ALEX SMITH believes Scotland’s football authorities are failing both Hearts and their manager, Gary Locke, by denying them a chance to rebuild.
Chairman of the Managers and Coaches Association, Smith stressed Locke is in an impossible position at Tynecastle and is suffering by enduring such pressure so early in his managerial career.
Hearts’ descent into administration last June triggered an immediate SPFL registration embargo and a 15-point deduction for the new league season. That left Locke effectively with hands tied and mouth gagged.
Experienced players had left on freedom of contract and the manager, having only been appointed in March, found himself with a squad full of under-21 players to fight against relegation. Locke will be unable to replenish his squad during the January transfer window as Hearts will still be in administration well into next year. They are currently 14 points adrift at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership.
Smith feels the punishments meted out to Hearts have gone on too long and are having a detrimental effect on Locke’s early days in management.
He blames previous directors and disgraced former owner Vladimir Romanov for the club’s demise. Now 73, Smith admitted that, throughout his time in football, he couldn’t recall a manager in a more harrowing position than Locke.
“I’ve never known a manager to be in a more difficult situation,” he told the Evening News. “Here we have a young manager in the first few months of his career, managing a club like Hearts, but not able to bring in players. Then there’s the 15-point deduction. I just think it’s ridiculous.
“It’s ridiculous that we’re making a top club like Hearts suffer like this because of the poor management of other people. They did things in a way that was running that club towards a multiple crash.
“The authorities are making it worse with the sanctions and denying Hearts the right to try and get out of this trouble. They did it with Rangers, another massive club. They didn’t just take action against them, they almost slit their throat. We need these two clubs and we need them in our top league. We don’t need them in the lower leagues.”
Locke has pledged to fight on in the hope that Hearts can reel in teams such as Ross County and Kilmarnock at the bottom of the table and avoid relegation. Time is not on their side. Many feel one positive from slipping into the Championship would be the breathing space accorded the Riccarton youth academy graduates to develop as footballers. Smith points out that life in the second tier is likely to be fraught with just as many problems.
“Gary would be entitled to expect the chance to take Hearts back up if they did end up relegated, but football nowadays doesn’t always work like that, does it? Hearts could go down into the Championship. Rangers and Dunfermline could come up [from League One].
“Then you might have three out of the four chasing promotion this season possibly still there. It’s going to be some league. The pressure next year would be exactly the same, only the sympathy vote won’t be there. It will be expectation levels there instead. Either way, it’s going to be difficult.”
Smith called Locke to offer a pep talk in the wake of Hearts’ 7-0 Scottish Cup defeat by Celtic earlier this month. He will do the same again before Hearts head to Parkhead on league business this weekend. “I feel for him. If he’s feeling like a chat he just has to phone any of the more experienced managers in the game and he’ll get any amount of their time,” explained Smith.
“I’ll give him another call this week sometime. He really just has to keep going. It will only take winning a couple of games and he will see an opportunity to turn things round. He can’t lose sight of the fact Hearts are a massive club with a massive support. If there is any sign of a revival, Gary will have everybody 100 per cent behind him.
“That’s not always the case when you have to please 15,000 people at your home games. One or two people will just see the jerseys on the field, regardless of who is in them, and assume that because they’re Hearts, they should automatically be winning games.
“The majority of Hearts supporters know the situation. The young kids are good players, all they need is that wee glimmer of a chance. If they come onto a run and start getting points, the fans will be right behind them. A lot of people now go to games, sit down and expect to be entertained. Gary will have the siege support and he’ll realise he has to harness that.
“There’s no doubt we’re getting a false impression of what he can do at the moment. He can’t bring in players. He’s just to get on working with the young players he has. They’re all very talented, but if things start going the wrong way, it affects them all as a group. You need a few stabilisers in the team to steady them.
“That’s why guys like Ryan Stevenson and Jamie Hamill are so important. They’ve been lumbered with this responsibility, which even for them is massive. They have to take on the responsibility of going out and winning games of football. How do you do that?
“There is a great art to winning games. The first thing is you don’t lose bad goals, so you need a strong back line and a good goalkeeper. If you do lose a goal, you keep the ball till you get an opportunity to get back into the game.
“The key is not to lose a second, so your defence and goalkeeper need to keep you in the game when you’re under pressure.”