Players and managers leaving football clubs is nothing new, particularly at the end of a season, but yesterday’s stunning events at Tynecastle held extra poignancy because of what this gallant young Hearts team has been through over the past year.
They may have been relegated, but as Jamie Hamill, a victim of yesterday’s cull, put it after last month’s 1-1 draw with Aberdeen, they’d be “top of the league if it was all about team spirit”. This group may have lacked the collective quality and experience required to wipe out their deficit of 15 points and stay in the Premiership, but Gary Locke’s team will go down as one of the most lion-hearted in the club’s history for the way they stuck to their task and then prospered amid the ultimate cocktail of adversity.
This column has argued in recent months that Gary Locke and his squad should be allowed to remain together to try and flourish in more favourable circumstances in the Championship, but any such notion was ruthlessly trashed by the single-minded Ann Budge in that incredible hour yesterday morning when it emerged that Locke, Billy Brown and the four old heads of the team – Ryan Stevenson, Jamie MacDonald, Jamie Hamill and Dylan McGowan – had been deemed surplus to requirements.
These guys had given everything over the past year to try and help keep the youngsters in their midst from drowning in stormy waters. The remarkable spirit of togetherness Locke managed to foster among his young squad was something to behold and it manifested itself in a rousing finish to the season when they could easily have tailed off and ended up as whipping boys.
As a result of their improvement, Locke was quietly confident that he had done enough to keep his job, to the extent where he was already envisaging how his squad would shape up next season. He planned to keep the bulk of the current squad together and augment it with experienced professionals like Kris Boyd, Kevin Thomson, Rudi Skacel and Manuel Pascali.
MacDonald, meanwhile, having spent more than a decade with the club, won the Scottish Cup and established himself as one of the top keepers in Scotland, was eager to stay on for the Championship adventure. In the end, Budge had other ideas and Locke and the experienced core of his team were cut out of the equation in one fell swoop, leaving the bright young talent at Tynecastle to prepare for life under a new batch of coaches and mentors.
While the ruthless, single-minded approach of Budge and Craig Levein may be essential in their respective roles, it was impossible not to feel massive sympathy for a group of likeable men – as anyone who has had dealings with them at Riccarton or Tynecastle will testify – who were having their hopes of remaining at Hearts unceremoniously destroyed in the bowels of a stadium in which they had all enjoyed so many fond memories.
Football is an ever-evolving business and they will all find work elsewhere, but the photos of McGowan, Hamill, Stevenson and Danny Wilson, the new old head of the team, embracing emotionally as they said farewell outside Tynecastle yesterday signalled the breakup of a special group who did the maroon jersey proud over the past year.
Replicating the spirit of Locke’s side will be a task in itself for Levein and Robbie Neilson as they lead Hearts into a brave new era.