RETURNING to Tynecastle was always likely to tug at Danny Grainger’s heartstrings. Yet he could never have imagined going back to Hearts in such desperate circumstances. Saturday’s visit of St Mirren, Grainger’s new club, is being billed as a relegation six-pointer as pressure on both sides intensifies by the day. Losing really isn’t an option.
Grainger acknowledges St Mirren’s need for points but would be devastated to see his former club become more detached at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership. The 27-year-old enjoyed two happy years in Gorgie, scoring in the 5-1 Scottish Cup final win over Hibs and sampling Europa League football at venues like White Hart Lane and Anfield. He points out that he also left with an unbeaten record in Edinburgh derbies. Weeks after his departure at the end of last season, Hearts entered administration.
Their 15-point deduction combined with St Mirren’s poor start to the campaign leaves the two clubs bottom and second bottom of the table respectively, nine points apart. It’s a situation Grainger finds hard to accept.
“I didn’t sign for St Mirren to be in a relegation battle,” he says, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “They brought in myself, David Cornell and Gary Harkins over the summer so I felt they had a squad that could push on, not be involved in a relegation scrap. At the end of the day, results haven’t gone our way, performances haven’t been great and we are where we are. I didn’t expect this to be such a big game so early in the season, but it’s important we prepare ourselves right.”
It is also crucial to help ease the pressure on manager Danny Lennon. “No-one wants to see your manager sacked,” continued Grainger. “I was only at Hearts six weeks when Jim Jefferies got sacked and it was a horrible feeling. I don’t want to go through that again, so all the St Mirren players are trying to dig deep to get results for the manager and try and ease the pressure. He’s an honest enough person. He’s said himself that he’s under pressure so, as a squad, we need to put performances right. We’ve been letting him down on the pitch.”
Having endured the ignominy of being sent off at Easter Road two weeks ago, Grainger is eager to face Hearts after suspension. Odds are he will start at left-back. “For me, it wasn’t a sending off. It couldn’t have happened at a worse place,” he admits. “They [Hibs fans] certainly enjoyed it. Seemed like it was going to happen once the crowd started getting on my back. I felt like I let my team down, that was the only thing that bothered me. It didn’t matter that it was against Hibs.
“I’m available again for Saturday, though. It’s down to the manager whether he picks me. You can’t beat playing at Tynecastle when it’s full. I know what that feels like and, for me, it’s one of the best stadiums in Scotland. I know they’re trying to get a sellout for Saturday because it’s such a big game.
“Hearts means a lot to me and will do for a long time, but I want three points for my own team. I felt I left Hearts on good terms and I did all I could to try and help them when they were trying to raise money and things like that. You never know what football fans will decide on the day, but I’d like to think I’ll get a nice reception. A few people have sent me messages on Twitter saying they’re looking forward to seeing me back there. I’m an opposition player, though, and I don’t expect them to hold back on me if things start going wrong for them.”
A cruciate ligament injury destroyed last season for Grainger and two months later he was informed his Hearts contract would not be renewed. He was one of several bigger earners being phased out, despite the best efforts of Gary Locke following his appointment as manager in March.
“I know that when Lockie became manager he was fighting to keep me. I think the decision was made before he was appointed. It’s water under the bridge and I hold no grudges with anyone. They’ve done what they thought was right for the club. I’m happy and I’m enjoying my time at St Mirren. There are great facilities and it’s a great little club.
“I had a chance to go down south two years ago when Hearts wanted me. I knew how big a club they were and what it meant to play for them and that’s why I signed. The Scottish Cup final was massive and playing in the Europa League was huge for me as well. I never lost a derby at Hearts and that’s a big achievement. I had two great years there but my injury cut short my time. I felt I had unfinished business at the club.”
The ending was abrupt, but he has maintained friendships with several Hearts players. Those are being tested slightly this week, though. “I’m still very close to Jamie Hamill, Stevo [Ryan Stevenson] and Jamma MacDonald. Everyone knows what Stevo’s like and he’s been giving it plenty banter over the last couple of weeks – telling me I only got sent off so I don’t have to mark him. No doubt there will be a few more messages later in the week trying to noise me up. As long as we go away with three points, I’ll be sending a few texts back.
“I’m not sure how I’ll feel on Saturday. Before, Tynecastle was always somewhere I looked forward to playing, but I’ve not been back since I left and it’s a club I have a lot of feelings for. It will be weird coming out the tunnel as an away player.”