John Robertson interrupts Genero Zeefuik’s post-match interview with the Evening News to plant a kiss on the player’s forehead. Next, James Keatings arrives to drown his team-mate in beer.
Fans burst out of function suites keen to shake the Dutchman’s hand in gratitude. A corridor along from the dressing rooms is not the ideal place to speak to Zeefuik about his latest heroics given he is Hearts’ man of the moment.
He is soaking wet from a mixture of champagne and lager after scoring two goals in the last eight minutes. His arrival as a substitute brought Hearts back from the dead, with Rangers 2-0 ahead at the interval and threatening to spoil Tynecastle’s first title party in 35 years. He even managed the first headed goal of his career.
Zeefuik returns to his native Netherlands today as his loan at Hearts ends. He will train with parent club Groningen but Saturday’s celebrations will be foremost in his thoughts for weeks, maybe even years, to come. If it turns out to be his last hurrah, it was the perfect way to say farewell.
He headed Morgaro Gomis’ cross beyond Cammy Bell and then dispatched the equaliser with his left foot after Callum Paterson won a high ball. Those goals sparked celebrations and got everyone in the mood for the Championship trophy presentation at full-time. “That’s why we’re champions,” sang the Hearts support after Zeefuik’s equaliser. In a season when those in maroon have shown strength of character and scored many late goals, it was the most apt ending.
“It’s the first time I ever scored a goal with my head,” said Zeefuik of his first goal. “In the last minute, Callum won the ball, I took a touch and shot with my left. It was a great feeling to equalise. I was sitting on the bench thinking I wanted to get on and score. This may be my last game for Hearts and I wanted to finish well.
“We drew 2-2 and this is perfect because we did not lose the game and we got to lift the trophy at the end. It’s a brilliant feeling. I won two trophies with PSV Eindhoven but this has been a great experience. Everybody is smiling and happy.”
Robertson arrives for a shake of Zeefuik’s hand and that kiss. “I don’t always get that. Only when I score against Rangers,” smiled the striker. “This has been a great season for me. I have played lots of games, scored goals and everybody has helped me. The gaffer has been good for me as well. Hearts will always be in my memory.
“This is much more than I expected when I came here on loan [in January]. Much, much more. The fans love the club, you see that every day. Some people say to me on Facebook that they want me to score goals and you can see how much they love Hearts. Since the first day I came here I could see this was a great club. Some people say, ‘please, if it’s possible can you stay?’ That’s a good feeling to hear that. It’s been a very good season.”
Indeed it has, although it almost ended with a whimper. Goals by Darren McGregor and Kenny Miller had Rangers cruising at half-time, with the Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson sent to the stand. He had protested at several incidents he felt referee Calum Murray missed. When Murray refused Osman Sow’s penalty claim seconds before Rangers’ second goal, Neilson’s frustration spilled over.
“I don’t think it was a penalty,” he explained. “A few other things went on before that which were dubious to say the least. It’s the first time I’ve been sent to the stand for shouting at another player. That’s what happened. I’ll get called up and I’ll explain my side. If managers are getting sent to the stand for shouting at opposition players, there’ll be nobody left in the dugout.
“It was a [Rangers] player who I felt bodychecked one of my players. It happened a few times and it happened at Ibrox as well and it was let go. Players are clever but you expect someone to see it. I wasn’t protesting for a penalty because I didn’t think it was a penalty. Cammy Bell came out and there was contact [with Sow] but Cammy made a great save. For me, it wasn’t a penalty.”
With Neilson stood behind the dugout, Stevie Crawford took charge even though his manager was just feet away. Hearts pressed forward in the second half and brought Zeefuik and Keatings on. After Zeefuik reduced the deficit to 2-1, Paterson was instructed to join the attack. He flicked Alim Ozturk’s high ball on for Zeefuik to control and slot the equaliser to deny Rangers three points.
“It probably felt better than a victory,” said Neilson. “To come back from 2-0 down and score in the last minute kind of summed up our whole season, really. We’ve done it so many times, shown that belief to keep going and keep trying to get the goal. I think that’s the most the players, staff and fans have celebrated a goal all season.”
The final Championship table leaves Rangers in third place and facing three rounds of play-off fixtures if they are to return to the Premiership. Hibs took second spot after winning at Falkirk. No-one, however, could touch Hearts this season. Captain Danny Wilson lifted the league trophy aloft to crown a record-breaking season and bring the curtain down on his own career at Tynecastle.
“He’s been great for me as a young coach,” Neilson pointed out. “You need your captain to back you and he’s backed me to the hilt.
“He’s been out there leading by example on double and triple training sessions. I’m disappointed to lose him but I understand his decision. He goes with our best wishes and I think it will be a long time before another captain lifts a league title here.”
For owner Ann Budge, there is also the satisfaction of a title triumph in her first year in ownership at Tynecastle. She was a picture of contentment on the pitch on Saturday as the trophy was paraded.
“Ann is the one who saved the club in all honesty,” said Neilson. “She put her money in. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be in this situation. She loves the club. She came here as a fan for 20 years. She doesn’t want to take any money, she just wants to see Hearts back where they belong. It’s fantastic to have that as a coach but also for the fans to have a figurehead like that.”