It was a little more than 20 years ago – Saturday, May 8 1993, to be precise – and Airdrieonians were the visitors to Tynecastle. Joe Jordan had just been sacked as Hearts manager after a 6-0 pummelling at Falkirk the previous weekend. Times were grim in Gorgie.
Youth coach Sandy Clark, a former striker at Tynecastle who had just weeks previously led a burgeoning band of Hearts teenagers to a famous BP Youth Cup triumph, was the man charged with freshening things up as he was installed as Jordan’s successor.
After his first game in charge – a midweek visit from Aberdeen – had brought another defeat for Hearts, Clark plundered his youth team to draft in a couple of untried, slick-haired youngsters for the clash with the Diamonds. Nineteen-year-old Allan Johnston went straight into the starting line-up for his first competitive outing, while Gary Locke, then just 17, was named on the bench.
Johnston made it a dream debut by scoring in a 1-1 draw, while his mate had to watch on with envy as an unused sub. Locke needn’t have been downbeat, though. A week later, the boyhood Hearts supporter got on for his debut when he replaced Derek Ferguson just before half-time in a 3-1 defeat at St Johnstone on the last day of the season. Johnston, incidentally, kept his place in the starting line-up.
In giving these two teenagers their first taste of the big time, Clark, unwittingly at the time, was laying the foundations for two stellar careers in football which would ultimately lead these two long-time friends into opposing dugouts for Saturday’s crunch Scottish Premiership showdown at Rugby Park. Kilmarnock manager Johnston, now 39 and with Clark as his trusty assistant, will be trying to guide his second-bottom team to just their second win of the season, while Hearts boss Locke, 38, battles to reduce his side’s 13-point deficit at the bottom of the table.
The pressure of battling relegation is all a far cry from the euphoria of summer 1993 when Clark included Locke and Johnston among his travelling party for a pre-season trip to Germany. They both scored in a 2-1 friendly win over local side Kickers Emden and went on to be prominent members of the first-team squad in the coming season.
Locke started most games at right-back, while right-winger Johnston – known as ‘Magic’ to the fans and ‘Sticky’ to his team-mates – was a regular off the bench.
The high point of the duo’s breakthrough campaign came in the opening weeks when they got their first taste of an Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle. Locke started the match, and Johnston replaced Neil Berry at half-time before bagging the game’s only goal early in the second half. It made it 18 derbies in a row unbeaten for Hearts. A fresh-faced Locke, speaking to the Evening News ahead of the UEFA Cup clash with Atletico Madrid the following month, said: “I’d love us to beat Atletico, but it will have to be something special to beat the feeling I had when Allan Johnston scored against Hibs. That was one of the best days of my life.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing for the young duo, however. Locke’s progress in particular was hampered when Clark was sacked and replaced by Tommy McLean who didn’t have as much faith in the kids as his predecessor. A test of character ensued as Locke found himself frozen out before Jim Jefferies arrived in summer 1995 to really spark these two right-sided marauders into life.
Locke forced his way back into the team and, remarkably, was swiftly named club captain at just 20, while Johnston marked his new-found status as a regular starter with a stunning hat-trick in a 3-0 away win over Rangers in January 1996, a time when nobody bar Europe’s elite won at Ibrox.
By now, the two were hot property. Unfortunately, their magnificent right-sided alliance didn’t last as long as Hearts had hoped. The 1996 Scottish Cup final, which brought a 5-1 defeat by Rangers and a serious injury to Locke, proved to be their last game together in maroon. Johnston won himself a move to French side Rennes before going on to Sunderland and then Rangers, while Locke would spend his next few years battling to overcome serious injury troubles before enjoying a brief crack at the English Premiership with Bradford City.
The pair were eventually reunited in 2004 when Jefferies, by now manager of Kilmarnock, added Johnston to a squad that already contained Locke. They had five years together at Rugby Park before winding down and preparing for a career in coaching. Neither could have envisaged that they’d one day be faced with the prospect of having to try and damage each other’s prospects of staying in the Scottish Premiership.
David Murie, a youth team-mate of the pair in the early 1990s, admits he couldn’t have foreseen his old pals going down the management route, never mind finding themselves going head-to-head with so much at stake for their respective clubs.
“It’s a surprise to an extent because it’s hard to tell when you’re a young player who’s going to go on and be a manager,” he explained. “I certainly never thought Allan Johnston would become a manager, just the type of character he was. He was a very dedicated trainer, but I never saw him going into the coaching side of things. He was a lot quieter than Lockey. Looking back now, I’m not even sure I’d have thought Lockey would be a manager or a coach. He was certainly one of the loudest – if not the loudest – in the dressing-room no matter whether it was at youth-team, reserve or first-team level. He was always chirpy and good to have about the dressing-room – and that’s showing in his management because he’s always upbeat and trying not to let the young lads’ heads go down.”
Murie, who had to settle for a part-time career in the SFL after making a handful of appearances for the Hearts first team, felt Locke and Johnston, along with centre-back Paul Ritchie, were always the most likely Hearts youngsters of that era to enjoy a fruitful career in the game. “Without a doubt, you could see from an early age they were going to have decent careers in the game,” he recalls. “Paul was an outstanding centre-half, but for natural football ability, Lockey and Allan were the standouts. If it wasn’t for injuries, Lockey would have gone a lot higher than he did. His ability was better than most people realise – he really was an outstanding player.
“Allan was head and shoulders above everybody, though, in terms of his skill and ability. He was the obvious one out of our group of youngsters at that time. The two of them were very close to each other, especially when they broke into the first team together and played together down the right-hand side. They had a good understanding on the pitch and they were good friends off it.”
That friendship will be tested to the full this weekend. “I was very close to Allan,” Locke says. “We came through the ranks at Hearts together and played together for a number of years. I still speak to him regularly – he’s a good friend – but I’ll be desperate to try and beat him at the weekend.”
Gary Mackay, who was on the park as Johnston and then Locke made those first tentative steps into the first team 20 years ago, summed up this Saturday’s unlikely state of play pretty well.
“Allan is one of the best players we produced in the last 20 years and his assistant is someone who is dearly loved by the Hearts supporters and was part of producing the likes of Lockey and Allan Johnston. Football’s a crazy game, but there’s nothing crazier than what it brings together with the management teams on Saturday.”