Looking back: Black gift wrapped Christmas No.1 slot for Hearts

HEARTS' aspirations of challenging at the top of the SPL this season bring an air of refreshment to Scottish football. It is rather fitting that, 25 years ago today, they moved to the top of the Premier Division as their enthralling 1985/86 campaign continued to gain momentum.

A Kenny Black penalty at Love Street, Paisley, secured a 1-0 victory over St Mirren and allowed Hearts to usurp Aberdeen by a point and move into first place. It was, in many ways, the day people began believing that Hearts might just possess the required credentials to become champions.

In a mirror image of the club's recent fortunes, the Tynecastle side had built an impressive unbeaten run throughout the autumn of 1985. Each victory supplemented confidence levels within the squad, which was astutely guided by the wily Alex MacDonald.

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By the time they travelled along the M8 to face St Mirren, they had gone 11 matches without defeat. John Robertson and Sandy Clark were scoring goals, Gary Mackay and John Colquhoun were creating chances, whilst the defence and goalkeeper Henry Smith were becoming more miserly by the week.

Black was something of an unsung hero of the 1985/86 team, operating mostly in midfield and defence. However, his penalty on the afternoon of Saturday, December 21, 1985 prompted a surge of adrenalin within a club which had last properly challenged for the title more than 20 years previously.

"The lift we got going top of the league was phenomenal," recalled Mackay. "We never got carried away as individuals but within the team, to see yourself sitting top of the table is a real extra boost to your confidence.

"At that time, we were ahead of an Aberdeen team full of internationals, a Dundee United team full of internationals, and then there was the Old Firm. To go above these teams was huge for us, especially in December when we'd had a particularly slow start to the season.

"We had a morale and togetheness within our squad which, if you'd been able to bottle it, you'd have become a millionaire.

"We were a mix-and-match lot. Some guys had been let go by bigger clubs, some of us came through the youth, others were picked up for small fees from lower division teams, and one or two hadn't been good enough to play for the Old Firm.

"The dynamics of that whole group, as far as everyone getting on, was just out of this world. That was the case even before the unbeaten run began. When it really came through we became like a runaway train with the camaraderie and team spirit.

"Results were going well and things do tend to run away with you in that situation. Fortunately for us, we had the manager to keep us grounded."He had been through everything in the game."

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MacDonald seemed to be a master of man-management and perfectly balanced the feel-good factor against humility as Hearts' title assault got stronger. Although the season would ultimately end in disappointment, the football played and results achieved by Hearts are inscribed in Tynecastle folklore.

The close bond between the players, the foundations upon which season 1985/86 was built, still exist to this day. "There were very few changes to the team all through the season," said Mackay. "We almost used the same 11 every week, the group including subs was maybe only 14 or 15 players.

"Our fitness levels were excellent; if your fitness levels are good then you recover from injury quicker and you are less susceptible to picking up problems in the first place.

"At the time we worked under George McNeill and Bert Logan and in the early part of the week we trained like professional athletes. Probably more like sprinters than footballers.

"We worked hard Monday and Tuesday, usually with Wednesday off. The ball would come out Thursday and Friday and the balance just seemed to be perfect for everybody. The continuity of selection bonded us even more and brought us closer."