Olly Lee explains leaving Hearts for Gillingham, his one Tynecastle regret and what he's waiting for in the post
Leafy Kent is a far cry from raucous Tynecastle, or even empty Tynecastle. Lee returned to Gillingham on Friday in a quick-fire transfer to benefit his family. He left Edinburgh with a heavy heart, warm memories, and hope that one memento is still to come.
The midfielder’s Hearts exit was unexpected with the club chasing automatic promotion by April. His contract expires this summer and he intended to finish it before moving back south. His son starts school in September and the family plan was already laid out.
Gillingham stepped in with a loan offer until the end of the season and the deal was done before you could say “Easter Road screamer”.
Lee spoke to the Evening News about missing the passion at Hearts, the honour of playing there and why he always knew he would score against Hibs. English fans regularly decry Scottish football but moving north in 2018 transformed the player’s opinion.
“To be honest, I was probably one of those people as well who was very naive to it,” admitted Lee. “I remember Craig Levein brought me up to see the Edinburgh derby at the end of the season before I signed. I was blown away by it and the passion I saw.
“The Scottish people are the most passionate people about and that one game completely changed my views. It’s one helluva game. It just clicked with me straight away and I bought into it.
“I loved being part of Hearts, I loved Edinburgh and I loved being at such a big club. It was such a great time in my career and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
“The fans are brilliant. They let you know if you’ve had a bad game but they let you know if you’ve had a good game as well. I’ve had so many messages that I’m thankful for.
“They’ve all been positive. I don’t think I’ve seen anything negative, which doesn’t often happen. I can’t thank them enough. They took me into their arms as one of their own and I’d like to think I gave them back a few moments of joy.
“I wasn’t pushing to get away. We were planning on leaving in the summer. I was more than happy to finish the season off, get the promotion done, and then we would have looked to come back down south for family reasons anyway. This just came out of the blue and it worked for all parties.”
The biggest moment of joy Lee provided came in Leith four days after Christmas 2018. A sweet left-footed strike beyond the flailing dive of Hibs goalkeeper Adam Bogdan remains the undoubted highlight of his time in Scotland.
That said, it could be argued that predicting his Edinburgh derby winner was an even more remarkable feat. “I do remember that game I went up to watch [in 2018],” he said. “Harry Cochrane was brilliant that night. Naisy scored and Lafferty scored. I remember saying to my missus after the game: ‘I’m going to score in this derby.’
Leaving a mark
“I signed about half an hour after the game and I knew I would score when we played Hibs. It was crazy. For that to happen a few months later meant everything to me. I wanted to leave my mark on it and it’s something I will always look back on with pride.
“The Hibs goal is the one I’ve had the most messages about. The opportunity to play in cup semi-finals and finals was awesome. Scoring my penalty in the Scottish Cup final shootout is something I’m proud of.
“Going so close to something special still annoys me to this day. I’ve got so many memories. The one thing I’m really gutted about is not getting to play in front of the fans at Tynecastle one more time. I did miss that.
“The whole reason I went up to Hearts was because of the atmosphere at Tynecastle. I really wanted to run out in front of those fans one more time but it’s not meant to be.”
Rejoining Gillingham after a loan spell there last season reunites the midfielder with a squad he knows well and a manager who greatly admires his ability.
After completing the paperwork on Friday, Steve Evans wasted no time pitching Lee into his starting line-up for the 1-0 win at Accrington Stanley the following day.
“A lot of people talk about January being a hard time to move. It can be unsettling. With this happening so quickly, it probably would only have been for Gillingham because I was more than happy at Hearts and had no plans to leave,” said Lee.
“It’s been easy for me to come back down here. I know most of the lads, I know how we play and I went straight in. I played 90 minutes on Saturday so it was an easy decision to make for those reasons.
“It is a big wrench to leave Tynecastle because it was a big thing for me. I’m very proud to have represented Hearts.
“There is a really strong bond about the lads and I will miss that. We maybe didn’t have that as much during the first season I was there. The gaffer and the coaches are really building a great environment. The spirit there was a joy to be a part of.”
The only thing left is anticipation of that title winner’s medal popping through the letterbox in a few weeks. “I’ll be looking forward to that. It will have pride of place,” said Lee.
“It would be nice for me to be there and top it off with promotion but I still feel a part of it. I’ve played a third of the season and I’ve contributed to getting Hearts back to where they belong. I know they’ll do it.”