Paul Ritchie: I never had any Hearts title doubts

Paul Ritchie in action for Hearts against Rangers in 1998

Paul Ritchie in action for Hearts against Rangers in 1998

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Paul Ritchie played in an era when Rangers generally lorded it over Hearts.

Although he famously helped the Jambos shock the Glasgow side in the 1998 Scottish Cup final, Ritchie himself underlined just how powerful Rangers were in Scottish football in the Nineties and the Noughties when, as one of the most highly-regarded young players in Scotland, he moved to Ibrox upon leaving Tynecastle in 2000.

The 39-year-old former Scotland defender, however, has been thrilled by the mini power-shift that has been evident this season. Rangers will be humbled visitors to Tynecastle this Saturday as the Hearts supporters bask in the glory of a Championship cakewalk before collecting their trophy afterwards. Stuart McCall’s side, meanwhile, arrive in Gorgie a whopping 24 points adrift of the champions and need a win just to have a chance of overhauling Hibs in the scrap for second place.

This was not how the bookies – who had Rangers down as clear title favourites – nor the vast majority of Scottish football observers envisaged things panning out. However, Ritchie, a boyhood Hearts fan, was confident from the outset that the Jambos, with his two old mates Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson leading a squad of hungry young whipper-snappers, were better equipped to deal with the demands of the Championship than a Rangers squad made up of experienced professionals who would ordinarily expect to be operating at a higher level.

“Football’s changed a lot,” Ritchie told the Evening News. “Rangers have had a strong reputation in the past, but when you look at it player for player, I would take every Hearts player over a Rangers player this year. Would I have said the same at the start of the season? I probably would. Robbie and Craig have put together a really good blend of youth and experience. They’ve got a hunger and desire to be successful and I’ve never seen that in the Rangers team list. They’ve got a lot of old pros who have had a fantastic run at it, but there’s nothing that can make up for that hunger and desire to be successful that Hearts have had.

“The Championship, with places like Queen of the South, Dumbarton, Alloa and Cowdenbeath, is a million miles away from the Scottish Premiership or the English Premier League in terms of glamour, so when you get young players with hunger and desire in that environment against players who have been there and done it at a high level, you’ve got to fancy the younger team.

“Everybody expected the title race to be tighter than it was but Hibs and Rangers were playing catch-up from the start and, in all honesty, they were never going to catch Hearts. Hearts started like a juggernaut and continued right through the campaign.

“I could definitely have imagined Hearts winning the league at the start of the season. Once last season was over and the changes were made, I’m pretty sure that the likes of Craig and Robbie would have had a quiet confidence that they could do it. It was always going to be difficult because Rangers had just won two promotions in a row, but there’s only one team that’s deserved to win the title this year, and that’s Hearts.”

Since losing his job as assistant manager at Vancouver Whitecaps in late 2013, Ritchie has been back to Scotland at regular intervals from his Canadian base and makes attending Hearts games with his two sons a priority. Having been at “about 12 to 14 games” this season, including Saturday’s win at Cowdenbeath, he is disappointed at having to miss out on the occasion Hearts will receive their first league championship trophy in 35 years. Nonetheless, he expects them to finish with a flourish in his absence.

“I think Hearts will win again on Saturday,” he said with 
conviction. “To be crowned champions against Rangers on the final day of the season, it will be a fantastic day for the supporters – they deserve it. Unfortunately I won’t be there as my youngest son’s football team have their end-of-season trip to Sunderland so we’re going to that instead. I never thought I’d see going to an English Premier League game as drawing the short straw, but this weekend I would happily swap Sunderland v Southampton for Hearts v Rangers all day long. I’ll need to leave it to my girlfriend and my dad and my oldest son to enjoy the celebrations at Tynecastle.

“I’ve supported Hearts all my life and I grew up as a player there, so you never ever lose that connection with the club. It’s great to go back with my two boys now. My oldest one has a season ticket and my youngest goes at every opportunity he can. I enjoy going to the away games and it’s been quite good for me because there’s been a few local ones in Fife, where I’m from. I’ve been to the two games at Cowdenbeath and it’s a great experience even as supporters to see different stadiums in Scottish football.

“It’s probably the most I’ve ever been able to watch Hearts since I started playing. I keep in touch with a lot of people at Tynecastle so any time I’m back over I go to as many games as I can. I’ve been back for three or four weeks this time and I’ve been to every game that they’ve played. As a supporter, it’s good to see them winning on a regular basis. That’s what the Hearts supporters deserved after the previous couple of seasons with the way the financial situation was. It’s a pleasure to be a Hearts supporter at the moment.”

He is particularly pleased for his fellow Fifer Levein, who became director of football last summer, and head coach Neilson, who was coming through the ranks at Hearts while Ritchie, five years his senior, was in the first team. “The set-up they’ve got is fantastic and it’s great to see them doing so well,” he said. “I used to travel with Craig from Fife when I was on the ground staff. You can tell certain people know what they’re talking about and Craig was always a very intelligent person. Most players want to go into coaching and now Craig’s taken that to the next level by becoming a director of football. His knowledge of the game and of players that are about is incredible.

“Robbie’s an up-and-coming coach so it’s great to have someone of Craig’s experience beside him. Robbie had a fantastic appetite for the game even as a youngster. He was very intellectual and intelligent as well. A few people were surprised when he got the job last year. Craig might not have seen it as a gamble but I think a few Hearts supporters at the time thought it was a gamble to promote Robbie. But now everybody is looking back thinking ‘wow, what a decision that was’. It’s clear for everybody to see it was the right decision.

“The turnaround from where we were last year is incredible. It’s a credit to everybody involved. [chairwoman] Ann Budge, Craig and the coaching staff have done a phenomenal job. They’ve managed to recruit properly and some of the football they’ve played has been magnificent. The youngsters had been exposed to a really tough environment in the past couple of seasons but this season they’ve grown up and come back bigger and stronger from their experiences. They’ve shown how they’ve matured into professional footballers and it will be good to see how they compete at the top level next year after a year in the Championship. It’s a great feeling to see them back in the top division where they belong.”

As one of a string of highly-regarded Hearts centre-backs over the last three decades, Ritchie has little doubt that they will be able to adequately replace captain Danny Wilson and back-up defender Brad McKay in the coming months.

“They’ve got a big void to fill at centre-back because Danny and Brad are both very capable footballers,” said Ritchie. “It’s disappointing that they’re moving on but no players are bigger than the club. The management will have looked at it and they’ll already have their ideas about what to do, whether to recruit or promote from within. With Craig’s knowledge and contacts in Scotland and in Europe, I’m sure they’ll find ample replacements.

“Everybody likes to see attacking football, but, for me, defences and goalkeepers win championships. Strikers win games, but you need to have a solid unit at the back to build from and Hearts have had that in defence for years, with the likes of Alan McLaren, Craig Levein, Andy Webster, Elvis [Steven Pressley] ... the names roll off the tongue. It’s been a part of the squad that previous managers have always looked to build their team around. Alim Ozturk’s a fantastic player as well and I’m sure they’ll find someone to play with him.”

Ritchie got a glimpse at 
close quarters of how his old club is evolving when he 
attended a CPD coaching course at Riccarton on Sunday. He saw enough to conclude that this season of success will prove to be no flash in the pan. “The whole academy was talked about from top to bottom,” he explained. “The whole club has been turned upside down by Craig and Ann. The future looks very bright for Hearts. I can only see them getting stronger and stronger as the years go on.”