Hearts review of 2021: Title win, top signings, new owners and European push
The year just ended is worth celebrating for Hearts supporters, their team’s steady improvement restoring them as a challenging force within Scottish football.
After spending a year in the Championship under duress, they are back sitting third in the Premiership and pushing for European qualification. Many in and around Gorgie believe that to be their rightful place. It has taken tireless work and toil over the last 12 months to help get them there.
The start to 2021 was less than convincing. With Scottish football continuing behind closed doors amid a Covid 19 winter lockdown, a 3-1 defeat at Dundee on January 2 wasn’t the ideal way to celebrate New Year.
A few unconvincing results continued but Hearts nonetheless remained top of the Championship table. By the time they beat Raith Rovers 4-0 at Stark’s Park at the end of January, they had constructed a nine-point advantage of second-placed Dunfermline.
They also had new recruits in the shape of winger Gary Mackay-Steven and striker Armand Gnanduillet. The latter came off the bench to score twice on his debut in that Raith win and, at that point, looked a shrewd capture. Midfielder Aaron McEneff arrived days later.
Three draws in February raised some eyebrows, largely because Hearts’ performances weren’t quite hitting the expected heights. Two wins against Ayr and a further victory over Dundee kept them in pole position for the run-in as March arrived.
This was when the wheels would come off in the Scottish Cup. A Tuesday evening second-round tie away to Highland League side Brora Rangers should have been straightforward enough for the Edinburgh club. Instead, it became a night never to be forgotten for all the wrong reasons.
Jordan Macrae afforded Brora an early lead, Christophe Berra restored parity on 69 minutes, but six minutes later Martin Maclean headed the tie’s decisive goal. The 2-1 result reverberated around Scotland and beyond as one of the biggest ever Scottish Cup shocks.
The screeching from Brora directors as the final whistle sounded could probably be heard back in Edinburgh as they rejoiced at the greatest result in their tiny club’s history.
The inevitable embarrassment for Hearts manifested itself in fan protests and demonstrations outside Tynecastle days later as another defeat arrived, this time in the league against Queen of the South.
A small section of supporters demanded the removal of manager Robbie Neilson and owner Ann Budge, however club business continued. Berra and Mihai Popescu were dropped from the side, Shay Logan signed a short-term contract and a three-man defence was installed.
It helped Hearts win the league and secure Premiership promotion without losing a goal in the final five games. That John Souttar was by then back from a ruptured Achilles was no coincidence. It was a case of job done for Neilson, whose remit was to get the club back into the top flight at the first attempt.
Multi-millionaire investment expert James Anderson, a Tynecastle benefactor for several years, joined the club board at the end of May. At the same time, Budge stepped back and passed responsibility for daily club business to chief executive Andrew McKinlay.
Sporting director Joe Savage worked with Neilson to complete some impressive summer signings to prepare Hearts for the Premiership: Josh Ginnelly and Ross Stewart agreed to stay after loan spells; Alex Cochrane, Taylor Moore and Ben Woodburn arrived on loan from England; Beni Baningime, Cammy Devlin and Barrie McKay signed permanently.
Others such as Berra, Andy Irving, Craig Wighton and Harry Cochrane moved on to pastures new. Hearts began the season with a fresh new look and kept faith with the 3-4-3 formation.
A place in the Premiership’s top half was the stated aim but Europe was also a realistic target. They won all four Premier Sports Cup group games and started strongly in the league by beating Celtic at Tynecastle.
Fans were welcomed back with a crowd of 5,272 witnessing that victory in Ange Postecoglou’s first league game in charge of the Glasgow club. Finally, Tynecastle was back close to a full house for Aberdeen’s visit on August 22. It was the first time since February 2020 due to Covid pandemic.
Celtic exacted some revenge for the Premiership loss two weeks later by ending Hearts’ Premier Sports Cup involvement. However, league progress continued. It would be October 30 when Neilson’s side suffered their first Premiership defeat at Aberdeen.
By then, a rather momentous landmark had passed. Foundation of Hearts completed their share transfer at the end of August as Hearts became the biggest fan-owned football club in Britain.
More than 8,000 FoH members hailed the achievement as a new era dawned. The Foundation had largely remained in the background but were now faced with the challenge of ownership on behalf of a demanding fanbase.
The Hearts board and decision-making process wouldn’t change, with Budge still chairwoman and McKinlay CEO.
On the field the games continued, with Hearts filtering into third place behind Rangers and Celtic as winter arrived. They lost to both Glasgow clubs but finished the year with important wins over Dundee and Ross County.
That leaves them where they want to be – third in the table with a five-point advantage over fourth-placed Motherwell entering 2022.
The Ross County match was again played in an empty Tynecastle after the Scottish Government reimposed restrictions on crowd sizes due to rising Covid cases.
That prompted the SPFL to bring forward the Premiership’s winter break and there are doubts over when exactly fans will return when football resumes.
The Jambo legions will be desperate to get back in with 2022 holding plenty promise for their club.