Tynecastle a terrific venue but fans too close for comfort

AT A time when many other football grounds have become bland and sanitised, Tynecastle is a venue to be treasured. It's not the biggest ground in the country, not by a long way, and it's certainly not the most palatial. But when it comes to atmosphere it is the best, and has been for some years.

Ibrox and Celtic Park may have been jumping in recent weeks as the title race heats up, but for much of the season they have been hushed. Thousands of Rangers and Celtic fans in attendance have failed to muster much enthusiasm for the latest routine win; thousands more have not bothered to turn up at all.

Easter Road has a greater capacity than Tynecastle, all the more so since its new stand was completed but, even in a full Hibernian ground, many fans are far removed from the action. The view from the upper tier is great if you want to analyse team line-ups and patterns of play, but not so good if you want to feel part of the drama.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Pittodrie is bigger too, but Aberdeen fans have had little to cheer about in recent seasons. As a result, a sepulchral gloom tends to descend upon the place, particularly during the winter months.

Tynecastle has been far from full for much of the season too, but even when well below its 17,000-odd capacity it still rocks. There's no secret to its success, which is due to the simple fact that thousands are closer to the action there than they are at any other major ground in Scotland.

You can see the physical effort put in by the players more clearly than anywhere else. Football there is raw, muscular theatre, and watching it can be an emotionally draining experience, be you a Hearts supporter or a fan of the away team.

• Background: There's been trouble brewing in Gorgie

The Gorgie ground's relative superiority to other Scottish venues probably dates back to the mid-1990s when stadiums were made all-seater, although the ambitions of the team during Jim Jefferies' first period as manager also had an effect. Craig Levein, Jefferies' successor, had less money to work with and thus a less gifted squad, but they excelled themselves at times, spurred on by a raucous support.

During the latter part of Levein's reign, chief executive Chris Robinson's bid to sell the ground and move the club to Murrayfield also ensured a heated atmosphere.

More recently, under Vladimir Romanov, the club has got closer to challenging the Old Firm, stoking the hopes of the fans, and further cranking up the atmosphere.

But the price of having fans so close to the action is that they can become part of the action. This is what happened on Wednesday night, when one supporter ran along in front of the main stand to confront Neil Lennon as the Celtic manager stood in his technical area. And it's what happened almost two years ago, too, when an Edinburgh derby ended with a couple of Hearts supporters getting on to the pitch, and one of them squaring up to Derek Riordan.

Hearts could face severe punishment from the footballing authorities for the Lennon incident, but they will point out in their defence that, of their own volition, they had around 40 extra stewards on duty compared to the usual staffing levels for a game against Celtic. It is clear that if hundreds more had been on duty, one or two of them might have stopped the man getting on to the perimeter track and heading towards the dugouts, but there is a practical as well as financial limit to the level of stewarding a club can be expected to adopt.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In the main, for all the mayhem which occasionally ensues, football crowds tend to be self-policing. The vast majority of supporters are perfectly peaceable, and even most of those who indulge in low-level anti-social activity are able to control themselves to the extent of not attacking members of the opposition.

But there is, nonetheless, a very thin line between the passion, and even the aggression, which generates atmosphere, and the poison which blights the whole game. For example, ask people what is good about Tynecastle, and many will say it's intimidating. They regard that as a good thing, the passion and intensity which can make the place scary. But if it becomes so intimidating that participants or spectators fear for their safety, it's clearly gone too far.

This is the question which football has had to address in recent years: how to clamp down on anti-social behaviour without completely emasculating the environment. In the case of many grounds, that question has not been answered satisfactorily. At Tynecastle, by and large it has - for the time being at least.