It was exactly two-and-a-half-years ago today – May 20, 2012 – that Ian Black last set foot on the Tynecastle pitch.
During an intoxicating Sunday afternoon party at the sun-kissed Gorgie ground, the boyhood Jambo was the toast of the jubilant Hearts support following his man-of-the-match performance in the famous Scottish Cup final victory over Hibs the previous day.
“That boy Blackie, he’ll paint it maroon,” they bellowed as he walked out of the tunnel to celebrate with the rest of his history-making team-mates in his special edition cup winner’s T-shirt. The song, given a regular airing in the latter part of the 2011/12 season, was a reference to the time Black had to help out a painter/decorator friend in order to make ends meet when exasperated Hearts players went unpaid for a long period towards the end of Vladimir Romanov’s reign as owner.
The collective resolve of Paulo Sergio’s team was tested to the full in those dark days, and, ironically, it was that season when Black produced the best football of his career, culminating in his midfield masterclass against Hibs in what, through no choice of his own, was to be his final game for the club.
After reluctantly walking away from Hearts as a hero when the club, who were beginning to go into financial meltdown, declined to offer him a new deal, Black signed for Rangers a couple of months later. This Saturday, donning enemy colours, he will play at Tynecastle for the first time since he etched his name into Hearts folklore.
While the 29-year-old knows no Rangers player could ever be given a hero’s welcome by the Hearts support – especially not on a day when they are trying to dent the Jambos’ Championship title aspirations – Black is hopeful that the Gorgie faithful will at least show him respect for the role he played in arguably the greatest day in the club’s history. “I’m really looking forward to going back,” he said. “It will be really good to run back out on that pitch. I had really good moments there. We won the Scottish Cup and there were good derby games as well. It will be my first time on the pitch since the cup final celebrations – I’m going to relish it and enjoy every moment, but also work hard for Rangers and hopefully disappoint a few people.
“If I get stick, I get stick – I’ll deal with it. I’m not really expecting it. I would like to think I won’t get stick, but if they choose to, they choose to and I’ll just have to deal with it. I still live in Edinburgh and see Hearts fans about and they are fine with me. They all speak to me, they know I worked hard and gave my all for the club, and hopefully not too many of them will have a bad word to say about me.”
Black admitted he had known for a few weeks that the cup final would be his Hearts swansong. Talisman Rudi Skacel and manager Sergio were among the others forced to bid an emotional farewell in the immediate aftermath of Hearts’ greatest day. “A couple of weeks before, I was pulled in to be told that I wasn’t being kept on, so I knew it was my last game,” explained Black. “I am just delighted to have left the club the way I did. It was a really enjoyable moment that will live with me forever. I loved it, and I enjoyed my time there.”
While he played his part in a brief title tilt under Jim Jefferies in the 2010/11 campaign and then left as a Scottish Cup-winning hero, it wasn’t all plain sailing for Black at Hearts. As a supporter as well as a player, he was perturbed and saddened at seeing from the inside what a shambles the club had become during what would prove to be the dying embers of the Romanov reign.
“Yeah, I was bitter about it, totally,” he said. “The previous owner, the way he treated the club and ran the club, he destroyed a massive club and ripped it up. Credit to the fans, just like the Rangers fans, they have stood by them and pulled them back up. It was disappointing, having worked under it and having the stress of not knowing if I was going to be able to pay my bills that week. You learn a lot from stuff like that and I certainly grew up a lot.”
For Black, the low point of his three years at Tynecastle came when he had to don his painting overalls in order to make some cash to tide him over when staff weren’t paid by the club in 2011. “I wasn’t paid for two-and-a-half months and that’s a long time for anybody,” he explained. “I have a family to support and that’s the main thing, so you have to go and do what you need to do to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. I got an offer to go and help one of my friends who has got his own business, so I went out for a day’s work.
“There’s a lot of footballers out there who wouldn’t want to be seen putting themselves in that bracket, there’s too much self-pride there, but I am certainly not one to shy away from getting my hands dirty and to supply for my family.”
Black feels the trials and tribulations he and his team-mates had to deal with as employees of the Romanov regime has stood him in good stead for handling the off-field uncertainty that continues to plague his current club in the wake of their own financial implosion. “Being at Hearts has helped me cope with the negative headlines at Rangers,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. That’s the board and they deal with all that, and the manager has got us and works with us on the training field and that’s what matters for us.
“The off-field stuff doesn’t affect me. I have been through it at Hearts and the only time it affects you is when it gets to the stage I was at when I was at Hearts, when you weren’t getting paid and you can’t pay your bills. We just concentrate on what we are getting paid for, and going out and winning games and doing well for the club and the fans. But until it gets to a really bad stage, like Hearts were in when I was there, that’s the only time will affect us.”
While things are not yet critical off the park for Rangers, on the pitch they could be plunged into a state of crisis if they lose at Tynecastle on Saturday. The Ibrox side already trail table-topping Hearts by six points in the Championship race and Black admits his old team will take some stopping. “We knew from the kick off it was going to be tough,” he said. “Hearts are a good side. If you give them the 15 points back that got taken off them last season they would have stayed up [in the Premiership]. They had good quality in the squad and they’ve added a few extra, so we knew it was going to be really tough. They’re on a good run but it’s up to us to stop it. They’ve been good, consistent, well-organised and they’re grinding out results here and there. Credit to them, they got off to a flyer and they’re keeping it going.
“We just hope they go through a bad patch and we can pick up as many points as possible. If they have a bad spell, great, but if they don’t and go and win all their games from now to the end then credit to them. You have a wee look here and there so see how many points they’re on but we have to concentrate on ourselves. Saturday’s game is massive – we need to get a win to close the gap.”
n Hearts v Rangers is exclusively live on BT Sport 1 from 12.00pm on Saturday 22nd November. BT Sport will bring fans live action of five SPFL games before the end of December, including Queen of the South v Rangers (12th December) and Dundee United v Celtic (21st December). Visit BT Sport.com for more info.