More than 20 years on, it still rankles with Stephane Adam that Hearts failed to crack the Glasgow stranglehold on the Scottish title in 1998.
The French striker arrived at Tynecastle from Metz in summer 1997 and played a lead role as Jim Jefferies’ swashbuckling team went toe to toe with a star-studded Rangers side bidding for ten in a row and a fired-up Celtic side desperate to stop their city rivals making history. For most of the campaign Hearts were right in the thick of it, viewed as genuine contenders to become the first non-Old Firm side to win the league since Aberdeen in 1984/85. They led the way in December after a scintillating start to the campaign in which they won 12 of their opening 15 matches, were joint top in late February, and remained within two points of top spot until the start of April. Hearts’ dream died amid a damaging six-game run in which they took just four points at the business end of the season – or “money time”, as Adam called it.
“We believed we could win the league and certainly we should have won the league, if I’m being honest,” he told the Evening News. “We finished third, seven points behind Celtic, who won the league, but we didn’t beat Celtic of Rangers at all in league games. At the time, it was several years since another team finished so close to them, and we did that without beating either of them.
“Towards the end of the season, March-April, we had a few injuries and we dropped stupid points in games we should have won. When the money time is coming, you need to cash in and that’s what we didn’t do at the time. I really believe that if we had a slightly bigger squad and were more able to deal with injuries and suspensions, we would have won the league that year. We should have won it, and we really believed we could do it but sadly we missed a few games in the money time.”
After missing out on the title, as Celtic pipped Rangers on the last day, the blow for Hearts was softened by a Scottish Cup final triumph over the Ibrox side at Parkhead at the end of that memorable campaign. “It would have been historic if we could have won the double that year,” said Adam, ruefully. “The cup is different – they are just short competitions with a few games to play. It is one-off games so you can win the game even if you don’t have as much money as the other teams. The league is a longer competition and you need to have consistency as well as a big squad to go on the long-term journey.”
Paying close attention from afar, Adam, now 49, has been thrilled to see the current Hearts side motor five points clear at the top of the Premiership with 16 points from their first six league games. Although it remains to be seen if they have the consistency to mount a genuine long-term challenge, Adam feels Craig Levein’s team have two things in their favour that his title-chasing team didn’t: squad depth and the knowledge that they can beat the Old Firm.
“I think the size of Hearts’ squad could make a difference this season,” he said. “You need to have a strong first XI but you also need to have other players who are ready to come in and be competitive and efficient when players are missing, like Christophe Berra, for example, is just now. It’s good to see that Craig Levein has enhanced the team because he now has options when some of the top players are not available. You need to have this type of depth if you want to try and win trophies.”
Adam’s team managed only three points – three draws – from their eight league matches against Celtic and Rangers in 1997/98. Levein’s team have already claimed this number of points from one match against Glasgow opposition after beating Celtic 1-0 last month. Adam feels the ability to pick up points in these head-to-head encounters could give Hearts a real chance to keep themselves in the hunt. One such match is looming large, with a trip to Ibrox to face second-place Rangers a week on Sunday.
“Belief is important and the way the season has started will give the Hearts players confidence,” said the Frenchman. “They’ve got some quality players. Steven Naismith is a player with English Premier League experience and they’ve got Christophe Berra, the captain of the team, to come back from injury. They have a good mix of young and experienced players. All these details can help create the confidence and belief that you can beat any team in the league. The fact they beat Celtic already this season – and also beat them convincingly last season – is a good signal that the team believe they can go up against the Old Firm and do something against them. Those games against the Old Firm will be really important because they are the opportunities to increase the gap.”
Ultimately, it will all boil down to how consistent Hearts can be. Aberrations like Saturday’s goalless draw at home to Livingston will need kept to a minimum of Levein’s team are to live up to their early-season promise. “If Hearts are to win the league, they need to stay on top form and be consistent throughout the season, and also hope that Celtic will continue to drop points,” Adam said, with reference to the fact the defending champions are in the midst of their worst start to a league campaign since 1998/99. “They are still the top club in the country and they have the best squad, so you would need a bit of luck over the season, but Hearts have already beaten them this season and I’m pretty sure Celtic will drop more points. They and Rangers are both playing in the Europa League, so that is a big point for consideration because they will be playing tough games on a Thursday and then coming back to play a league game at the weekend. After a European week, to come back to the routine of the league can be quite difficult, so hopefully Hearts can be consistent enough to profit from that.”
Adam is currently coaching in South Africa but continues to keep a close eye on the fortunes of a club he grew to love. He is well aware that it is more than three decades since anyone outwith the two traditional Glasgow heavyweights won the Scottish title, but as the man who scored the goal that ended Hearts’ 36-year trophy drought back in 1998, he sees no barriers to what his burgeoning former team can achieve. “Thirty-three years is a long, long time, but why not?” he mused. “There has been a gap between the Old Firm and the rest of the teams for much of that time, but Hearts are a big club with a big history, a strong identity and a fantastic support.
“I was a player before and now I am a supporter, and it would be fantastic if Hearts could do it. Especially when you look at the past few years, when they nearly died and then they came back, it would be fantastic for the fans, the Foundation of Hearts, Ann Budge and everybody else who worked so hard to keep the club alive if they could do it. It would be a fantastic story to watch, so I’m really excited about the prospect of Hearts challenging this season and maybe becoming the first team in 33 years outside Celtic and Rangers to win the league title. It would be just amazing.”