REGULAR visits to the flat he owns near Tynecastle allows the Rotherham United manager Steve Evans a sound appreciation of Hearts’ stature.
Tomorrow, at the New York Stadium in South Yorkshire, Evans welcomes a team from his native Scotland which he believes carries real championship potential.
“From my knowledge of the Scottish game, I genuinely 100 per cent believe Hearts will be the only challengers to Celtic for the SPL title,” says Evans, who was born in Glasgow. “It was a big club when I played in Scotland and it’s still a big club now. As I’ve written in my programme notes for tomorrow, unless you’re from Scotland you won’t quite realise the size of Hearts.”
The prospect of a title charge is evermore realistic for clubs outwith Glasgow given Rangers’ recent demise. If Hearts are to pursue Celtic, a solid start to the new SPL campaign is crucial, and so, the final pre-season fixture has added significance. Evans admits he is honoured to welcome Hearts to Rotherham to fine-tune their preparations.
“Hearts contacted us and said they wanted to come down to the northern part of England. We looked at different types of opposition and it was an ideal fit. Hearts is a big club to me, being from north of the border. I enjoyed playing at Tynecastle and enjoyed games against Hearts (he played as a striker in the 1980s with Clyde, Albion Rovers, Ayr United, Hamilton and St Johnstone).
“Hearts are obviously aware of what’s going on down here because this club has slept and underachieved since dropping out of the Championship five years ago. But Hearts are walking into a £25million new stadium. It really is nothing short of ‘wow’. The Hearts supporters will love it. The players will love the pitch, which is as good as any in the country. If the match is played in the spirit that John McGlynn and myself want, then it will be an entertaining day.
“If Rotherham are doing well, our average attendances next season will be about 9000-10,000. That will tell the Hearts supporters back home what size of a club Rotherham is. It’s an opposition they’ve never seen before so our supporters will see it as another game they want us to perform well in. As the manager, I’m honoured that we are facing a club of Hearts’ stature.”
McGlynn and Evans bear strikingly similar backgrounds, having both started their football management careers at the lowest level. Injury forced Evans into retirement at 24 and he started working in the brewing industry, which eventually took him south. “You never lose your love of the game so I was doing bits of scouting for Celtic in England, just one or two games a month,” he says.
“It just came out of the blue that a friend of mine who owned Stamford, a small non-league club in Lincolnshire, needed a manager and asked me to take training for a couple of nights. For me, the bug kicked in again. We won a few games and he asked me to stay on for a week or two. After that, I was in. Stamford would be the equivalent of a junior team in Scotland, maybe an Armadale.”
Evans then enjoyed two spells managing Boston United before a five-year spell with Crawley Town, which included an audacious move for Hearts midfielder Rudi Skacel in January this year. His decision to leave Crawley when they were on the cusp of League One to stay in League Two with Rotherham surprised many.
“I think most people would accept Crawley are a small club who got to League One but don’t have the fanbase to go any further,” he explains. “Rotherham, on the opening day of the season, will be close to selling out more than 12,000 seats here. There is no doubt the fans of this club see us as being a Championship side.
“If the likes of Blackpool, and we are much bigger than Blackpool, can have a couple of good seasons and end up in the Premier League, then dare we dream?
“I’ve told the chairman and the fans that we can’t dream about that yet. We have to earn the right to get out of League Two first.
“It’s interesting that John McGlynn has just gone in at Hearts and I only left Crawley in April to come here. It’s a new season and both clubs will want to get off to a good start. I’ve watched Hearts many times over the last couple of years when I’m back in Edinburgh and their supporters will have big expectations.
“Hearts start their campaign in a week’s time and they’ll want to be in top form.”