A little more than two years after helping Hearts beat Hibs 5-1 in the Scottish Cup final, two members of the starting XI from that glory day in May 2012 find themselves propping up the entire English Football League.
After relegation from Sky Bet League One at the end of last season, Carlisle United manager Graham Kavanagh recruited Danny Grainger and Stephen Elliott as he rebuilt his squad for a proposed tilt at instant promotion.
Things haven’t gone to plan, however, with the former Hearts duo helpless to prevent the Cumbrians making a dismal start to the campaign. Kavanagh was sacked at the start of September and only last Saturday, at the tenth time of asking, did they finally record their first league win of the season – at home to Tranmere – in what was new manager Keith Curle’s first game in full charge.
Despite his side remaining rooted to the foot of League Two, Grainger, from nearby Penrith, has no regrets about joining his local team. “Apart from the results, obviously, it’s been brilliant,” the 27-year-old left-back told the Evening News. “I supported Carlisle as a boy and my family’s all settled back in the area so it’s nice being back home. Everything’s positive at the moment so hopefully now, with the pressure of getting our first win out the way, we can go out and start expressing ourselves.
“We played really well in pre-season and it seemed to just come apart when the league started. Some games we’ve played really badly, but in others we’ve played well and not got the right result. We’ve played well in big spells of games, but not made our dominance count and then we’ve defended poorly and ended up getting beat, sometimes well and truly beat.
“There was a game where we had a 93rd-minute goal chalked off that would have given us a win at Cheltenham and we were 4-2 up on Wimbledon with nine minutes left and had a handball wrongly given against us and ended up drawing, so some little things have not gone our way.
“When you’ve not won for so long, the pressure can just build on people and make it that bit more difficult. It’s been pretty demoralising at times and sometimes it’s not been nice coming into training because no-one wants to be bottom of the league.”
Grainger is adamant that, with former Manchester City and England defender Curle at the helm and their winless run now banished, Carlisle will start surging up the table in the coming months.
“We’re still bottom of the league, but the dressing-room was buoyant after Saturday’s result,” he explained. “It’s a relief to get the first win and finally be able to enjoy a weekend without having this run hanging over you. The first win’s been a long time coming so it was nice to get it. Hopefully now we’ve got the new gaffer in and we’ve got our first win, we can kick on.
“We’re not a bottom-of- the-league team and I think that’ll show at the end of the season. We’ve got a target in our minds from the start of the season, and even from where we are in the league just now, I’m still more than confident that we’ll meet it.”
Grainger left Hearts at the end of the 2012/13 season and then enjoyed short spells at St Mirren and Dunfermline last term. Upon realising a childhood ambition by signing for Carlisle in June, he received a pleasant surprise when Kavanagh brought in Elliott, his friend and former Hearts colleague, just weeks later. The Irishman had endured a wretched time of it since leaving Tynecastle just after leading the Hearts attack in the 2012 Scottish Cup, with a serious injury sustained at Coventry City meaning he arrived at Brunton Park without having played a first-team game since February 2013.
Elliott – nicknamed Sleeves – is still waiting for his first goal at Carlisle, but after three starts and nine substitute appearances, Grainger is sensing his old mate edging back towards the form that led Kavanagh to describe him as a player who, but for his injury problems, would be playing in the English Championship.
“It’s strange how we’ve both ended up here,” said Grainger. “I had always wanted to come here at some point in my career and Sleeves was pals with Graham Kavanagh. It’s great to be playing with Sleeves again. It’s nice to see a guy in the dressing-room who you can have a laugh with about past times. He’s a guy I’ve always got on well with. He’s a good laugh in the dressing-room and his experience has been massive for us.
“He seems to be looking a lot sharper now. He’s been out with a long-term injury but now that he’s getting his match fitness back, he’s starting to look like the player I know from Hearts.”
As well as the former Hearts pair, Carlisle also have ex-Hibs defender Sean O’Hanlon on their books, while Tony Caig, who had an 18-month spell at Easter Road in the early Noughties, is the goalkeeping coach. After a short stint as joint-caretaker boss before Curle’s appointment, 40-year-old Caig temporarily came out of retirement to take a seat on the bench for the win over Tranmere. “I’m not sure if it was just a one-off or not, but it was quite funny seeing Caigy get dressed up with his goalie outfit again,” said Grainger, who previously shared a dressing-room with his fellow Cumbrian at Gretna. “I’ve known him for years and we had a good laugh about it in the dressing-room.”
The anguish caused by Carlisle’s struggles has been eased somewhat for Grainger by news of old friends flourishing at Hearts. The Prince Buaben/Morgaro Gomis combination in midfield has been crucial to the Tynecastle club’s rampant start to life in the Championship and Grainger is not surprised that the duo have performed to such formidable effect after seeing them in the early stages of their partnership at Dundee United some six years ago. “Buaben and Gomis bounce off each other so well that sometimes if one of them’s missing the other one doesn’t play as well,” he said. “They seem to have a really good connection. It’s brilliant to see them doing well at Hearts because they’re two guys I got on really well with at Dundee United.”
Another star of Hearts’ start to the season has been Sam Nicholson, the teenager whom Grainger used to drive to training. The Englishman left Tynecastle before his Penicuik car-share buddy broke into the first team under Gary Locke last season, but, having seen him excel in the youth ranks, he knew Nicholson was destined for big things and even encouraged his former St Johnstone colleague, Paul Sheerin, who was manager of Arbroath at the time, to try and take him on loan.
“Sam’s doing now what I always knew he would go on and do,” said Grainger. “I travelled with Sam for the last year of my contract and we got really pally. Before Sam got into the Hearts team, I told Paul to go and try and get him to Arbroath on loan because I knew he would be a fantastic talent. I’ve had a bit of a laugh with Paul about he could have had Sam if he’d taken my advice, but he didn’t do it.
“There’s loads of young boys doing well there. It’s great when you pick up the paper and see boys you saw developing in the youth team doing so well in the first team. Hearts are looking fantastic at the moment, especially at home where they’re winning by big margins.
“[Head coach] Robbie Neilson and [director of football] Craig Levein will be keeping everyone’s feet on the ground, but as long as they keep on doing what they’re doing, there’s no reason they can’t go on and win the Championship. I’m delighted for everyone at Hearts – the fans deserve this for the way they’ve supported the club in the past few years.”