WHEN a Tynecastle legend like John Robertson says avoiding relegation this season would be the greatest achievement in Hearts’ history, it is the perfect impact statement.
In administration with a 15-point deduction, banned from signing players and forced to play a team of kids, his former club are battling against the odds like never before.
Robertson feels staying in the Scottish Premiership, where Hearts currently sit 14 points adrift at the bottom, would be the ultimate accomplishment.
The halcyon days of the 1950s and early ’60s brought two league titles, while three Scottish Cups in the last 14 years have given a new generation of Hearts fans memories to last a lifetime, but preserving top-flight status is more important than all of the above, according to Robertson. Even the euphoria of last year’s Scottish Cup final win over Hibs would be eclipsed if Hearts can pull off the unthinkable by next May.
“It’s not where the team would rank, it would be more about the achievement,” said Robertson.
“For Gary Locke and Billy Brown to lead this young side to safety, given the 15-point deduction and the embargo, it would be the biggest achievement ever in this club’s history. From my viewpoint, there’s no doubt about that. I know we’ve won league championships and cups in the past, but for this young side to avoid relegation would be the number one achievement the club has had. Even bigger than the 5-1 cup final.
“It’s sad for the club that it’s had to come to this. It’s through decades of mismanagement, it’s through decades of building stadiums, it’s through decades of over-paying players, so it had to come home to roost at some stage. I think Hearts fans, players and everybody involved with the club just want to move forward now. For me that’s the big thing. Making sure the club goes forward in a far healthier financial state and hopefully run as a far better business organisation.”
Should it come to pass, dropping into the Championship would have both positive and negative connotations for Hearts. Younger players would find themselves in a less pressurised environment to continue developing and would be removed from the pressure pot that is Scotland’s top flight. On the down side, some of their elder colleagues may feel moving down a division unappealing.
“It could work both ways,” continued Robertson. “If Hearts were to end up down a division, the problem is a lot of the good players could be cherry-picked and we could lose them. For some of the other lads who are way ahead of where they should be in terms of their development, it could be a blessing in disguise.
“The best scenario for Hearts would be to stay in the Premiership and get these lads back playing at the level they should be. Some of them could drop back into the under-20s, some of the boys in the under-20s right now can drop back into the under-17s, and some of the 17s can go back in to the under-15s and so on.
“That would be the best situation. Stay up and bring in a raft of experienced players to supplement the really good youngsters who are ready for first-team football. If they go down, that’s a new thing for Gary Locke to look at. Again, you’d have to bring in experienced players to supplement what is already here. Players are ambitious. One or two lads might say, ‘I don’t want to play in the Championship’. That’s another scenario you’d have to look at.”
Robertson learned much of his trade in the old First Division following Hearts’ relegation in the early 1980s. He went on to become the club’s record goalscorer having benefited from the experience. “I arrived at Christmas 1981 when the team wasn’t playing all that well,” he recalled. “It was round about January/February that Wallace Mercer had stepped in to take control. Archie Martin had put the club up for sale because the bank was calling in debt. Virtually from my first days in here, there was a power struggle for the club.
“It was quite distracting because you’re thinking, ‘am I going to be here long-term? Is the club going to go bust?’ Thankfully Hearts was sold on and we moved on to bigger and better things. Davie Bowman and Gary Mackay joined in the summer of 1981 and I had to wait until the December before I signed.
“I got my debut in February 1982 but I didn’t play again until the October. I got more involved from then on. Davie had gone straight into the first team and was given a chance. He was physically equipped. He was a boy in a man’s body, a bit like his dad, rock solid, never changed. He was able to go and play in the majority of the First Division games that year.
“Gary Mackay got a few games but I wasn’t involved too much to start with. I think I was on the bench for the last game of the season when Hearts had to win to go up, but they lost to Motherwell. That was when the big change happened. Alex MacDonald took over and the following season the club started to get the younger lads coming through. We were promoted back to the Premier League and everything took off from there.”