Hearts review of 2020: From bad to worse before shoots of maroon recovery
The Edinburgh club sat five points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership on New Year’s Day and believed the only way was up.
Daniel Stendel had arrived four weeks previously and the German’s attacking style of play encouraged supporters desperate to see their team avoid relegation.
However, a year like no other was beginning; one which would damage the relationship between Hearts and others in Scottish football.
League form remained unconvincing. Stendel won five games in total between January and March, but three were Scottish Cup ties against Airdrie, Falkirk and, most notably, Rangers.
There was another league victory over the Ibrox club before a memorable 3-1 triumph at Easter Road in early March. That should have been the catalyst for Hearts to save their season, but a certain global pandemic had other ideas.
When Jon Obika scored the only goal in St Mirren’s must-win relegation battle with Hearts in Paisley on March 11, no-one believed it would be the final Scottish Premiership match of the campaign. Two days later, Covid 19 forced football into shutdown.
Hearts were left bottom of the table and fearing relegation if the season was ended bureaucratically based on points per game. Ironically, had they won that final match at St Mirren, it would have left their opponents bottom.
Lower league clubs opted to end the season in April and the top flight would follow suit in May. Dundee originally voted against the proposal as the Scottish Professional Football League inexplicably published results of the ballot before all votes were received.
It led to a five-day stand off before Dundee then changed their ‘no’ vote to ‘yes’. Since that was the casting vote, the plan to end the season went ahead – sparking all sorts of allegations and counter-allegations about whether Dens Park officials were influenced in changing their minds.
A is for arbitration
The upshot saw Celtic, Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers promoted as league champions, with Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer relegated.
Intriguingly, play-offs were scrapped and League Two’s bottom team, Brechin City, therefore avoided needing to overcome a Lowland or Highland League side to stay in the SPFL. Even more intriguingly, Brechin’s chairman, Ken Ferguson, sits on the SPFL board.
Proposals to reconstruct the leagues for 2020/21 were made by several chairmen, including Hearts owner Ann Budge, but talks failed. Hearts decided to take legal action.
Fans were outraged at a lack of support from fellow clubs across Scotland on the vote issue and reconstruction. That anger hasn’t dissipated much.
Hearts joined forces with Partick Thistle but Stranraer decided against getting involved in the lawsuit. Budge and lawyers petitioned Edinburgh’s Court of Session to overturn the relegations – claiming teams were being punished unfairly as result of a pandemic, and that the matter was “not a dispute relating to football”.
It was a historic moment as two member clubs challenged a governing body in court. Following three days of submissions conducted online, Lord Alistair Clark referred the matter to the Scottish Football Association’s arbitration process as it was a “football issue”.
The arbitration panel was gathered independently and found resoundingly in the SPFL’s favour. Hearts were officially relegated to the Championship, Thistle to League One and Stranraer to League Two.
It was not an unexpected outcome and, as such, Hearts had already begun planning for the new campaign. Robbie Neilson was lured back to Tynecastle Park as manager from Dundee United and promptly signed goalkeeper Craig Gordon from Celtic.
A total of eight new faces would arrive – keeper Ross Stewart on loan from Livingston, winger Josh Ginnelly on loan from Preston, midfielder Andy Halliday, defenders Mihai Popescu and Stephen Kingsley, plus two more wingers in Elliott Frear and Jordan Roberts.
A host of others left, including strikers Conor Washington and Uche Ikpeazu, as the squad was trimmed. Yet Neilson’s preparations for the 2020/21 campaign would be anything but smooth.
The Premiership started on August 1 but the Championship, League One and League Two chose a truncated season of 27 games instead of 36. That would not start until mid-October in the hope that fans may return by then.
Hearts began training at the start of August aiming to build momentum. Their delayed Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibs was scheduled for Halloween.
They were quickly stopped in their tracks. On August 13, the SFA/SPFL Joint Response Group told all teams outwith the Premiership that they could not train until at least August 24 following a breach of Covid 19 guidelines by Aberdeen and Celtic players.
The top flight continued despite only players in that league breaking the rules. All others had to stop. Hearts were the only team holding pre-season sessions at that point and therefore were the only SPFL side affected.
The farcical situation was epitomised by Hull City – visiting Scotland for a training camp – using Hearts’ pitches at Riccarton that week while Neilson’s squad stayed home.
After former SFA official Andrew McKinlay arrived at Tynecastle as the new chief executive, the season began with three Betfred Cup wins and a 6-2 league demolition of Dundee.
Hearts beat Hibs in extra-time in the Scottish Cup semi-final – a perfect retort at those who abetted their relegation – but suffered the devastating loss of ex-captain Marius Zaliukas the same day.
They lost at Alloa in the Betfred Cup last 16 but sit top of the Championship at Christmas. Hearts’ Scottish Cup final display in a captivating final against Celtic proved Neilson’s team are heading in the right direction.
The club posted a small profit despite Budge’s forecast that relegation would cost them £2.5m to £3m. Benefactors contributed £3m to aid the rebuilding process. There is a long road ahead but signs are that 2021 can be a more prosperous year for Hearts.