Watching Adam Eckersley rampage up the left flank was something Hearts fans had grown quite accustomed to. Suddenly, Eckersley is gone. His season-long stay saw him develop into a cult hero with the Tynecastle support, but now there are only memories to cherish for both sides. At least there are plenty of them.
The full-back has come to terms with his departure having been told last month that Hearts wouldn’t renew his contract. Anger and disappointment have dissipated somewhat, and right now he is focused on recovering from a tidy-up knee operation last week. It’s given him time to reflect on a remarkable season in Edinburgh.
A winning goal at Alloa, a 10-0 win over Cowdenbeath and a league winner’s medal are all prominent in his thoughts. What stands out most is his rapport with fans who took him to their hearts almost immediately. Eckerlsey arrived at Tynecastle last August after the league campaign had begun. By the time it ended last Saturday, he was a fully fledged hero. It is something he will never forget.
Speaking for the first time about his exit, the 29-year-old thanked supporters for their warm backing throughout one of the most exhilarating campaigns of his career. “I certainly won’t forget the way the fans have taken to me here,” he told the Evening News. “At Hearts’ Player of the Year awards, I wasn’t expecting my name to come up at all. Then it was read out because I was nominated for Fans’ Player of the Year and the place just erupted. Little things like that make you realise: ‘I’m going to miss this place.’
“Me, Miguel [Pallardo] and Jamie Walker were up for the award and obviously Jamie Walker got it. The way the fans have been with me this year is the one thing that really makes me sad about leaving. I feel I’m so well liked.”
Eckersley is nothing if not perceptive. Hearts fans quickly recognised an assured left-back with leadership qualities and an attacking instinct after his debut. With Kevin McHattie out injured through the winter months, Eckersley commanded the left-back role with dominant displays week in and week out. That made Hearts’ decision to release him all the more bizarre.
Tynecastle officials want a younger full-back with more sell-on potential to challenge McHattie next season. Eckersley admits it wasn’t easy news to hear. “I was angry at first. I felt I’d been let down in some ways. Recent conversations were that I was going to get a contract, I was getting offered this and I was getting offered that. It didn’t come to fruition in the end so it was anger and disappointment.
“I feel like I’ve done this club a bit of a turn this year and I felt I deserved a bit more respect than the way it went. I thought I deserved a bit more than that. I’m an honest person and honesty is the best way to go with me. I thought that’s the least I deserved.
“I definitely don’t want to leave on a sour note. I spoke to the manager on Saturday when we had a barbecue at Tynecastle after the Rangers game. I didn’t want to leave any bitter taste because I’ve had a fantastic year. I wish Robbie Neilson and the team good luck for next year. Football is football and it will still be like this in ten or 15 years’ time because there’s no loyalty in football. I just wish everybody well and there’s no hard feelings now. I was disappointed initially but I’m over that now and we move on.”
Six years playing in Denmark, including two promotions, represent a hugely successful chunk of Eckersley’s career. He began as a youth player at Manchester United and trained alongside world-renowned superstars like David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy. The stay at Hearts has become shorter than he intended but, in truth, more fulfilling than anything else.
“My first memory goes back to my debut at Tynecastle – the atmosphere, the crowd and getting a feel for what it was like playing on the pitch. I thought the fans were fantastic,” he said. “Playing in the 10-0 win [over Cowdenbeath] was massive. I think they’re the two biggest memories for me, as well as picking up the trophy at the end and being a league champion.
“I won two promotions in Denmark but it wasn’t the same as this season. Football over there isn’t the same. Here, it’s like a religion. Over there, fans are pleased for you and everything but it’s not the same intensity as winning a league here. This was quite a big achievement for me.
“From day one I felt settled at Hearts and the squad really helped because they were all so approachable. Everyone in the dressing-room was so nice and all the players got along with me straight away, so it all just seemed to click into place. I knew exactly what the manager wanted from me and I was basically able to hit the ground running. I got my first goal against Alloa which raised my confidence a lot and I just went on from there. There have been so many positives this year and it’s just turned into a very successful year for me.”
So what now? A player of his experience and capabilities won’t be short on offers for next season. The priority for now is returning to full fitness and ensuring he is ready to start pre-season training, wherever it may be.
“I’m actually not too sure what the future will hold. Right now, I’m going to take some time to sort my knee out and spend some time with my family. The year we’ve just had is quite intense with our little boy, my wife’s been holding the fort and taking a lot of the stress. I think I need to show them some attention and some time. I’ll sit down with my agent in June or July and see what’s on the table. We’ll make our move from there.”