Europe, fan ownership and Hibs climax: One of Hearts' best seasons in living memory
Tentative optimism soon gave way to a rediscovered swagger as Hearts progressed through season 2021/22.
The campaign evolved into one of the most enjoyable in living memory for a club which suffered more than its fair share of disappointment in recent years. Indeed, history may well denote the season just ended as a springboard for future success if harnessed and build upon properly.
A comfortable third-place finish in the cinch Premiership restored Hearts as Scottish football’s third force. They finished 13 points better off than fourth-placed Dundee United as other pre-season candidates for third spot, Aberdeen and Hibs, languished in the bottom half of the table.
Twelve months since emerging from a difficult but ultimately successful period in the second tier of Scottish football, it was a remarkable achievement for a newly-promoted club.
Finishing third secured a return to continental competition for the first time since 2016. Then a place in the Scottish Cup final ensured guaranteed European group-stage football instead of hazardous qualifying rounds.
It was the culmination of two years of hard work and toil since manager Robbie Neilson returned to Tynecastle Park with coaches Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest. Those three, along with chairwoman Ann Budge and the board, set foundations which appear built to last.
Several influential signings last summer underpinned this year’s success after Hearts gained promotion as Scottish Championship winners.
Midfielder Beni Baningime was lured north from Everton, soon to be partnered by the dynamic Australian Cammy Devlin from Newcastle Jets. Former Rangers forward Barrie McKay returned to Scotland to join them in September.
All three signed permanent contracts, supplemented by loanees Ben Woodburn, Alex Cochrane, Taylor Moore and, in January, Ellis Simms. Mixed in with existing mainstays like captain Craig Gordon, top goalscorer Liam Boyce, plus defenders John Souttar, Craig Halkett, Stephen Kingsley and Michael Smith, there was plenty promise about Hearts.
No-one expected too much as league fixtures got underway. Their last Premiership campaign ended prematurely with the Jambos bottom of the division. This time, top six was the stated aim.
A 2-1 win over Ange Postecoglou’s new-look Celtic was the perfect start, followed the same scoreline at St Mirren seven days later. Hearts went unbeaten in their opening 11 league games before a 2-1 reverse at Pittodrie on October 30.
By then, a monumental changing of the guard had taken place at Tynecastle. Well, perhaps more an exchange of paperwork overseen by the old guard. On August 30, Budge signed over her 75.1 percent shareholding in the club to Foundation of Hearts, who became owners on behalf of more than 8,000 subscribing supporters.
It confirmed the biggest fan movement in British football history had completed a mission to own their club. No longer could one individual take charge, for now the fans had more power than ever. Budge and her board remained in place to run day-to-day business, though.
Back on the pitch, the campaign was gathering pace. Early pace-setters Hearts dropped to third after that defeat at Aberdeen but, throughout the season, that was their lowest placing in the table.
The Christmas period and into January was especially pivotal. They beat Dundee, Ross County and St Johnstone with the winter break squeezed in. January 29 would become a crucial day as a 2-0 victory against Motherwell at Tynecastle transpired as a giant leap forwards.
The three points earned that afternoon increased the gap between Hearts in third place and Motherwell in fourth to a considerable ten points. Simultaneously across the Capital, Hibs were sitting fifth but lost 3-2 to Livingston. That left them 12 points behind their neighbours with 15 games remaining.
Yet just around the corner lay a different challenge for a squad seemingly coasting. February was a miserable month for Neilson and his staff due to three league defeats, a draw and a nervy Scottish Cup penalty-shooutout win at home to Livingston.
It culminated in defeat at St Johnstone which left some players furious. However, that anger was channelled positively. A 2-0 win at St Mirren at the end of the month restored belief and was to be the catalyst for a strong March and April.
Hearts put together an impressive ten-game unbeaten run in all competitions which saw them cement third place, earn that place in Europe and reach the Scottish Cup final.
Although it wasn’t known at the time, their season actually climaxed on April 16 at Hampden Park. A 2-1 semi-final win over rivals Hibs was their second Edinburgh derby success in a week, guaranteeing their cup final spot and a Europa League play-off place for August.
Defeat in that play-off carries a parachute into the Europa Conference League, meaning Hearts could plan for a European group-stage campaign for the first time since 2004. The significance of that achievement cannot be overstated for a club just promoted from the second tier.
The only downside to that ten-game run was a cruciate ligament injury suffered by the popular Baningime. He will not return until nearer Christmas after needing surgery.
The league campaign concluded with defeats against Celtic, Motherwell and Rangers while some other key names tried to recover from injury in time for the cup final. Souttar, Halkett, Kingsley and Devlin were among them.
The Hampden showpiece ultimately went Rangers’ way thanks to two goals in extra-time. It was Hearts’ third Scottish Cup final defeat in four years and, understandably, left a familiarly sour taste in the mouths of players.
Yet the bitter won’t last long. Come the autumn, the sweet sound of a European anthem will blare through Tynecastle’s PA system. It is undoubtedly the biggest reward for an excellent campaign.