Hearts' 2019 review: An annus horribilis for Tynecastle club
Fans will hope for a more prosperous 2020 after disastrous 12 months
From the David Vanecek debacle to sitting bottom of the league, 2019 has been a disastrous year for Hearts. The phrase “annus horribilis” doesn’t quite cover it. Supporters at Tynecastle Park fondly recall years like 2006, 2012 and 2015 with good reason, but they would happily consign 2019 to the bin. It has been that depressing.
Hearts played 51 competitive matches across the year in total, winning only 13. They managed 14 draws and suffered 24 defeats. However, it is their league form which was most alarming: 38 league games yielded only six victories, ten draws and 22 defeats. It is little wonder they are five points adrift at the foot of the Ladbrokes Premiership as 2020 begins.
Tentative signs of a recovery are starting to appear under the recently-appointed German coach, Daniel Stendel. He took charge from Craig Levein, whose position as both manager and director of football had become untenable due to the above form. Relegation is a very realistic prospect and Stendel now faces a monumental January transfer window in an effort to build momentum and take Hearts up the league.
Yet 2019 began brightly at Tynecastle with the long-awaited signing of the aforementioned Czech striker. Vanecek had signed a pre-contract agreement with Hearts in July 2018 and arrived in early January. Levein labelled him “what we’re looking for” on January 8, yet two weeks later the manager branded his new recruit “rubbish” following his home debut – a 2-1 home defeat by Dundee.
Vanecek had turned up lacking fitness after holidaying in Thailand. His public dressing down destroyed his confidence and he never recovered. Hearts released him in June after only four starts in maroon and he joined Puskas Akademia in Hungary.
His fall from grace mirrored the overall malaise which had firmly taken hold in Gorgie by then. The Edinburgh club were struggling for league victories and went on to finish sixith, although their Scottish Cup form was sufficient to take them to the final. They overcame Livingston, Auchinleck Talbot, Partick Thistle [with the aid of a replay] and Inverness Caledonian Thistle to reach the season’s showpiece at Hampden Park.
The opponents were Celtic and their desire to complete a historic treble treble proved too strong despite an encouraging Hearts performance on the day. A 2-1 defeat was no disgrace. From Hearts’ perspective, the fact Ryan Edwards scored their goal seemed to finally indicate a positive future for the Australian internationalist.
He had joined from Partick Thistle the previous summer and was quickly loaned to St Mirren. He returned and finally made his Hearts debut against Hibs in March, enjoying five appearances through to the end of the season including the final. Then he was shipped to English League One side Burton Albion in July as Hearts made their latest clutch of new signings.
Conor Washington, Craig Halkett, Jamie Walker, Steven Naismith, Loic Damour, Glenn Whelan, Joel Pereira and Ryotaro Meshino all arrived during the summer and there was huge anticipation that the Edinburgh club could challenge for European qualification once again. That was forlorn hope, however.
The emergence of teenage defender Aaron Hickey was genuine cause for optimism. He was handed a cup final start at the age of 16 and managed to stifle the threat of the Celtic winger and Scotland’s Player of the Year, James Forrest. His progress has continued this term.
An unconvincing Betfred Cup group campaign saw Hearts progress to the knockout phase but not as seeds. That meant they had to overcome Motherwell at Fir Park, which they did before beating Aberdeen on penalties to meet Rangers in the semi-final. By then, Levein’s time was up.
After fans’ protests and graffiti outside Tynecastle demanding the 55-year-old’s removal, an insipid 1-0 defeat by St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park saw the Hearts owner Ann Budge sack him as both manager and director of football. Curiously, he remains on the payroll, much to the dismay of many supporters. He is currently sharing the sporting director’s duties with the man who was his assistant, Austin MacPhee.
Budge had backed Levein as the man to revive Hearts’ fortunes only weeks earlier, but seeing the club fall to the bottom of the division was the final straw. MacPhee took interim charge, starting with that semi-final against Rangers, which ended in a 3-0 defeat. He oversaw a 5-2 home league win against St Mirren the following week before defeats against Kilmarnock, Rangers and Motherwell and a draw with Livingston.
By the time Stendel arrived as the new manager in the second week of December, Hearts were on their knees and approaching their lowest ebb. Barnsley claimed compensation but Budge is adamant none is due and is prepared to take the matter to court if necessary. Financially, Hearts remain in a decent position under Budge, with millions of pounds of money donated by benefactors helping to top up the coffers. On the field, the next six months are absolutely critical.
Stendel has lost four and drawn one of his first five games. The latest result, 1-1 at home against Aberdeen, included a much-improved display from those in maroon. Yet they remain five points worse off than second-bottom Hamilton in the league table.
The mess left behind by Levein has put the club’s very existence in Scotland’s top flight in huge jeopardy. Stendel needs new signings to improve the standard of his team and would like players he already knows or has worked with. Whoever he lures to Edinburgh will be looked upon as possible saviours and must be ready to handle the demands.