Hearts players reported to Tynecastle at 11am yesterday morning knowing nothing of what fate awaited them.
Early morning reports confirmed Craig Levein as the club’s new director of football on Ann Budge’s first day as the new owner. Manager Gary Locke and his assistant Billy Brown were leaving, yet that was merely the first act in a mass cull which leaves even the ruthless Vladimir Romanov looking tamer than a baby kitten.
Budge has given Levein carte blanche to restructure the football department as he sees fit. After dispensing with Locke, Brown and goalkeeping coach Alan Combe, he called in players Jamie MacDonald, Jamie Hamill, Dylan McGowan, Mark Ridgers and Callum Tapping to tell them their services were no longer required. Ryan Stevenson is set to leave although he has one year left on his contract.
Beside Levein sat Hearts’ new head coach, Robbie Neilson. Most of the meetings lasted no more than two minutes. “We all reported for 11 o’clock at Tynecastle,” explained MacDonald. “The boys who were out of contract were taken into a wee room and I was first up to go into the office. Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson were there. They sat me down and said they wouldn’t be giving me a new contract. It was very brief, over and done with in a couple of minutes. They told me the situation, I shook their hands, wished them all the best and left.
“I then went and said my goodbyes to the boys and the staff who were floating around. I didn’t know anyone else would be getting released at that stage so I went out and sat in my car. Then I saw some of the other boys filtering out and I had a chat with them.”
MacDonald’s exit is as surprising as any. He and others agreed wage cuts of up to 50 per cent less than 12 months ago after Hearts entered administration. Only last week, the goalkeeper won Players’ Player of the Year and Supporters’ Player of the Year at the club’s annual awards night. He is now seeking a new club after 12 years as a professional at Tynecastle.
“I’m gutted, absolutely gutted,” he continued. “I’ve been at the club for 14 years including youth initiative football. I’ve been full-time since 2002. It’s a long time so I was obviously hugely disappointed. That’s the decision the club have made and it’s the decision of the new management team. I just have to accept it. Football isn’t always nice.
“I’m not going to sit and have a go at people. There is a part of me that’s disappointed, more down to the fact I’d been at the club for so long. You show a bit of loyalty, even last year when I took a wage cut, and then you get to the end of a difficult season. To be told you’re not wanted any more, it hurts.
“In an ideal world, you would like to think you deserved a bit more in return but that’s the way it is. There’s no loyalty in football these days regardless. All the boys who have been released have to take it on the chin. This is a new challenge for everybody and we all just need to get on with it. The club is so close to me, but this is the route they’re going down and I wish everybody at Hearts, especially the players who are still there, all the best for the future.”
MacDonald did not speak with Budge, who left the individual player meetings to Levein. After ten years away from Hearts, where he played and managed with distinction for much of his career, this was an unexpectedly controversial way for the former Scotland coach to return to Edinburgh. Budge released a statement on the Hearts website early yesterday afternoon explaining her restructuring plans, which are “driven by finance” and taken with the aim of ensuring “future stability”.
All of the players released were out of contract. Hamill and MacDonald were amongst the higher earners – as is Stevenson – but the others were not on large contracts.
“Ann has obviously known for a long while that she’s going to be running the club,” acknowledged MacDonald. “I know legally things were in the balance, but it would have been better knowing what was going to happen, or getting a wee bit more of a heads up. At the same time, you can’t blame her for that. Hearts will always be part of me. I’ve got a lot of good memories at the club and I’d rather think of them than what happened yesterday.”
Much of the sympathy is reserved for Locke after a year in which his diligence and dignity as manager shone brightly through the dark clouds hovering above Tynecastle. Hearts finished bottom of the Scottish Premiership, but gathered more points than Hibs and the same total as Partick Thistle over the season with a team dominated by under-21 players. Only a 15-point deduction for entering administration has relegated them to the Championship.
“I feel absolutely gutted for the gaffer. You won’t find anyone who loves Hearts more than he does,” said MacDonald. “He’s been faced with an impossible task over the last year and I thought he handled it very well. I’m probably more gutted for him than myself because the club maybe means even more to him than it does myself. It’s a shame what’s happened to him. Like the team this year, he’s improved and this will make him a better manager for it. Any club would be lucky to have him.”
Still numb from being released, MacDonald conceded he has no idea what his own future holds. “It’s quite scary to be honest,” he continued. “I’ve been at Hearts as a professional for the last 12 years so this is a new situation for me to be involved in. I’ll get my agent on the case and start looking for a new team. I’ve got a young family, which is the most important thing because I need to provide for them. I’ll wait and see what happens over the next couple of weeks, but I’d like to sort my future out as soon as possible.
“As scary as it is, it’s also exciting I suppose. It’s a new challenge for me and hopefully I’ve still got a bright future. I’ll take whatever the best deal is for me and my family. First and foremost, I want to play. I spent long enough not playing at Hearts and I’ve loved being No.1 for the last two-and-a-half years. My main aim is to go somewhere I can be No.1 again.”