What a difference a year makes for Hearts

Alim Ozturk strikes Hearts' second goal against Queen of the South. Pic: Jane Barlow
Alim Ozturk strikes Hearts' second goal against Queen of the South. Pic: Jane Barlow
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Exactly a year ago today, Hearts beat Hibs 2-0 to postpone their drop into the Championship and ruin their rivals’ planned “relegation party”. Now they are celebrating promotion.

They did eventually go down last year, but in the words of Hector Nicol they can aye go back up. Which is exactly what they’ve done 12 months since that Edinburgh derby.

Tynecastle hosted a celebration on Saturday with Premiership football guaranteed to be back in Gorgie this August. Supporters filled the stadium to rejoice after the Championship title win was confirmed last weekend. Opponents Queen of the South kind of only got in the way. A routine 2-0 victory, a lap of honour and several members of staff drenched in Champagne were among the highlights.

The transformation in the Edinburgh club is nothing short of remarkable. They entered that derby with Hibs last March fearing they could go out of business and knowing defeat would relegate them. An defiant display under then-manager Gary Locke delayed the inevitable, but their resurgence inspired by fans who refused to let their club die will go down in folklore.

One noteworthy aspect of the weekend party was the reception given to the Hearts directors. Ann Budge – wearing a “Queen of Hearts” scarf – Craig Levein, Ian Murray and the rest strode out to the centre circle at full-time to rapturous applause from fans grateful simply to have pragmatic stewardship at their club. Had Vladimir Romanov, Sergejus Fedotovas or any other member of the previous board stepped on to the pitch towards the end of their reign, they would have been chased back up the tunnel and halfway down McLeod Street by a baying mob.

This is a new trajectory for Hearts, a new era, built around stable and sensible management from boardroom to dressing room. The sense of togetherness is deliberate. Head coach Robbie Neilson spent Saturday morning – arguably the most momentous day of his fledgling managerial career – at Riccarton watching the club’s under-14 side. That kind of personal touch has returned to a club which lacked it for so long under Lithuanian rule.

Neilson explained that his role suits him perfectly, with Levein as director of football to shoulder the more bureaucratic tasks. “I enjoy doing what I’m doing. I was at the academy on Saturday morning watching the under-14s play before I came to our game,” he said.

“I like going to see them 
because it allows me to see who’s going to be coming through in the next few years. It’s also about giving a little bit back to the academy as well.

“Previously it was the academy and then the professionals. We’re trying to unite everyone together. There is togetherness and it is 24/7 for me. I don’t see a lot of my family but there is a togetherness about the whole club. You saw that on Saturday.

“The fans sold out the stadium and they’ve sold out our allocation at every ground we’ve gone to. They’re desperate to back us and we can only repay them by giving everything. Long gone are the days when you just have a manager and he makes financial decisions. As a coach, you need to focus on the football. I don’t need to deal with all the other stuff like board meetings and the direction of the club. It can be very time-consuming.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world to just come in on a morning and say, ‘let’s just play wee games’. You won’t get any benefit from that. You need to prepare everything like video and tactics. The structure I’m in is great and it lets me just focus on what matters to the players.

“Craig and Ann have been fantastic. Ann has given the club real direction. The way she’s handled everything has been second to none. She’s put her trust in Craig to get the football department together and he put his trust in me to look after the first team. Everything has worked out well. We need to use this as a springboard now to really push on. I want this to be the beginning of something really good.”

Indications are it may well be. Beating Queen of the South took Hearts 26 points clear of Hibs and Rangers in joint second place with six games left. Their team is already Premiership class, although they were slightly subdued for large periods of Saturday’s game. Queens provided a pre-match guard of honour before Osman Sow opened the scoring with a precise left-footed effort on six minutes. Not until Alim Ozturk’s deflected free-kick spun into the net midway through the second half was victory safe.

Afterwards, players tossed kitman Gordon Paterson in the air before giving Neilson the same treatment. The head coach had tried hard to stay back from the lap of honour to let his players take the acclaim.

“It was great but the day was about the players,” he continued. “Football is about the players and fans. It’s not really about the coaching staff. I’m really pleased for them. There are young guys there who have won a league. Some players play till they’re 35 and don’t win a league. You can win cups by winning four games on the bounce, but to win a league you have to compete over 36 games. It’s a huge challenge.

“It can be difficult on days like Saturday with the atmosphere. Everybody wants to be the guy who scores the goal or makes the killer pass. Saturday was about winning. It keeps that momentum going but if we’d lost then it would’ve been flat after the game.”

Tynecastle wasn’t flat. It was jumping. As it will be in a few months’ time when Hearts kick off in the top tier of Scottish football once again.