FEARS, tears and souvenirs. The result of Hearts’ last SPL match of the season was almost insignificant compared with the last few minutes.
More than 500 travelling fans journeyed to Pittodrie for a sentimental farewell at full-time. Marius Zaliukas was centre stage as players hurled shirts into their adoring public. With Hearts’ SPL future potentially under threat, emotions were especially intense.
Zaliukas played the final seven minutes as substitute in what will be his final competitive appearance for the Edinburgh club before his contract expires. Yet, after Hearts’ parent company Ukio Bankas Investment Group (UBIG) declared themselves insolvent, a possible points deduction and its consequences was more prominent in everyone’s minds. The game, played out in torrential rain, became secondary.
As it was, Hearts showed notable character to draw 1-1 with an attack-minded Aberdeen team. They had the outstanding Jamie MacDonald to thank for several vital saves – particularly in the first half from Niall McGinn and Josh Magennis. The dominant hosts could easily have been 2-0 or 3-0 ahead at the interval but fell behind on 62 minutes.
Ryan Stevenson nodded David Smith’s corner high beyond Jamie Langfield to put the visitors ahead very much against the run of play. After another couple of MacDonald saves, Jamie Hamill slid in hoping to clear Jonny Hayes’ low cross. He succeeded only in diverting it into the net on the sodden surface to equalise for Aberdeen.
Zaliukas came on for Stevenson after 83 minutes having recovered from torn ankle ligaments sustained in February. He led the goodbyes at the end, doubtless hyped up by the situation surrounding the club’s future. The SPL were due to meet this morning to discuss whether UBIG applying for insolvency constitutes an insolvency event at Hearts, and then whether to dock points as punishment.
It is the latest saga to engulf a dressing room which has seen more than its fair share of turmoil. “I wouldn’t say you become immune to it. You just concentrate on your football and try to be as professional as you can be,” explained MacDonald. “Things get highlighted a lot here, but we’re not the only club with financial problems. Obviously, there have been instances where we haven’t been paid, but, to be fair, the club have turned things around.
“We’re self-sufficient now, we’re up-to-date with wages, bonuses and everything else. People at the club have worked really hard to do that, so it’s about us being professional. You can’t sit and moan about it – you just need to get on and do your job.
“The fans have been incredible. I’ve been here a long time, but guys who have only been here a year or two appreciate how big a club Hearts is and how good the fans really are. They raised £1.2 million through the share issue last year, which is fantastic.”
That amount kept the club alive. It would be cruel on those who dug so deep if they now have to watch their team relegated as a result of poor money management in Lithuania. Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, is confident of remaining in the SPL next season.
“It’s not really up to me what the SPL do. I can only concentrate on the football things at the club,” he said. “That type of stuff doesn’t concern me. I’ve not been told anything. The season is finished now. It’s been a long season for us. A lot of things have gone on and I’m glad to see the back of it. Hopefully we can build for next year now.
“I’m very confident we’ll be in the SPL. I’m building the squad to start in the SPL. Until anybody tells me differently, that’s how we’ll carry on. I’m not worried at all. What will happen will happen. I can’t influence anything off the pitch, so it doesn’t worry me.”
Locke acknowledged that the uncertainty surrounding Tynecastle could affect his recruitment plans. “Any manager will tell you it’s hard to get players in because we all seem to be after the same ones.
“I’ll work hard with John Murray [director of football] behind the scenes trying to rebuild for next season. That’s all I can do. Nothing has changed at all. It has been a difficult year, but there have been a lot of positives as well with the young boys.
“If you’re talking to players, they want stability and that could affect us a little bit. You see the size of the club, the support we had on Saturday and at the last two home games. If it’s a player with ambition we’re chasing, I’m hoping he’ll come to Hearts.”
Following defeat in the Edinburgh derby, Locke was glad to see his squad respond against Aberdeen. “I’m pleased with the point. It was a battling performance, the effort and commitment from the players was there for all to see. I was delighted with that because I felt that was something lacking last week. Jamie made two or three very good saves, which you expect him to do at a place like Pittodrie. I’m delighted with a battling 1-1 draw away from home.
“It has been a difficult week, but we’re paid to concentrate on football. You saw the size of support we had and I’m pleased to get result for them. I’m also happy for Marius – he has been a great servant. He’s popular with the supporters, too. He was a bit fitter this week than last week, so we put him on the bench as we had a few injuries. I was delighted for him to get a few minutes on the pitch.”