George Burley: What the Hearts players said about the man who could have won the league
June 30 will always a key date in the calendar for Hearts: the anniversary of the appointment of George Burley.
The manager who, across ten league games, developed one of the most captivating sides to pull on a maroon jersey in recent memory.
It was a team which engaged and enchanted supporters because it was a team which was built to play the way Hearts fans want. Fast, direct, aggressive and combative. That, if anything, should be the club’s on field identity.
“We played good football at Hearts and that was because of George,” Czech striker Michael Pospisil said.
“We played an aggressive game that was all about attacking and putting balls into the box. You can see from the results we had how well it worked.”
It has seldom been since those, in the eyes of fans, glorious first few months of the 2005/06 season. Perhaps the closest a team has come to replicating it was Jim Jefferies’ 2010/11 edition, featuring a front four of David Templeton, Stephen Elliott, Rudi Skacel and Kevin Kyle, which finished third and embarked on an 11-game unbeaten run in the league.
When Burley arrived, the first permanent manager of the Vladimir Romanov era, he was presented with a sturdy blank canvas. Key players remained from the 2004/05 campaign, such as Craig Gordon, Robbie Neilson, Andy Webster, Steven Pressley and Paul Hartley.
The solid foundations were there to build on and decorate.
Straight away, the experienced Scottish players took to him.
Hartley, who had put in a transfer request amidst interest from boyhood club Celtic the previous season, instantly bought into his ideas. And even as a shell of a Hearts team went to Ireland for pre-season, he knew he wanted to be a part of it.
"The players loved it”, the current Cove Rangers boss told Open Goal. “The players absolutely loved it.
"He would join in [training], what a player he was. He would take the crossing, ‘it's like riding a bike’, that's what he used to say.
"I wanted to work under this guy because I knew he’ll like me.
"He wanted the best for the players. He loved the Scottish boys.”
Meanwhile, Webster told Burley he wanted to leave in one of their first conversations. He stayed and was hugely impressed with the manager.
“That period at the football club was just unbelievable,” he told Legends 98. “The club went to a whole new level, in terms of the manager, the recruitment of the players, the things the club were providing for the players.
"I was thinking ‘wow, this is what top-level football looks like’. The quality on the pitch was unbelievable.”
Others, however, weren’t quite taken with the manager or situation.
Joe Hamill, seeing the way the club was going, moved to Leicester City where he linked up with Craig Levein.
Former defender Jason Thomson admitted he was glad when Burley eventually left.
“I didn’t like George Burley at all,” he admitted.
"I was probably one of the very few who was happy to see him get sacked. He just didn’t take a liking to me and he wasn’t very good with young boys to be honest. But nobody would really care about that because at the time we were ten unbeaten."
Burley, aided by money from the club’s owner Vladimir Romanov and helped by recruitment supremo Simon Hunt, was tasked with building a team to compete with the Old Firm.
And he had a fair bit to do. The XI which started his first pre-season match – a 0-0 draw with St Patrick’s Athletic: Gordon, Neilson, Berra, Sives, McAllister, MacFarlane, Mikoliunas, Kizys, Weir, Simmons and Cesnauskis.
In the weeks which followed Skacel, Pospisil, Roman Bednar, Takis Fyssas, Jullien Brellier and Edgaras Jankauskas would all arrive.
He had built a team which he believed could challenge at the top and even win the SPL.
“He was ambitious,” Hartley said. He didn’t care about anybody. He didn't care about other teams. He just wanted you to go out and play. Pace, movement, go and play, go and enjoy it.
“We were gutted [when he left]. We knew we were a good team. I’m not saying we would have won the league but it would have been a lot closer in the end.
“George was a leader.”
Bednar added: “The players who came to Hearts at that time trusted George Burley and he trusted us. We knew we could do really well.
"Our confidence was really high and we did really well that season. I will always think of that year as one of my best.”
‘Air of invincibility’
An aspect of his management which players really took to was not just the simplicity but the way he made his team feel going into the game. His famous team talks would see him write-off or even slaughter the opposition.
"I remember George Burley being so dismissive of the opposition in team-talks,” Webster said.
"He’d finish by saying ‘if we’re at it today, we’ll win’. He gave us an air of invincibility.”
Those first ten league games, where the team stormed to the top of the league, will remain etched in the memories of all Hearts fans. The sun shone and Hearts won.
“I think there was a belief in the team that when we turned up at these games that we would implement how we want to play,” current boss Neilson said. "So, no matter where we went, home or away, this is what we were doing.
"There wasn’t a lot of build-up play in the team. It was very much get it forward, get it wide, get the ball in the box and get support in there.
“It was a case of ‘we’re Hearts, we’re going to turn up, we’re going to beat you’. And that was it.”
Until Vladimir Romanov decided it wasn’t.