Suspicions were that Hearts would go down fighting, and so it proved in Maryhill. Relegation was confirmed despite an inspiring display laced with four fine goals and a defiant, gutsy spirit.
St Mirren’s win over Motherwell finally condemned the Edinburgh club to the Championship. As has been the case all season, actions of others proved costly for Gary Locke and his players.
Those at Tynecastle accepted their fate some time ago and, perhaps appropriately, it was finalised below the drizzly and grey skies at Firhill. Hearts had beaten Hibs and drawn with Aberdeen in their last two matches to keep relegation at bay. Despite a tame start, they were scintillating at times against Partick Thistle. Goals from Dale Carrick and Billy King plus a Ryan Stevenson double had them coasting. However, two late strikes in Paisley secured a 3-2 win for St Mirren and prevented the relegation issue staying alive into the Premiership’s post-split fixtures.
It was a cruel ending in a sense. Hearts had to win and St Mirren lose and with four minutes remaining in Paisley that was precisely the scenario. St Mirren were 2-1 behind against Motherwell whilst Hearts were 4-2 ahead. Then Kenny McLean’s penalty and Steven Thompson’s late winner changed the picture.
The full-time whistle brought emotional scenes as the travelling support offered the Hearts players rapturous applause. The effort of all concerned on and off the field had been admirable all season, yet a 15-point deduction and signing embargo for entering administration proved too much. Not since 1981 had the Tynecastle club been relegated. It was a new nadir and the biggest hit yet from the domino effect of former owner Vladimir Romanov’s financial collapse.
“All we could do was do our part and keep winning. We’ve done that but unfortunately St Mirren got the win,” said midfielder Scott Robinson. “The club doctor had his phone in the dugout and was keeping everyone up to date. He said it was 2-1 in the 86th minute, then he said it was 2-2 and then 3-2. We knew that was it at that point.”
Locke was philosophical. “We’re obviously disappointed at going down, but it’s a shame you’re only seeing the hard work of the young lads coming to fruition now,” he said. “They’re really improving game by game, and I’m so proud of their effort.
“We didn’t focus on other games, all we could do was win our game. When our boys click, we’re a half-decent team. We’ve had a lot to deal with this season, but I think it just shows if we didn’t have that points deduction we’d have been right in the mix.”
His point about the improvement in his players was especially pertinent. Two of Saturday’s goalscorers, King and Carrick, have emerged recently to make a telling contribution. King had his best game in a Hearts shirt at Firhill and took home memories of a raking right-footed finish into the top corner which put his team 2-1 ahead early in the second half.
That came after a first half in which Thistle were excellent up until the 25-minute mark. Kris Doolan’s opening goal – from a long ball through the middle – exposed Hearts’ defensive frailties with centre-back and captain Danny Wilson suspended. Brad McKay and Dylan McGowan were static. Then, after Locke switched his formation to 4-4-2, King teed up Carrick for a headed equaliser near half-time.
King lashed in the second shortly after the restart, Stevenson headed the third from King’s corner and then stroked in Hearts’ fourth following a smart pivot inside the penalty box. Jordan McMillan reduced the deficit but by then the points belonged to the visitors. Their joy was short-lived, though, thanks to St Mirren’s late rally.
Hearts have even bigger issues than relegation to contend with right now. Their hopes of exiting administration and avoiding liquidation hinge on whether creditors of their biggest shareholders – Ukio Bankas and Ukio Bankas Investment Group (UBIG) – agree to transfer almost 80 per cent of the club’s shares today.
Locke is eager for that process to be completed, and for the chance to keep his job and help rebuild Hearts under prospective owner Ann Budge. “The biggest challenge has always been coming out of administration. We can’t make any plans for next season until we know the club’s safe, and we just pray the right decision is made.
“I’d love the chance to build on this next season. Obviously we were making errors a lot early in the season, but as they improve and mature, and if they knew then what they know now, we’d have given ourselves a real chance. Inexperience really cost us, but they’re all better players for it.”
Robinson explained that he and most of his colleagues intend to stay despite Hearts’ slide into the Championship. “The meetings are out of our hands. We can only do our bit on the pitch and hope things go well in the meetings. There’s no question I want to stay. This is the club I want to play for no matter what division they’re in. It’s unfortuante we’ve gone down but hopefully we can come back up.
“I’ve not heard anyone say that, because we’re getting relegated, they want to leave. They will know themselves deep inside but everyone seems keen to stay. We’re all fighting for the cause.
“I think you can see in our performances that we’re growing in confidence. The young boys are doing better. You saw Billy King’s goal, which was brilliant, and with scoring in the derby as well I’m sure he’s flying just now. It’s just unfortunate we couldn’t get a few more wins during the season.
“Going to Ibrox and having Rangers at Tynecastle in the Championship next season will be massive games. If we can get up near the top of the league, hopefully it will be them and us fighting for automatic promotion.”
Of course, there remains the possibility of Hibs also being relegated should they finish the season in the Premiership’s play-off place. “I think it would be the most interesting league to watch if Hearts and Hibs got relegated, with Rangers being there as well,” said Robinson.
“What will happen there will happen but they aren’t in the best of form right now. We have today off and I’ve got nothing planned, but I’ll probably watch the Hibs game tonight. I’ll be willing Aberdeen on.”