2014 review: Hearts well and truly beating again

Director of football Craig Levein, left, head coach Robbie Neilson, right, and Ann Budge, the popular Queen of Tynecastle, have given Hearts a fresh impetus. Below: Hearts fans celebrate their  lead at the top of the Championship, helped by key goals from Osman Sow against Rangers and Alim Ozturk against Hibs
Director of football Craig Levein, left, head coach Robbie Neilson, right, and Ann Budge, the popular Queen of Tynecastle, have given Hearts a fresh impetus. Below: Hearts fans celebrate their lead at the top of the Championship, helped by key goals from Osman Sow against Rangers and Alim Ozturk against Hibs
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The year 2014 will forever be recognised as the period when Hearts finally emerged from a coma and began breathing on their own once more.

The people who switched off the ventilator beside the club’s deathbed were their very own fans, without whom there would be no heartbeat at Tynecastle.

Hearts were close to death at several points during a year-long administration process which tested the nerves and patience of every supporter and employee. It finally ended in June this year. BDO completed a deal with administrators in Lithuania and put millionaire Edinburgh businesswoman Ann Budge in charge after she stumped up £2.5million to fund a Company Voluntary Arrangment (CVA).

She did so with the backing of Foundation of Hearts, the supporter group who rallied 8000 fans and raised funds through monthly subscriptions aimed at keeping Hearts alive. The plan worked, probably better than even they imagined given the club are now in good health and end the year a colossal 15 points ahead of Rangers at the top of the Championship table.

Before the success came plenty of suffering, however. The year began with a 2-1 loss to Hibs at Easter Road – the eighth game of an 11-match winless streak. Weeks later came defeat on penalties in the League Cup semi-final as Hearts failed to overcome nine-man Inverness, again at Easter Road.

In the background, BDO were struggling to convince administrators of Hearts’ largest creditor, Ukio Bankas, to accept the proposed £2.5m CVA for the £15m debt they were owed. Talk of liquidation was never far away but the Foundation remained resolute that they were the only realistic option to help the club exit administration. Their plan was for Budge to take control by using her £2.5m for the CVA and repaying her over a five-year period. After that, she would hand Hearts over to the Foundation to take charge on the fans’ behalf.

Budge signed a management agreement with BDO to run Hearts once the CVA was agreed in principle. By then, relegation had been confirmed. A 15-point deduction for entering administration before the season started proved insurmountable and, on Saturday, April 5 at Firhill, Hearts were relegated from Scotland’s top flight for the first time since 1981. Ironically, their 4-2 win over Partick Thistle that day was part of a sequence of five wins and a draw towards the season’s end. The young players who had toiled for much of the season grew visibly in stature under manager Gary Locke and his assistant Billy Brown during that period, but it was too little, too late.

That final spurt was in vain for Locke and Brown, too. They were told on Monday, May 12, that their services were no longer required. Budge’s first day in office at Tynecastle heralded wholesale change as Craig Levein returned to Hearts as director of football, with Robbie Neilson promoted from under-20 coach to head coach. Later, Stevie Crawford and Jack Ross would arrive as assistant coach and under-20 coach respectively.

Hearts were heading in a new direction and most of their experienced high earners were released. Goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald joined Jamie Hamill, Dylan McGowan, Mark Ridgers and, eventually, Ryan Stevenson in heading through the exit door. There was initial concern about the ruthless nature of the player cull and the fact Locke had apparently not been given a chance to stay despite guiding the club during the administration process.

Gradually, as new faces began arriving, the fine detail of the rebuilding jigsaw began falling into place. It had clearly been months in the planning between Budge and Levein.

On June 11, months of fretting were brought to an end when Hearts formally exited administration and were permitted to sign players again. The following day, Morgaro Gomis, below left, became the first recruit of the new era. He was followed by Soufian El Hassnaoui, Neil Alexander, James Keatings, Alim Ozturk, Prince Buaben (next to Gomis), Osman Sow, Scott Gallacher, Adam Eckersley and Miguel Pallardo.

Lee Hollis and Bryn Halliwell arrived on short-term deals to provide goalkeeping cover. The revolution was well and truly underway, allowing Hearts supporters to forget the hardship which had taken place during the Vladimir Romanov era.

The competitive season began with a 3-1 win over Annan Athletic at Tynecastle in the Petrofac Training Cup, but the league campaign was Hearts’ priority from the outset. Hibs’ relegation from the Premiership alongside their Capital rivals added to the intrigue of a division which also contained League One winners Rangers.

It was to be the most competitive second tier campaign in Scottish football history – and Hearts got off to a blistering start. A 2-1 win at Ibrox was secured with Sow’s last-minute winner moments after Rangers had equalised. Victory by the same score against Hibs at home the following week – with Sam Nicholson scoring a raking 25-yarder – put Hearts top of the league. Yet no-one, not even the most enthusiastic Tynecastle regular, could have envisaged the unbeaten run which lay ahead.

A 4-1 Petrofac Cup loss at Livingston was a harsh lesson for the young team selected by Neilson on the night, and Celtic would later eliminate Hearts from both the League Cup and Scottish Cup. However, in the league, the new-look Hearts side were untouchable.

Goals rained in at venues across the country: Four at Stark’s Park, five at Tynecastle on three separate occasions, and three at Palmertson Park. Defensively, Ozturk and captain Danny Wilson were forging a new partnership in front of Alexander, with Gomis and Buaben the driving forces in central midfield.

The season’s second Edinburgh derby at Easter Road in October was always likely to be hazardous. Both Rangers and Hibs had started the campaign unconvincingly but the nature of derby matches guarantees that nothing should be taken for granted.

Hearts found themselves 1-0 down in stoppage time to a Dominique Malonga goal. The end of their unbeaten league run – which by then had reached ten matches – was seconds away when Ozturk collected the ball and strode forward from defence. He dispatched a spectacular shot from 40 yards which roared past the Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley and into the net off the underside of the crossbar. The celebrations, on the pitch, in the stands and in the technical area, captured perfectly the kind of spirit and togtherness now fuelling Hearts’ title aspirations.

The November 8 match with Raith Rovers was poignant as both clubs remembered former players who died 100 years ago in First World War. Seven Hearts players lost their lives in total, a sacrifice of which the club remains staunchly proud.

By the time Rangers visited Tynecastle on November 22, they were seeking to avoid slipping nine points behind Hearts. A sublime Jason Holt strike and a Jamie Walker penalty ensured the Glasgow club’s fears became reality.

The gap has widened to 15 points in recent weeks as the maroon juggernaut powers on in search of automatic promotion back to the Scottish Premiership. Rangers’ ship appears to have run aground, with manager Ally McCoist no longer in charge and several players expected to leave during the January transfer window

Neilson has won three out of four SPFL Championship Manager of the Month awards this season, with the other going across the city to his Hibs counterpart Alan Stubbs. Hearts have earned plaudits for an attractive, passing style of football and for some excellent goals.

Off the field, business continues to run smoothly – a sharp contrast to the chaos which often ensured during the Romanov years. Budge introduced the Living Wage for all employees at Tynecastle and has communicated with fans articulately and sensibly through the club’s official website.

It is changed days indeed. If 2015 continues the way 2014 has ended, Hearts are going to beat faster and faster.