Twenty years ago this morning, there would have been no more proud and excited young man in Scotland than Gary Locke. Then, just 20-years-old, the boyhood Hearts supporter was about to lead his team out as captain ahead of their 1996 Scottish Cup final showdown with Rangers at Hampden Park.
Two decades on, Locke still recalls every detail of the most tumultuous occasion of his 17-year playing career.
“The build-up to that final was incredible,” he told the Evening News. “I remember being asked to get a load of people together at my local pub, the Four In Hand in Bonnyrigg, for a picture for one of the papers. There were about 200 people there and Tennent’s, the sponsors at the time, gave everybody crates of beer to take away, so all the locals were delighted.
“I ended up having to organise about 200 tickets for the game. There were about seven or eight buses leaving from Bonnyrigg and that meant a lot to me as a boy from the area. It was a huge day for the club because we hadn’t been to a cup final for ten years. Everybody was so excited, wondering how good it would be to win the cup and bring it back to Gorgie. I never really got nervous before games. I was always quite bubbly and used to faff about and wind people up. I really enjoyed the build-up and I was just buzzing at the fact I was going to be leading my team out for a Scottish Cup final. When we got to the stadium, I knew where everybody was sitting and it was great picking out familiar faces in the stand during the warm-up.”
After the honour of leading out Jim Jefferies’ experienced Hearts side, things were to unravel horribly for both Locke and his team-mates. “It ended up being the worst day of my career,” he said.
With a little more than five minutes gone, Locke – who had been given a rare outing for Hearts in his favoured central-midfield role – caught his studs in the turf while trying to close down Rangers and England superstar Paul Gascoigne. “I went to change direction and I knew something wasn’t right,” he said. “Up until then, I’d never had any bad injuries. I lay down on the pitch and Alan Rae, the physio, came on and asked what had happened, and I told him I’d felt a crunch in my knee. He said ‘we’ve only played six minutes, so can you try and play on?’
“I got up and managed to run about for a minute or two, but then a throw-in went up the line and I went to turn and straight away I knew it was game over for me. I got stretchered off. I sat in the dugout and watched the rest of the game but it was like toothache – I was in constant pain for the rest of the game. I took some painkillers and then the pain just went from my knee to my head as I watched the team get hammered 5-1. The team went back to the George Hotel that night because we’d had a decent season overall, but I couldn’t face it. I was on crutches and my head was up my backside. I just wanted to get home to see my family in Bonnyrigg and get my head down on the pillow. It was horrible, a nightmare.”
Locke wasn’t the only Hearts player to endure personal torment on May 18, 1996. Gilles Rousset, for all his excellent exploits at Tynecastle, will always be best remembered on these shores for allowing Brian Laudrup’s cross from the right to squirm tamely through his legs as Rangers claimed a 2-0 lead. Gordon Durie added a late hat-trick as the Ibrox side made merry in the Glasgow sunshine, with John Colquhoun pulling one back for Hearts.
“Although I felt sorry for myself, I really felt for big Gilles as well,” said Locke. “If a goalie makes an error like that, people never forget about it. He was distraught after the game, but he bounced back and ended up being the hero for us when we won the cup a couple of years later.”
Rousset at least had the solace of knowing he’d be able to start redeeming himself at the start of the following season. Locke had no such consolation as the realisation set in that he would be sidelined for the best part of a year with a torn anterior cruciate. “I’m not going to lie, I like to think I’m quite mentally strong, but that summer ended up being a total nightmare for me,” he recalled. “I had been flying at the time, I had just been made Hearts captain and had been linked with a couple of big clubs down south. But suddenly I had gone from the highest point in my career to my lowest.
“I was due to captain Scotland Under-21s against Spain in the semi-finals of the European Championships later that month and I had plans to go to Euro 96 in England with my friends and watch Scotland and I missed all that. I couldn’t get away on holiday because I just wanted to get the operation and start my rehab as quickly as possible. It was really difficult to accept.”
Locke returned to action in January 1997, but the remaining period of his Hearts career was blighted by a series of minor injuries, including another knee problem which forced him to miss the 1998 Scottish Cup final triumph over Rangers at Parkhead. As club captain, and having played in earlier rounds, he was at least afforded the chance to lift the trophy with Steve Fulton. After struggling to rediscover his swashbuckling pre-May 1996 form, a move to Bradford City in 2001 gave Locke a new lease of life. He also enjoyed a good kick of the ball when he returned north to Kilmarnock, but there persisted a feeling that the injury he sustained 20 years ago today ultimately prevented him from truly fulfilling his potential and going on to play for Scotland.
“The rehab was nowhere near as advanced in 1996 as it is now,” said Locke, who was Hearts manager for the 2013/14 season. “It wasn’t that common an injury back then compared to now. If I’d had the injury ten years later, I’d have probably had a far better range of movement in my knee than what I had. You see boys now getting their cruciate done and they’re moving their knee straight away after the op, whereas I was in a knee brace for a couple of months.
“Probably when I look back, the injury in the final did take a bit of a toll on my career because I was out for virtually a year. Because I’d been out for so long, I found I was getting a lot more wee niggles in my thigh, hamstring and calf muscles.
“Over the course of my career, I ended up having about eight operations on the same knee.
“My left knee was always fine, I was just unfortunate that all the injuries I had were on the right knee. After I left Hearts, I actually had a good run of form and fitness in the middle of my career at Bradford and Kilmarnock. I was fine for a good few years in my mid-to-late 20s.
“When I was at Bradford, I was on the fringes of getting into the Scotland squad. It was only when I got into my thirties that the knee really started to affect me. When I got to 34, I was in pain every time I played. I couldn’t get down the stairs on a Sunday morning after a game. I got to a stage where I saw about three surgeons and they said, ‘look, it’s time to hang the boots up or you could end up in a really bad state.’ If the injury in 1996 hadn’t happened, I would possibly have had a better career but I believe what’s for you won’t go by you. I saw Alan McLaren forced to retire at 26 and I looked it and thought, ‘actually I’ve been lucky to play from 17 to 34 years old’.
“I don’t dwell on what happened. If I hadn’t got that injury and I got a big move, I might not have been around to lift the Scottish Cup in 1998 and that’s something that will live with me forever.”