IBROX was where Hearts’ assault on the Scottish Championship began eight months ago. Having obliterated the opposition, they now return as league winners.
The satisfaction will be temporarily pushed to the back of the players’ minds when they take the field on Sunday, but supporters are entitled to enjoy the occasion.
The Edinburgh club won 2-1 at Rangers on the opening day of the season thanks to Osman Sow’s winner in the dying seconds. Last time they visited Ibrox for a meaningless fixture, however, was in 2006. They entered the season’s final league game having already beaten the Glasgow club to second spot in the SPL and a place in the Champions League qualifying rounds. Away fans that day danced the conga up and down stairways and cheered Rangers’ goals with irony as Hearts lost 2-0. A similar atmosphere is expected this weekend.
Both clubs have endured their share of financial troubles in recent years but Hearts’ recovery puts Rangers very much in the shade. Since administration ended last year, they have rebuilt pragmatically under the guidance of owner Ann Budge, director of football Craig Levein and head coach Robbie Neilson. That win at Ibrox last August kick-started a memorable season which sees them already promoted and 26 points clear at the top of the table.
Rangers, meanwhile, have lurched from crisis to chaos and back again under a succession of greedy owners, chief executives and directors since being liquidated in 2012. Their hope is that the recent takeover inspired by Dave King proves as fruitful as promised. Much will depend on whether they can reach the Premiership through the play-offs having planned – some would say expected – to beat both Hearts and Hibs to automatic promotion.
For that reason, Sunday’s match is crucial for recently-appointed Rangers manager Stuart McCall and his squad. It is not quite the same for Hearts, but they are nonetheless determined to win again at Ibrox. They are also keen to enjoy stepping out into one of Scottish football’s cauldrons as league winners.
“It feels a wee bit different because we won it with seven games to go. It’s an incredible achievement and I’m just delighted we’ve done it,” said winger Billy King. “Going to Ibrox, league champions, there’s no pressure on us. We can just go out and enjoy the occasion, although we still want to win every one of our remaining games. We’re a big club and that’s what’s expected. We want to carry our momentum on into next season so we’re going into the Rangers game looking for three points.
“It’s a great occasion for us to go there knowing we’ve already won the league. We can just go and enjoy ourselves and hopefully win the game. I don’t really think about what it means to the other teams. We’re champions now and we’re promoted so we aren’t really thinking about Rangers or Hibs at the moment. We’re just concentrating on preparing for next season and keeping the momentum going in the remaining games.”
The look on King’s face is still one of slight bewilderment. He admitted he has yet to fully digest the fact he is a league champion with the club he grew up supporting. “I’m still waiting for the promotion to sink in, to realise that we’ve actually won it. I’m sure, after the last game of the season, we’ll start thinking about it but we’re still concentrating on the games we’ve got left first,” he explained.
“I think it will be the day we come back in for pre-season that we’ll realise we’re in the top league now. We’ll need to raise our game more because we’ll be playing against better opposition. That’s when it will really sink in and the mindset will take hold that we’re playing in the top division.
“At the start of the season, no-one would’ve guessed we would be champions with seven games to go. I expected it to be tight with us, Hibs and Rangers challenging for the title. I never thought we would win it with so many games left. I knew we had a good chance because of the players we brought in and the squad we had.”
King and his fellow Riccarton academy graduates are fortunate to already have some top-flight knowledge. Last season was harrowing in many ways for Hearts as their young and inexperienced team were relegated after a 15-point deduction for entering administration. However, the upside to that disappointment was the knowledge gained by the younger players.
Towards the end of the campaign, their maturity was visible. Wins against Hibs (twice), Partick Thistle, Ross County and Kilmarnock in the final eight matches offered hope for the future. King, Callum Paterson, Sam Nicholson, Jamie Walker, Kevin McHattie, Dale Carrick and Gary Oliver are ready to return to the Premiership with their club in much better health.
“I think we proved in the last ten games or so that we can compete at that level because we won a good few of them,” said King. “Although it was a difficult season, we proved we can play at that level. We’re looking forward to next season because I think we’ve got a better squad now than we did last season. I think we’ll do well.
“I carried my own form from the end of last season on to the start of this season, but then my form dipped a wee bit through the December period and into January. It’s picked up again since then. Overall, I think it’s been a really good season for me personally.
“Hearts is a great place to be just now. It’s a massive club and we’re moving into the top league. A lot of the boys who have come through are Hearts fans as well and I think that’s a good thing. It shows we play for the club and we’re just delighted to be a part of it.
“You want to play competitive football and that’s what’s been great this season with Rangers and Hibs in the same league. There are lots of good games, with the likes of Queen of the South and Falkirk. These are good teams and we’ve enjoyed being involved against them.”