John Robertson, Ian Baird, Scott Crabbe pictured in 1991

"THE biggest thing about Hearts was how close-knit it was," says Ian Baird, as he recalls fondly the two-year spell at a club where he established himself as something of a cult hero in the early 90s.

The big shaggy-haired striker took his fair share of abuse from the well-oiled denizens of Tynecastle's old shed, but, despite his at times cumbersome style, the 19 goals he amassed in just two seasons ensure Yogi will always hold a special place in the hearts of most Hearts supporters.

Now managing Eastleigh in the Conference South, the 45-year-old, now bereft of his famous ginger locks, was happy to reminisce about the enjoyable time he spent in Edinburgh.

Baird signed up for a crack at the Scottish game when Joe Jordan offered him the chance to join Hearts in 1991. And the Yorkshireman has no regrets about a move which saw him become part of one big maroon family.

"I was fortunate in that I walked into a very good side – we had Dave McPherson, Gary Mackay, Alan McLaren, John Robertson, Craig Levein, Derek Ferguson, Scott Crabbe, Tosh McKinlay," he said. "It was a really close-knit team because the majority of them were brought up in Edinburgh and supported the team as boys. Fergie and Tosh came through from the west but most of the boys were local. The likes of Mackay, Robbo and even the physio Allan Rae had all been there for years. Sandy Clark, who was the reserve team manager at the time, had played for the club and you'd always see the former players like Walter Kidd out and about. It seemed a tradition that everyone connected with the club stuck together.

"For an outsider like me coming up from England, it made a real impression on me to see what Hearts meant to some of these guys. The likes of Gary Mackay and Scott Crabbe were diehards, they loved it! I remember when we were coming back over the Forth Road Bridge on our way back from away games Gary would always say proudly 'welcome back to the capital city'." That pride and spirit took Hearts to remarkable heights in Baird's first season, but they ran out of steam in the second half of the campaign. "The first season I was there we led the table for about six months. I think we were about 15 games unbeaten and then Aberdeen beat us 4-0 at Tynecastle in January and I always remember some Hearts fans throwing their scarves on at the end which was a bit strange. I think the club were pretty skint and we were operating with a squad of about 15 players, so it was always going to be tough. Rangers ran away with it in the end but it was great to pip Celtic to second place."

Ian Baird heads the ball during Hearts match against Slavia Prague at Tynecastle in 1992

While Baird loved life in Gorgie, he at times had a difficult relationship with an element of the Hearts support. "Initially, I was quite popular, but then I ended up tearing my thigh muscle," he recalls. "I came back too soon and didn't play particularly well, and as a result I took a hell of a lot of stick from the Hearts fans. But then I managed to turn things round and ended up winning the Hearts Player of the Year award the following season which is no mean feat for an Englishman.

"You'll always have ups and downs with supporters, but I'll always have good memories of my time at Hearts. I really enjoyed living in the area, I lived in Fairmilehead with my wife and two children. The social life was good at Hearts, after games I used to go up to Morningside for a few beers with Robbo and the other guys."

Baird, Robbo and Crabbe were part of a formidable front three, but the Englishan admits it was hellish having to operate beside the club's record goalscorer. "Playing alongside Robbo was not enjoyable at all," he said. "I played alongside three strikers: Bernie Slaven, Micky Quinn and John Robertson, and between them I think they took about six years off my career because you had to do their running for them. Robbo was what he was – he was a poacher, a really good finisher who never stopped talking about himself. He was a really good lad and I enjoyed his company."

With over 16 years having elapsed since Baird last played in maroon, one of the enduring images of the big man's time in Edinburgh is the occasion he had to don the goalie gloves. "We played Aberdeen away and Nicky Walker got injured in the warm-up," he said. "In those days you didn't have a second-choice keeper and because I had always been messing about in goals in training, I ended up taking the gloves. When you're going in goals in front of 15,000 people at Pittodrie, it's hard to see the funny side.

"In fact, it was probably about as nervous as I've ever been for a game in my life. We lost 3-2 but I was blameless for all the goals. People always mention that game to me."

So does he still keep an eye on proceedings at Tynecastle. "Yeah, I still keep tabs on what's happening," he says. "Funnily enough, Hearts used our ground as a base when they were down this way in pre-season, but obviously everything's totally changed since my time. There are loads of foreigners there now and the stadium's completely changed. The ground looks lovely compared to the old shed.

"I took some abuse from the guys in there, but it always created a great atmosphere."

How the current Hearts team could do with a marksman of Yogi's ilk, not to mention the spirit of the early 90s.

Ian Baird's Hearts career

July 1991: Signed by boss Joe Jordan on a two-year deal from from Middlesbrough.

August 1991: Scores debut goal in opening-day win at Airdrie. Ends his first season in Scotland with eight goals as Hearts finish second, although all his goals came in the first half of the season.

September 1992: Scores against Slavia Prague at Tynecastle as Hearts suffer agonising away-goals exit.

November 1992: Scores the winner against Hibs in the derby at Tynecastle.

April 93: Plays in goals in 3-2 defeat at Aberdeen after Nicky Walker is injured in warm-up.

May 1993: Wins Hearts' Player of the Year award after 11 goals in disappointing season for the Tynecastle side which saw Jordan sacked.

June 1993: Offered a new deal by new Hearts boss Sandy Clark but leaves to join Bristol City after 19 competitive goals in 79 games.