FROM 100 locals at the tiny Stadion Windischgarsten, to the deafening euphoria of Hampden Park last May, Andy Driver has experienced everything at Hearts. After 12 years he is destined for pastures new in America.
Devastated, scared and excited are just some of his emotions as he heads to Houston Dynamo and a new life in Major League Soccer. He leaves with, in his own words, a very heavy heart.
The winger recalls his Tynecastle career with some trepidation. He can’t believe this chapter is ending, for Hearts is all he’s known since the age of 13. He burst into the first team at 18 during a pre-season tour of Austria in 2006, destroying Spartak Trnava’s Senegalese international defender Souleymane Fall in the tiny mountain village of Windischgarsten. Indications were he would soon fry even bigger fish.
Perhaps scald would be a more appropriate choice of word. Andreas Hinkel, Celtic’s German international full-back, was regularly left looking like he was towing a caravan as Driver scampered past him for Hearts during SPL matches between the clubs. There have been stunning goals in big games, interest from clubs as big as Chelsea, and the unfortunate injuries which robbed the player of two years of his career.
The pinnacle, of course, was beating Hibs 5-1 in last year’s Scottish Cup final. Driver produced one of his finest performances on the biggest occasion and showed the watching world he still had that special magic which had seen him represent England Under-21s before injury struck. Over in Texas, a certain Dominic Kinnear was watching and already preparing to bring the player to Houston Dynamo.
There is a severe culture shock lying in wait for Driver, a player who remains close to his family and childhood friends despite the heights he has touched in football. He would complain about long journeys up the A9 to face Inverness. Now he faces hours on planes whenever Dynamo have an away match in the vast landscape that is the MLS. After so long in Edinburgh, he is relishing the chance of a fresh start in a completely new environment. Nervous but eager sums him up.
“It feels weird. The weirdest thing is the uncertainty,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I’ve been in the same place for 12 years and now I’m going to something completely new. I’ll have the feeling of going into a changing-room with a new group of guys and I’ve not had that before. I’m obviously nervous, but that’s probably a good thing.
“I’m a massive fan of American sports and I’ve kept tabs on Houston Dynamo. They’ve been one of the top teams over the last few years and, as soon as I found out they were interested, I thought it would be a great move for me. I jumped at the chance. I always knew it would take a good move to leave Hearts and I feel I’ve got it. It’s an exciting league and a new experience for me.
“I think it’s necessary for me to get a fresh challenge and I think a lot of people will agree with me saying that. I’ve been at Hearts that long and the club is moving in a new direction now. Winning the Cup last year was the perfect send-off, really. If I’d left Hearts without winning anything I would have had a lot more disappointment.
“Knowing I’ve achieved something is very satisfying. I’m obviously leaving with a heavy heart because I love the place and the people around it, but you’ve got to move on if you want to develop your career. A fresh start is what I need.
“I was tempted to stay at Hearts with the League Cup final coming up, but I knew I’d have to move on eventually, so the sooner the better. I’m looking forward to getting into it.
“You never know what could happen in the next few months so you need to take opportunities when they arise. The boys will raise their game for the Cup Final, as they’ve done in recent years. They can’t take it easy, but I think we’ll be okay. I’ll definitely be watching.”
His Hearts contract was due to expire in June and, as one of the club’s highest earners, he was certain to leave to allow youth academy pupils to continue developing in the first team. As a Riccarton graduate himself, it is a policy Driver fully understands. “That’s the aim of the club, they wanted to play more young players this year and I’ve got no problem with it. Personally, I don’t want to be sitting out games, so I want to get a fresh start in America and kick on. It’s not guaranteed I’m going to start every game at Houston, but at least I’ll be fighting for my future. At Hearts, I only had six months left and it just felt like winding down, really.”
His long-term future now depends on how he performs Stateside. Houston state that Driver will “provide cover on the wings for Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia”, who will miss MLS games due to international commitments. Driver is initially joining on loan until June, with the Texas club having the option to sign him permanently thereafter. “The option is with the club so, if I impress, they may take it up,” he continued. “That’s irrelevant at the moment. I’ve just got to go and work hard. I’m not the kind of person who goes with massive aims. Obviously I want to achieve everything I can.
“I believe in working hard over the short term and then see what good comes in the long term. I’ll try and enjoy the experience. I won’t be moaning about two-hour journeys here – we’ll be away on a five-hour flight for every away game. It’s something you’ve got to do if you want to move on. I don’t mind travelling too much, so I’ll just get on with it.”
Driver is grateful simply to have the chance to continue his career, for the opportunity to sample the American lifestyle. Had he given in to temptation not so long ago, he might have been out of football altogether.
“There were times when I did consider just sacking it,” he admitted. “I had two years where the injuries were just constant and it’s taken me a long while to get over that. There were flashes when something goes wrong, you’re in the physio room feeling lonely and thinking, ‘what’s the point?’ But you’ve got your team-mates who pull you through. I’ve been with a few of them for 12 years so you don’t consider those thoughts for long. I’ve got great mates there who I’ll be friends with forever. It’s going to be hard saying goodbye to everybody.
“I’ve got a lot of thanks for the physiotherapy department at Hearts. They’ve been amazing with me. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for them. Going through that has given me the drive and determination to make the most of my career and now I can continue it as I want to. I’m 25 now, but I’ve only really had a few good seasons. That makes me want to achieve more because I missed a lot of time and I’ve got a lot to make up. I’m out to achieve everything I can.”
He also named the current Hearts manager John McGlynn as one of his biggest influences. “John was my under-19s coach and my first full-time coach in the game, so he set me off in the right direction. Craig Levein was at Hearts at that time and he was a massive influence. The one positive from being at Hearts is I’ve taken lots of different things from all the managers we’ve had.
“We’ve had some tough times and you could say some questionable managers, but it’s helped me evolve, learn the game and adapt to different situations. I wouldn’t say I disliked any manager or that any of them were terrible. I just had to learn from some of them.”
One thing he learned was how to show resilience. “Over Christmas, I felt I was getting back to a resemblance of my best form. I thought the away game at Kilmarnock was me really back at my old best and I’ve got to replicate that every week now in America. Physically I’m feeling better than I ever have. I had a terrible game in the semi-final against Inverness, which I’ve got to get over. I’ve got to impress the people at Houston Dynamo.
“The people over there have been absolutely brilliant with me. There’s a flat and a car waiting for me. It’s scary going away from all my mates from school and my family, but I’ve spoken to everyone and they’ve all agreed it’s time to move on. Everyone is getting jobs in different areas and it’s time for me to make it. I’ve got to grow up a bit and make myself settle in.”
Pining for home would be understandable given Driver’s affection for Hearts. He intends to explore a whole new world in the USA, but, when the time comes, a return to Tynecastle would be welcomed. “I’d always consider coming back to Hearts. Edinburgh is a great city, I get on well with everybody at the club and the fans have been brilliant with me. I’d always come back. It’s just a matter of whether they’d want me back,” he laughed.
“When I come back on my holidays I’ll definitely go to the Hearts games. Everyone has to move on at some time, but I think the relationship I’ve built up with the club will last. I’m glad I’m moving without falling out with the club or anything like that. I’m glad it’s good for both parties. I don’t like confrontation, so it’s nice to leave in a good way.”
His Hearts career started well and ended well. If he can replicate his experiences in Scotland on the other side of the Atlantic, Andy Driver is in for one hell of a time in the MLS.
• November 1987: Born in Oldham.
• July 2003: Joins Hearts from club’s youth academy.
• August 2006: Scores on first-team debut v Inverness.
• June 2009: Plays for England at European Under-21 Championship.
• June 2010: Hearts reject offers of over £3m for Driver from Burnley and FC Twente. Chelsea, Wigan and Middlesbrough also inquire about him.
• July 2010: Undergoes knee surgery.
• September 2010: Tears a thigh muscle.
• August 2011: Scores on comeback in European tie v Paksi SE.
• November 2011: Pledges his international future to Scotland.
• December 2011: Tells Hearts manager Paulo Sergio he wants a transfer.
• May 2012: After withdrawing request, plays in Hearts’ 5-1 Scottish Cup final win over Hibs.
• January 2013: Comes on as substitute in final match against Dundee