Twenty years ago, as he starred in a Middlesbrough side containing superstars like Fabrizio Ravanelli, Juninho and Emerson, Teesside boy Phil Stamp’s knowledge of Hearts, Hibs and the Edinburgh derby was pretty much non-existent.
This scenario, of course, would go on to alter in the most spectacular fashion possible, with the Englishman making an indelible mark on the fixture in November 2002. In his first Edinburgh derby, just over two months after joining Hearts from Boro, Stamp earned the Jambos possibly their most dramatic victory ever at Easter Road.
With just four minutes remaining of a league fixture, Bobby Williamson’s Hibs side were heading for victory courtesy of a first-half Mixu Paatelainen goal. Then from nowhere, and largely inspired by youngster Neil Janczyk, Craig Levein’s Hearts team suddenly came to life. Kevin McKenna headed in a Janczyk cross to equalise in the 86th minute. And then, three minutes into stoppage-time, Janczyk’s pass put Stamp through on goal and the the red-headed midfielder drilled a low angled shot gleefully beyond Nick Colgan before heading for the Hearts fans behind the goal. As bedlam unfolded in the away end, Stamp was shown a second yellow card and sent off by referee Willie Young just seconds before the final whistle sounded. With one well-timed run and swing of his left foot, he had written himself into Hearts folklore.
“We were rubbish for 80 minutes,” smiled the 41-year-old Stamp as the Evening News caught up with him in Middlesbrough for the first time since he left Hearts almost 12 years ago. “It was a mad five minutes at the end. When I was in the crowd after my goal, I just looked up towards the scoreboard and thought ‘how the hell are we winning this game?’ I got sent off but I wasn’t bothered about that. It was the best sending-off I ever got in my career.
“That was my main moment at Hearts. With social media, people still remind me about it to this day. Whenever Hearts play Hibs, the goal gets shot on to my Facebook page. It seems to have turned into an iconic moment. I had some good times at Middlesbrough but, in terms of significance, that goal against Hibs would be the standout moment of my career.
“I didn’t know the magnitude of the Edinburgh derby before that game. When you think of Scottish football, you think of Rangers and Celtic. The Hearts/Hibs one, though. is more close because it’s all about the people from the city of Edinburgh whereas Rangers and Celtic are nationwide, possibly even worldwide. The city of Edinburgh is divided for the derby. I never had that at Boro because we were a one-team town. There were some crazy Edinburgh derbies when I was there. My second one was the 4-4 game at Tynecastle when we were 4-2 down in stoppage time. One of my friends, Craig James, was playing left-back for Hibs and he couldn’t believe they hadn’t won it.”
Stamp’s glory moment at Easter Road came at the age of 26. Prior to joining Hearts, the Teessider had, barring a short loan stint at Millwall, been a one-club man, emerging through Boro’s youth ranks and holding his own in Bryan Robson’s star-studded team in England’s top flight. The arrival of Steve McClaren as manager effectively signalled the end for Stamp at his local club and led to him spending the peak years of his career patrolling the Hearts midfield alongside the likes of Scott Severin and Paul Hartley, and providing ammunition for the gangly but effective Mark De Vries.
“Craig was down visiting the training ground at Boro,” said Stamp, explaining how his move to Edinburgh came about. “Hearts were close to moving to Riccarton and I think he was down to get some ideas because our training ground was one of the best around at the time. I was doing some shooting with a few of the lads and Dean Windass joked to Craig that I was available if he wanted me, and it started from there really.
“I was then invited up to see Hearts and talk to them and I liked it. It was an easy commute for me, which was a big factor because I wanted to be able to get back to down to see my family regularly. I couldn’t sign until Antti Niemi had been sold because they needed to free up his wages. As soon as Antti was sold, I was asked if I wanted to sign. It was a great decision because I absolutely loved my time at Hearts. I got to play in Europe for the first time, I loved the derbies and I was part of a really good side who could probably have competed at the very top of Scottish football in more recent years. We’d definitely be second in the Premiership at this moment in time.”
Stamp was a key player as Hearts secured back-to-back third-place finishes behind the ultra-strong Old Firm in his first two seasons in Scotland. He also helped them enjoy some blockbuster results in the UEFA Cup as they defeated Bordeaux away in 2003 before knocking Braga out in the play-off round the following year to reach the group stages. “The derby goal was my personal highlight but my team highlight was what we did in Europe,” he said. “I’d never played in Europe before so that was a big thing for me. Bordeaux, Braga and Basel – those results were unreal. You’ve got to remember we didn’t have a team that had been put together with millions of pounds. Some had come through the youth team and others were free transfers. We weren’t given much chance in those games but we had some great results.”
Stamp admits his insistence on driving back and forth to Middlesbrough in his early days at Hearts didn’t go down too well with Levein, but he enjoyed his time working under a man who is now leading the club as director of football.
“Craig’s a top man,” said Stamp. “You knew where you stood with him. He was hard-line sometimes. I fell out with him a few times, especially in the video analysis because I was quite opinionated and, if I didn’t agree with something, I would say so. But he was a good man and he was successful in building a really good Hearts team.
“I get a bit of insight from the Hearts fans on Facebook into what he’s doing now. It seems he’s a bit of a chalk and cheese figure at the moment. Some people are impressed what he’s doing and others aren’t. You can’t please all the people, though. I think director of football is the right type of role for him.
“When he left to go to Leicester, he took a few of the lads with him and the team started breaking up. If he hadn’t left and we’d signed another couple of players, we could have done really well. You’ve got to bear in mind the quality of the Celtic team we were up against, with Sutton, Larsson, Hartson, Petrov, Lennon and all those boys, but we competed with them and even beat them when they were going for the league.”
Stamp scored one of his six Hearts goals that day, with Austin McCann famously getting the winner. The combative midfielder’s influence on the team began to wane, however, after Levein’s departure in late 2004 and, after he was sidelined by injury for the closing months of his contract at a time when Vladimir Romanov was preparing to take control of Hearts, he was the subject of interest from Hibs before eventually signing for Darlington in autumn 2005. This would prove to be Stamp’s last career move as serious injury just a few months into his time at Darlo meant that he kicked his last ball as a 30-year-old in February 2006. He is currently working as a coach in a private football academy with fellow former professionals in the Teesside area and still keeps tabs on events at Tynecastle.
“When I was leaving Hearts, I could have signed for Hibs,” he said. “I knew Tony Mowbray and Mark Proctor from Middlesbrough and I thought about it, but I didn’t feel I could play for Hibs. I felt like I was a Hearts man. In fact, I still feel like I’m a Hearts man. I watch the games whenever they’re on TV. The only two results I’m really interested in are Middlesbrough and Hearts. I really loved my time in Edinburgh. We were a really close-knit group at Hearts, a proper team. I knew nobody when I went up to Scotland but they were a great set of lads. I was close to them all – Severin, Alan Maybury, De Vries, Andy Kirk. I still keep in touch with a lot of them – I actually spoke to Stephen Simmons yesterday. I still have a great rapport with the supporters.”
Stamp’s headline-making at Hearts wasn’t reserved for Edinburgh derby winners. Midway through his three years in the Capital, he found himself the subject of a bizarre story in which his landlord criticised him for wrecking the £500,000 property he was renting just off Lanark Road.
“I can tell the story now that I’m not at the club,” smiled Stamp. “After home games, I used to go back to Middlesbrough on the Saturday. But the younger lads, who maybe stayed in Livingston or places like that, would come through to Edinburgh for a night out. It was extortionate for them to get a hotel in Edinburgh so I used to give them the keys to my house. The gaffer had given me a Monday off so I gave the boys the keys and told them they could have the house until I came back. I think I got back to the club on the Tuesday. I hadn’t been home as I’d come straight from Middlesbrough and the secretary called me in and said the landlord’s been at the house and it’s wrecked.
“It was only when I got home I saw what they had done. It had under-floor heating so I told the boys whatever they did, not to turn it on full blast. They’d turned it on full blast so the floor had expanded and curled up. They’d also broken the bed. I took the rap for it in the papers but I think I only had one party in my whole time there. The house was unreal – it was beautiful, jacuzzis and all that. It had a grass roof and I was supposed to water it every day. The landlord blamed me for killing his grass but I couldn’t water it every day.”