A week on Friday, a couple of hundred Hearts supporters will gather for a dinner in Tynecastle’s Gorgie Suite to show their appreciation to Gary Locke and last season’s squad for their spirited efforts in arguably the most testing campaign in the club’s history.
In the unsentimental world of modern-day football, where loyal servants are routinely chewed up and unceremoniously spat out, some will question the merit of celebrating the reign of a manager whose work at times divided opinion as Hearts slipped into the Championship. Especially one who is now helping Kilmarnock prosper in the Premiership in his new role as assistant to Allan Johnston. That would be to completely miss the point of this 1874 Fighting Fund-organised event, however.
Without exaggeration, there can be few managers who have been as immersed in their club quite as much as Locke was at Hearts. On a human level alone, after spending the best part of 15 years of his life serving the club as a player, coach or manager, even the coldest-hearted critic couldn’t begrudge the dyed-in-the-wool Jambo his evening of adulation after the heartache of having his dream job wrenched from him before he’d been afforded a proper crack at it.
Any discontent, and there was plenty on that dramatic day in May, over Hearts’ refusal to retain Locke beyond the end of last season has long since subsided in the wake of a scintillating start to life in the Championship under the increasingly-impressive Robbie Neilson, with new owner Ann Budge and her trusty director of football Craig Levein having seen their change of direction emphatically vindicated.
Given the contrasting circumstances, however, there is no reason not to laud the new regime for moving the club forward this season, while simultaneously acknowledging Locke’s remarkable efforts to keep his administration-ravaged young squad semi-competitive in the top flight while saddled with a demoralising 15-point penalty last term.
Indeed, the vast overhaul carried out by the new management team over the past four months has arguably painted Locke’s work, bearing in mind he had only an unpaid assistant in Billy Brown to rely on for support, in an even better light. Levein, who has created a solid structure for Neilson and his team to flourish within, was widely earmarked by Locke’s critics as a man who might have done a better job in charge last season, yet it is notable that the director of football has overseen the break-up of much of Locke’s squad, effectively deeming it not fit for purpose.
Of the spine of last season’s team, only Danny Wilson, the man Locke chose as his captain, remains prominent at Hearts. Jamie MacDonald, Jamie Hamill, Dylan McGowan and Ryan Stevenson, who found themselves cast as leaders under Locke, were all instantly discarded. Scott Robinson, one of the first names on the teamsheet by necessity last season, now finds himself arguably fifth in the pecking order for a central midfield berth, just behind Jason Holt, another whom Locke had to rely on heavily when fit. David Smith, who started almost half of Hearts’ league games last season and featured in 34 of them, has already been offloaded to Falkirk, while Callum Tapping, who started a third of Hearts’ league matches last season, is now playing part-time with League Two side Brechin City.
Of the much-vaunted young players, perhaps only Callum Paterson and Sam Nicholson, who by his own admission wasn’t physically ready for action until the second half of last season, remain guaranteed starters. Kevin McHattie is no longer a shoo-in for the left-back slot, with Adam Eckersley providing competition, while Neilson has the luxury of being able to rotate Billy King and Jamie Walker, who started whenever fit last season. Dale Carrick, Hearts’ best striker in the second half of last season, is now arguably fourth choice.
In short, Levein and Neilson’s eagerness to rebuild the squad has effectively endorsed the widely-held notion that, for all the spirit they showed, many of the players at Locke’s disposal last season simply were not ready for the demands of playing for Hearts, especially in such adversity. Having seen what may prove to be his only chance of managing Hearts destroyed by the after-effects of administration, Locke, who copped a lot of unfair flak, deserves all the recognition he gets for taking one for the team he loves.