In the immediate aftermath of Hearts’ victory over Dundee at Dens Park in August, Paul Hartley gave a sheepish and awkward wave to the away supporters chanting his name in appreciation as he made his way back towards the tunnel at their end of the ground.
The Dark Blues manager understandably didn’t want to be seen by his own support acknowledging opposition fans following a defeat.
However, he could find himself faced with this scenario again today, but on an even greater scale.
Hartley, now 39, remains revered in Gorgie following a memorable four-year stint at Hearts in the mid-Noughties in which the former midfielder made more than 140 starts, scored 38 goals and won the 2006 Scottish Cup.
Since leaving the club almost nine years ago, he has played at Tynecastle for both Celtic and Aberdeen. But today represents his first visit to his old stomping ground as a manager. Whether he likes it or not, his name is sure to be sung by the home support.
“He’ll get a good reception because he’s a Hearts legend,” said current Hearts winger Billy King, who was a starry-eyed schoolboy when Hartley was in his pomp a decade ago. “They were good times when he played at Tynecastle.
“My best memory of him was the Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibs when he scored a hat-trick [in a 4-0 win in 2006]. That game was unbelievable.
“Hartley was a good attacking midfielder, a No 10 who always got forward and scored a lot of goals. The 2005-06 season, with George Burley in charge and Rudi Skacel and Hartley in the team – they were unbelievable times at Tynecastle.
“The Aberdeen game, when he secured Champions League football, was unbelievable. I don’t know how nervous he was taking that penalty! I’ve never met him but I always looked up to him and Skacel, and the wingers [Miko and Chesney] as well. Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker are Hearts fans as well and we all looked up to players of that era. We’ve got a bit to go before we replicate what that team did.”
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson played alongside Hartley under current Tynecastle director of football Craig Levein, and he believes that the 39-year-old former midfielder’s move from St Johnstone to Hearts, at the age of 26 in 2003, was crucial to a late blooming that allowed him to go on and represent both Scotland and boyhood heroes Celtic.
“Paul was a huge player here and I’m sure he will be desperate to come and do well here and get a good reception,” said Neilson. “It will add a wee bit of spice to the game. I’m sure he will get a big response from the crowd. He did a lot of good things and left fans with great memories. He scored goals, brought energy and won trophies and it will be good to see Paul here again.
“It was probably coming to Hearts that made him the player he was. When he came here, he was a winger and it was Craig [Levein] who put him into central midfield and he went on to become a Scotland international, win trophies and get a move to Celtic. It was an important period of his career.
“I think any player, regardless of age, will get to a stage when the penny drops. You just hope that, when that day comes, you are still at a level where you can perform. Paul had a good career before Hearts – Millwall, Hamilton, Hibs – but coming here was the right environment for him. The move from the wing to central midfield helped him but football is like that sometimes – you need something like that to kick on.”
Hartley returns to Tynecastle under a degree of pressure as Dundee are on a run of just two wins in 11 games. Neilson is not surprised that his old friend entered the world of management when he was offered the reins at Alloa in 2011. “I always thought he would go into coaching,” he said. “Paul was always football, football, football. Nothing else. He would always be going to games, watching football on TV and talking about it all the time. You never know what will come next, but I always thought he would stay in football.”