A successful January transfer window underpinned Hearts’ success in 2016. Qualifying for Europe as the Scottish Premiership’s newly-promoted club was the year’s obvious high. Players achieving full international recognition and the building of a new stand were other highlights in another momentous 12 months down in Gorgie.
It all began with a carefully-planned recruitment drive during the winter transfer window. The American internationalist Perry Kitchen was persuaded to refuse a huge contract from his club in the MLS, DC United, and head east to Europe. Within months, he would become club captain at Tynecastle. He was joined by the seasoned former Scotland midfielder Don Cowie, and arguably the country’s brightest young defensive prospect, John Souttar. The deal of the window unquestionably was the sale of Osman Sow to Henan Jiyane of China for more than £1million. That, however, left a sizeable void in Hearts’ striking department for the remainder of the season.
They proceeded with the quest to achieve European football and were well on course when Partick Thistle visited Tynecastle in March. Hearts recorded their third successive win and third successive clean sheet that day, but the fickle nature of football fans was laid bare in the skies above. To widespread disbelief, an aeroplane carried a banner calling for head coach Robbie Neilson to be removed. “No Style. No Bottle. Neilson Out,” was the message.
Nonetheless, Hearts did secure a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds the following month. A 0-0 draw at Inverness put them out of touch for those chasing Scotland’s last European spot and completed a remarkable 2015/16 campaign.
The summer transfer window sparked another period of activity as Neilson sought to strengthen his squad. Irish striker Conor Sammon arrived, as did the Moroccan left-back Faycal Rherras and young Scottish forward Robbie Muirhead. Hearts also tried to sign the former Scotland goalkeeper Matt Gilks, who would have been No.1 at Tynecastle, but he chose a bigger contract to be No.2 at Rangers.
Neil Alexander left for Aberdeen and Jack Hamilton, a Riccarton youth academy graduate, was installed as Hearts’ first-choice goalkeeper for season 2016/17. He was also called into the Scotland senior squad for end-of-season friendlies against Italy and France alongside team-mate Callum Paterson, who made his international debut in the Italy match.
The Estonian club FC Infonet were Hearts’ first European opponents on June 30. A slightly nervous 2-1 home win followed by a 4-2 victory in the second leg in Tallinn saw Neilson’s side progress 6-3 on aggregate. They would head to the Mediterranean for the Europa League’s second qualifying round against Birkirkara.
Searing heat and stifling humidity greeted them in Malta but a 0-0 first-leg draw appeared to be a decent result to take back to Edinburgh. However, Hearts were outfoxed in the second leg and lost 2-1 to exit the competition at only the second hurdle. There was also the humility of being the first Scottish club beaten by a Maltese side.
Further reinforcements arrived in the shape of Swedish goalkeeper Viktor Noring, American striker Bjorn Johnsen and the former Celtic forward Tony Watt. Charlton Athletic agreed to a season-long loan deal for Watt and he arrived to genuine excitment at Tynecastle.
The domestic season got underway in disappointing fashion as Hearts lost to Celtic and exited the League Cup against St Johnstone. Johnsen’s transfer from the Bulgarian club Litex Lovech had to be ratified by FIFA so he was unavailable until August 20.
Arnaud Djoum and Rherras became the latest Hearts players to achieve full international caps with Cameroon and Morocco respectively. Both had enjoyed encouraging starts to the season, although concern was growing about the number and manner of goals being conceded.
Paterson’s future was also an increasing worry. He refused a contract extension and made it clear he would be leaving Tynecastle at the end of the season as a free agent. He joined the club’s youth academy in his mid-teens but sees the chance to further his career in England. Several clubs were monitoring his situation before a devastating knee injury suffered in the penultimate game of the year – a 4-0 home win over Kilmarnock – ruled the player out for up to ten months.
Off the field, Ann Budge’s five-year plan to rebuild Hearts continued apace. Planning permission was granted by City of Edinburgh Council in October for a new £12million main stand at Tynecastle. The existing structure was built in 1914 and needed replacing for some years. Indeed, Budge’s predecessor Vladimir Romanov announced grandiose plans for a £51million development including a hotel which never got past the planning stage.
Budge’s sensible and prudent, not to mention significantly more thorough, approach was always likely to find favour with councillors. A healthy set of financial results published in November strengthened the case further and demonstrated Budge’s ability to manage her football club astutely.
Hearts’ turnover rose by £3million after finishing third in the Premiership and qualifying for Europe. The club brought in £9,967,000 in the year to June 30, 2016, - up from £6,982,000 the previous year. Contributions from the fan group Foundation of Hearts continued to supplement the club’s income by around £1.4m per year.
Just as demolition work began for the main stand redevelopment, the year ended with huge change at the top of the football department. MK Dons lured Neilson to England’s League One in the belief that his success in Scotland could be replicated in Buckinghamshire. His replacement stirred up plenty interest.
Ian Cathro resigned as assistant coach to Rafa Benitez at Newcastle United to assume his first managerial job aged 30. He never played football professionally but, having coached at Rio Ave in Portugual and Valencia in Spain prior to joining Newcastle, there was no questioning the strength of his CV. Still, that didn’t stop some criticising Hearts for daring to think differently with his appointment.
Cathro is still adapting to daily life at Riccarton and needs new recruits during the coming January transfer window. That search will now intensify following Paterson’s injury. There is also the likelihood he will lose Sam Nicholson by the end of the season on freedom of contract.
The year 2017 therefore promises to every bit as interesting for Hearts as 2016 was.