The story of Hearts fans' 494-day wait to return to Tynecastle Park - Zoom, summer of hell, Bovril paste and social media
“I’ve had a season ticket since I was 13. It’s been the longest period of time I’ve not watched us live.”
It is a situation fans the length and breadth of the country can empathise with. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and restrictions on everyday life have provided football supporters with perhaps their toughest test.
That routine, that community whipped away for 16 months. No time to register the magnitude of what was about to unfold, no time to accept it.
Now, football fans in Scotland are beginning to return to watch the teams they love play in competitive action. The numbers may be low for some but it is a start.
Kerr Gibson, the season-ticket holder since 13, will be one of 2,000 Hearts supporters at Tynecastle Park tonight for the Premier Sports Cup clash with Cove Rangers.
"There’s nothing better than watching your team live even if the performances aren’t particularly great,” he told the Evening News.
It will be the first time Hearts will play in front of a home support since Conor Washington scored in a 1-1 draw with Motherwell on March 7.
A wait of 494 days.
Understandably the excitement amongst those lucky enough to get a ticket in the ballot is palpable.
Speaking to Ruaraidh Mackay, another season ticket-holder who struck lucky, you just wanted to bottle that emotion as he searched for the words to accurately describe how he was feeling.
It wasn't easy for the Glasgow-based fan having been starved of live action for so long, so many things to consider.
“I’m buzzing," Mackay said. “I can’t wait. My last game was Motherwell.
“Just to see the players. Most of the players I’ve not actually seen. There are a whole host of new names like Gary Mackay-Steven I’ve not seen in the flesh.
"It’s hard to put into words. It is a big part of your life, towards your week.
He added: “Everyone was saying online ‘check your bank account because Hearts are taking out a tenner’. I couldn’t believe it. I rarely win these sorts of things.”
16 months of purgatory
How do you go from following your team every other week in person to having to sit idly by squinting at a laptop or iPad, a clear distance, a barrier even, between you and your team?
It has been a form of footballing purgatory.
The build-up consisted of simply turning on a device, logging in and waiting. That matchday routine was no more.
Hamish Wilson has been seeing his pal Cammy every couple of weeks for the last seven years as they go to Tynecastle. That simply stopped.
The 22-year-old tried to create a new one via Zoom with fellow Hearts fans but that “stopped pretty quickly”.
“It's just impossible to recreate any sort of atmosphere that you'd usually get at Tynecastle," he said.
"When I used to go to the games with my grandpa I would force him to get us in as early as possible because I loved watching the stadium fill up and really experience the atmosphere. It’s still that way now, I always want to be in early especially for the bigger games like Hibs, Celtic and Rangers when there's a bit more atmosphere around the ground.”
Covid difficulties and apathy
Graeme Taylor opted to replicate staples of the Tynecastle Park experience. There was Bovril at home – “there must be something in those pre-made cups at the football that just isn't in a wee jar of Bovril paste” – and a Scott Wilson-inspired playlist.
But his story is one which will resonate with so many others, albeit he was able to create new memories with his son.
“I go to the games with my dad and my brother and for large parts of the season it wasn't within the Covid rules to get all three of us together in the same house to watch so that instantly took a lot of the shine away from watching the games," Taylor told the Evening News.
"Although, I have a two and a half year old son who is just starting to get into football so it was nice to celebrate a few goals in the house with him.”
“But you don't take the games in or get drawn in to them the same way through a computer screen.”
Gibson found it hard to celebrate goals with the same gusto as in person and admitted “you were probably less desperate, if you were out for example, to get home for kick-off.”
Wison added: “At the beginning there was definitely an expectation that by the start of the season we'd be in the grounds and could go to away games which is something I was really looking forward to with being in the championship.
"As the season progressed and we had games like the Scottish Cup semis and the final it was quite hard knowing how good it would've been to be at both games but weirdly it also made me feel more connected to the club watching it in my living room with my mum and sister.”
‘Summer of hell’
Hearts fans were in a different position to many last summer. On top of the lockdown there was so much uncertainty around the club's demotion to the Championship, possible league reconstruction and a legal challenge. It took a while for closure, for some that may well never be achieved.
Life in the second tier meant they had to wait even longer, until October, for the team to return to action.
"The summer of hell,” Mackay described it.
"I used to refresh Twitter at half 10 at night because you always had another article with what was happening. You took it really bad.
"I know it sounds melodramatic but you don’t have much else to focus on. Because of everything that was happening at Hearts it seemed to amplify it so much.”
That amplification was something which became a regular feature throughout the campaign.
Underwhelming performances fed into a frustration amongst supporters of not being able to watch their team in person then return to the pub and scrutinise the game with a couple of pints.
Instead, fans turned towards social media. The only real outlet to express their feelings. Everyone had to have an opinion. And it had to be strong.
“Your rage seemed to intensify for things that normally I wouldn’t get annoyed about, stuff I’d laugh off at Tynecastle,” Mackay said.
"Every mistake that was made, every poor performance was amplified by ten. Because we watched it on the tele and had to put up with that you become this sort of rage monster half the time, nothing satisfies you.
“When I was watching it on Hearts TV I was too amped up, too emotional over something I couldn’t change. I’ll find it more relaxing than having to watch the tele."
It was interesting to hear fans’ views on how their fandom may be altered when returning to grounds. How long it will take for a new found outlook to give way to the traditional reaction of a misplaced pass or one of those damned short corners.
Gibson hopes for “a bit more perspective”.
"I always think you forget that players have got things going on outside of football as well,” he said.
"During the pandemic it clearly had an impact on players and fans not being at games last season there was a huge amount on social media in terms of poor performance, Neilson out and players underperforming.
"I think hopefully being back at the ground people realise it is a good thing going to watch your team play.
“When things aren’t going well and you’ve got every right to be frustrated and make your point known, but I’d like to think that there will be a bit more perspective from supporters and they get behind the team a bit more.”
Taylor added: “I hope that being back in grounds and away from our phones during the games will mean a less reactionary social media side than we saw during closed door matches.
"I really enjoy using Twitter to interact with other fans and make my own points on what I've seen – I like to think in a constructive way – but it became a bit 'toxic', for lack of a better term, for large parts of the last eighteen months.”
Not long to go
Now fans are just mere hours away from getting back to the Tynecastle, back into those rituals and routines and as the season progresses a return to normality with 16,000 other delighted or disgruntled fans heading to Gorgie.
For Taylor it is about being part of something.
“Those moments where everyone comes together," he said. “The euphoric feeling of your team scoring and everyone in the stadium cheering for that same thing.
Like many, it is more than just the football for Gibson, it is about the “whole day out”.
"Going for a couple of beers before the game, the atmosphere in the stadium then afterwards going for a couple of beers," he said. “The whole experience of being at the game, pre-match, post-match, chatting to your mates as opposed to flicking on HeartsTV.”
While Wilson talked about the escapism football offers, going to games allows Mackay to reconnect with that feeling of being a kid again.
He said: “Listening to Scott Wilson, seeing the stands fill up before the game, seeing the players you pay your money to see. It always gives you that little feeling of being a little boy again no matter how old you are.”
In normal times, a home fixture against League One opposition wouldn't provoke great interest or excitement. But these aren't normal times. Yet, at Tynecastle Park tonight it will be special for the players, the manager and the 2,000 fans in attendance. A big step towards normality and for how football should be, played in front of a captive and engaged audience.
"It's not often in the past however many months that I've had something to look forward to but I've been incredibly excited to get into the stadium ever since I found out I could go," Wilson said.
"There’s been a lot of negativity surrounding Hearts for the past season so to get into the stadium and hopefully see the start of a much more positive journey will be incredible.”
The last 494 days have been building to this.
"I think it's a bit of a cliche through the pandemic but it's definitely true that you don't appreciate what you have until it's gone and it's something you just think was always going to be there," Taylor said. “I still get the nerves in my stomach on the morning of a game that raises the anticipation of going, and you just can't beat the feeling of being at a live game.”