Tynecastle prepares for an emotional day

Members of McCrae's Battalion. Below: Hearts' commemorative badge; Raith's strip for Saturday and a plaque marks the lives lost in the First World War
Members of McCrae's Battalion. Below: Hearts' commemorative badge; Raith's strip for Saturday and a plaque marks the lives lost in the First World War
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Duncan Currie, John Allan, James Boyd, Tom Gracie, Ernest Ellis, James Speedie and Harry Wattie.

Expect them all to be peering down on Tynecastle this Saturday. Hearts players and others who gave the ultimate sacrifice in World War I are the focus of Remembrance weekend 100 years later.

It is no coincidence that Hearts’ opponents on such a poignant day are Raith Rovers. Popular belief is that the Scottish Professional Football League computer generates all fixtures randomly, but some are deliberately manipulated. With good reason, in this instance.

After Hearts’ table-topping team volunteered to serve in the war in November 1914, seven Raith players followed, as did others from Falkirk, Hibs, Dunfermline and East Fife. They formed the so-called “footballing battalion”, the 16th Royal Scots, led by Sir George McCrae. Several hundred supporters followed them into battle, all at a merciless cost.

Currie, Allan, Boyd, Gracie, Ellis, Speedie and Wattie lost their lives, but their memory lives on. Hearts are determined to honour their bravery and, as such, a special afternoon is planned to mark the selfless acts of all those who died. It will be emotive and perhaps tear-jerking, but also entirely fitting and appropriate.

Both teams will wear strips commemorating the occasion, Tynecastle’s tunnel and dugouts with be adorned with poppies, the band of the Royal Scots Association will play World War I tunes and there will be bucket collections for Poppyscotland inside and outside the ground.

Each team will be accompanied on to the field by 11 mascots from schools in Dalry and Kirkcaldy respectively. A minute’s silence will take place before kick-off and there will also be a private presentation behind the scenes after HMS Queen Elizabeth asked Hearts to be the ship’s official football club in honour of its links with Her Majesty’s armed forces.

Saturday is a day long in the planning at Tynecastle and a day when pride and sorrow will be among a range of emotions inside the stadium.

“Every football club has its history and mostly it relates to players, big matches, trophies won, etc. One of the building blocks of Hearts’ history is the story of the service of the players during World War I,” said David Speed, Hearts’ official historian.

“The guys we remember at this time of year at Tynecastle were volunteers who signed up to the army in November 1914. Once conscription became mandatory in 1916, many more would serve. The Hearts guys led the way initially and they were people with families and jobs. They could have hid behind contracts but they decided to serve their county in its time of need. And it was a dire time because there were some horrendous stories filtering back to the UK, not least the daily list of the dead.

“In November 1914, newspapers were starting to cover events on the western front. Every day, the Evening News carried a list of all the soldiers who were missing, dead and wounded. That made for some horrific stories coming back from these battlefields. So it took incredible bravery for someone to stand up and volunteer to go.

“People playing professional football at that time were being classed as cowards. While soldiers were dying on the western front, people were playing and watching football and some felt that was a disgraceful situation. So players were under pressure to do something and show leadership. We’re proud it was the Hearts players who stood up to be counted first when the country needed their services.

“It’s also something the fans were incredibly proud of and around 600 Hearts supporters followed the lead of the players. While that’s a proud moment in the history of the Hearts, they were followed in significant numbers by the Raith Rovers players, Falkirk players, and other smaller groups from Hibs, Dunfermline and East Fife.

“Hearts led the league for 35 weeks out of 37 that season but faded in the run-in. The players were part-time so they had to give up their day jobs to become soldiers. They were on military routines during the day and playing for Hearts at the weekend. Things like innoculations for typhoid, which we know the Hearts players had to go through, knocked the players for six.

“Route marches in the night over the Pentland hills, which we know they did, sapped the energy and strength from the players as the season wore on. They didn’t leave Edinburgh until the summer of 1915 but the military training throughout the season to prepare them for war left them struggling.

“The lives of these guys were turned upside down and obviously it did cost Hearts the league championship. John McCartney, the manager, said at the time that it was better to lose the championship than to win it without honour. Along with championship and cup wins, the contribution to the Great War saw Hearts lead the way and it will always be a huge part of the club’s history.”

A crowd near to capacity will be inside Tynecastle to witness the events and pay their respects. Less than 200 tickets are remaining and a healthy Raith Rovers support is expected. On Sunday, the entire Hearts squad will attend the World War I memorial service at Haymarket as they do every year. Other clubs involved in McCrae’s Battalion will also be represented.

A spokesperson said: “Remembrance is always a special time of year for Heart of Midlothian Football Club and with 2014 marking the centenary of the start of the Great War, there will be added poignancy surrounding the club’s events.

“McCrae’s Battalion is weaved into the proud history of our club and what the players did 100 years ago will never be forgotten.

“It is entirely fitting that Hearts and Raith Rovers are meeting each other on Remembrance Weekend, and emotion will be thick in the air at Tynecastle Stadium on Saturday.

“We hope the occasion is a fitting tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“The club’s annual Remembrance Service will be staged at Haymarket on Sunday and will be attended by the first-team squad, coaching staff and members of the Board.”