Gary Locke recalls Jim Jefferies' fury as Mickey and Minnie Mouse arrived for Hearts training
Don’t ask him to admit that, even on this momentous week. A testimonial match against Stoke City on Saturday marks Locke’s 20 years of Hearts service but he won’t take centre stage for long. He is more concerned that manager Robbie Neilson and players utilise their final pre-season friendly to prepare for next week’s Premiership start.
It’s an attitude typical of the man. As fan, player, captain, coach, manager and now ambassador, Locke’s life has been dedicated to Heart of Midlothian. He laughs at some of the stories, like when his father kept him off primary school for four days in 1984 to visit Paris and see Hearts play Paris Saint-Germain.
“We got hammered 4-0 but it was a great trip as a young supporter. I went on the supporters bus with my dad and a few mates. It was amazing to watch Hearts in Europe as a fan. I don’t think my head teacher was too happy about it mind you, but some things are more important.”
No apology for club coming first. Why would there be? If anyone has lived the maroon-tinted dream, it’s this guy. Locke went on to make 189 competitive appearances and became Hearts captain before experiencing the English Premier League with Bradford City.
He counts the 1998 Scottish Cup final win against Rangers as a career highlight despite being precluded by injury. As a coach, there was enormous satisfaction in the 2012 final victory over Hibs – not least due to the 5-1 scoreline. Locke has also known his fair share of Tynecastle torture as both player and manager.
“Another high was the day we came out of administration,” he says, delving into the club’s financial collapse. Administrators BDO took charge of an insolvent Hearts in June 2013 as club owner Vladimir Romanov’s empire disintegrated. Locke was having the rug pulled from beneath him just three months into his dream first managerial job.
“The day I was told the doors could shut was the lowest. It was horrendous. The day before, I spoke with one of the Lithuanian directors and he told me my budget and it was not bad. I was thinking that night about targets I thought could improve the team.
“It kind of summed up how the Lithuanians were because the next day I came in and none of them were here. It was just Bryan [Jackson] and Trevor [Birch] from the administrators. They basically said the club is going to shut shortly if we don't raise 'X' amount of money. It just showed you how quickly everything changed.
“I only found out then. If I hadn't been the manager that morning, it would have still been a horrible day for me as a huge fan. To be the manager and the first person told how precarious a position the club was in was terrible.”
Locke was also left fielding questions from disgruntled players. “The most difficult thing was facing you guys in the media the next day. Bryan told me I had to get the message out the fans about how bad the situation was. I had to sit in front of a lot of media and it was the hardest interview I've ever done.
“My emotions were all over the place. I was finding it difficult to talk. I was welling up a bit because I knew how bad the position was. I knew if I didn't say the right things, you know what football fans are like.
“Hearts fans have been amazing but they had just given the club something like £2million through a share issue. I'm thinking: 'Where are we going to get that kind of money again?' It was only six months on and all that share money had disappeared.
“I had to get the message out. It was basically: 'You need to help us because you are the only people who can help us.' If it wasn't for the fans we wouldn't be sitting here today.
“Although that was the hardest day ever, the couple of weeks after that were incredible because of the response we had from the support. It wasn't just Hearts fans who had a bit of money. There were fans who didn't have much but gave you their last £10, or wee kids handing you their piggy banks. It was just incredible.”
Locke steered the team through a gruelling campaign which ended in relegation because of a 15-point deduction for entering administration. He was replaced by Neilson and, to this day, is rightly is admired for his bravery and leadership throughout that crisis.
It wasn’t his first experience of Hearts calamity, it must be said. There have been a few down the years, although none quite as harrowing. “We had a lot of dafties, I can assure you,” he smiles. “I’m delighted I wasn’t around with social media.”
Most of the incidents he can explain with a degree of retrospective amusement. Like the day Mickey and Minnie Mouse turned up for training at Tynecastle.
Jim Jefferies’ Hearts team were pushing Rangers and Celtic near the top of the league in the mid-1990s before an unexpected December defeat against Kilmarnock. Jefferies was “going berserk”, as Locke puts it, at full-time and immediately cancelled the team’s Christmas night out in Newcastle planned the following day.
Players were summoned to the ground for training instead. “The gaffer, being the gaffer, still had steam coming out his ears – livid from how bad we were the day before. When he got here there were only the lads from Saturday’s squad. The rest of the lads hadn’t had the message that we were in training, so they were all at Waverley station in fancy dress.
“The gaffer was cracking up, wondering where the rest of the players were. [Assistant manager] Billy Brown told him: ‘We never got in touch with them, we need to get in touch and tell them to get in to train.’
“So then you’ve got Minnie and Mickey Mouse rocking up for training and the manager’s going berserk. The rest of us are thinking, ‘we’re getting three days of running here,’ then the rest of the squad are walking in as Disney characters. The timing couldn’t have been worse and sure enough we went three days without seeing the ball.”
Other tales flow off his tongue. It would be possible to fill this newspaper alone with Locke’s stories. He harbours enough memories to last not one lifetime but several, and will make some more this weekend.
Other luminary Hearts figures attending his big day include Gary Mackay, Dave McPherson, Jose Quitongo, Ian Black and Andy Webster. There will be a half-time penalty shootout and on-field interviews.
The man himself doesn’t covet the attention, however he has more than earned the right to one big hearty party.
Tickets for Gary Locke’s testimonial match cost between £3 and £12 and can be bought here: Hearts tickets