Hearts may still be some way from survival both on and off the pitch, but they are well on the road to restoring a reputation which took such a battering during the Vladimir Romanov years.
Ever since Hearts entered administration in June, the rancour, bitterness and paranoia that accompanied so much of the Russian’s ruinous reign has dissipated to an almost non-existent level at Tynecastle. The pride, dignity and humility which the club had become synonymous with down the years is gradually returning after eight years of living in a largely-unpleasant bubble of excess in which Hearts did little to endear themselves to the outside world.
Of course, there were good times under Romanov. In fact, his tenure was book-ended by two of the greatest events in the club’s history: the electrifying start to the 2005/06 season and the 2012 Scottish Cup final demolition of Hibs. There were also a fair few high points in between.
However, on the whole, Romanov’s reign served to show that Hearts are better as a humble and dignified community club who care about how they are perceived. The “no-one likes us, we don’t care” mentality that the Russian tried to stir up at Tynecastle may have struck a chord with some of Hearts’ more easily-led supporters, but the smarter ones were concerned about how their club was becoming one of the most dysfunctional in Britain.
Railing against the SFA at every turn, banning media for having the temerity to highlight and question the chaos that was unfolding at the club, sacking successful managers and alienating several club icons were just some of the reasons that Hearts became viewed as such an unpopular club under the vanquished Eastern European regime. Outsiders would always comment on how Tynecastle used to be one of the friendliest, most welcoming clubs in Scottish football prior to Romanov’s arrival. That all changed during the Romanov years, with respect from outside becoming thin on the ground as the Russian’s petulance showed no bounds.
Many Hearts fans will argue that they didn’t care about their club’s popularity as long as they could remain successful on the pitch. However, the likes of Motherwell, St Johnstone and Inverness have all shown that it is perfectly possible to be a competitive Scottish football club without setting out to rub everyone else up the wrong way.
Hearts weren’t formed with the intention of winning the Champions League and riding roughshod over tradition in pursuit of glory. Class and community spirit should always shine through at a club with Hearts’ history. There was a feeling that that wasn’t happening as more and more people grew disillusioned with how things were being done.
Thankfully, there has been a significant sea-change at Tynecastle since Romanov and his hapless cohorts departed the scene. The cleansing process is well under way and already it is a notably fresher place.
Most fans have stopped moaning about the world being out to get their club. There seems to have been a general acceptance that the media were, in hindsight, right to question Romanov’s running of the club, pretty much from the moment George Burley was unforgivably sacked eight years ago.
Despite the talk of a “siege mentality”, Hearts’ people have generally accepted their medicine in terms of the points deduction and signing embargo, in stark contrast to Rangers, who have displayed a sense of injustice at pretty much every sanction handed down to them.
To their eternal credit, instead of feeling sorry for themselves, Hearts have simply endeavoured to work their own way out of their grim predicament. Led by a perfect figurehead in the charismatic and driven Gary Locke, Hearts have been united like never before and it is manifesting itself in some of their most memorable moments of the modern era. Fans are falling in love with their club all over again. Meanwhile, other young supporters are getting the chance to live the dream by playing for their boyhood idols, a chance they might not otherwise have got. And, thus far, they don’t look out of place.
This remarkable battle against crippling adversity, is providing the most uplifting story in Scottish football this season. All the nonsense of the Romanov years is in the past and the wider football fraternity appears to be warming to Hearts again, to the point where many neutrals are rooting for them to succeed in their mission improbable.
The club has been stripped right back to the bare bones, but thankfully there is still a good heart there.