Where did it go wrong for Hearts - a bottom place four years in the making?

The SPFL today confirmed Hearts will be in the Championship next season. Joel Sked looks back at what lead to the club finding itself in such a position

By Joel Sked
Monday, 18th May 2020, 5:47 pm
Updated Monday, 18th May 2020, 5:48 pm

It’s been just over six years, 2,236 days to be precise, since Hearts’ relegation to the Championship was confirmed. On that day in 2014, Gary Locke’s men had just defeated Partick Thistle 4-2.

The away crowd at Firhill was defiant and bullish as they applauded the players off the pitch.

Fast forward to the present day and the SPFL’s decision to terminate the 2019-2020 Scottish Premiership season, sending Hearts down to the Championship, has once again forged a togetherness amongst the Tynecastle faithful, angered by what the club see as the injustice of being “expelled” to the second tier without a full season being played.

Hearts are heading for the Championship after the SPFL's league-ending decision. Picture: SNS

With league reconstruction back on the table and the warning of potential legal action, this is a situation which has plenty left to run.

Back in 2014 it was obvious why the club were in the position they were in, gross financial mismanagement. Six years on, while there is plenty of anger directed towards the SPFL for the decision, many fans have provided a caveat, looking inwards at why Hearts sat bottom of the table with a points-per-game of 0.7667 which only hammers home the ineptitude of the team’s performances on the field.

During these weeks of down time, waiting for this decision to be delivered by the league body, fans have had plenty of time to reflect on what has gone wrong at the club and why. Many, naturally, have looked back to the start of November 2018 when the team sat top of the Ladbrokes Premiership after 11 matches and the downward spiral which has taken place, like being on the world’s least enjoyable slide knowing there is nothing but unpleasantness waiting at the bottom.

But it can be argued cracks were showing long before last season. In fact, this downward spiral to the bottom position in the league may well be four years in the making.

Hearts fans flew a banner over Tynecastle with a message for Robbie Neilson. Picture: SNS

Sunday, February 7, 2016

There was a prolonged feel-good factor at Tynecastle. After a new era under Ann Budge, Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson resulted in the team romping to the Championship title, they then made a strong return to the top-flight, competing for second place, while they had knocked Aberdeen out of the Scottish Cup fourth round at Tynecastle to set up a last-16 tie with Hibs in Gorgie.

There was a bit of cloak and dagger in the build up to the fixture regarding the involvement of Osman Sow. The rangy forward had been in China for discussions over a £1.5million move to Henan Jianye but he was still eligible to play and manager Robbie Neilson made noises that he could well feature.

He didn’t – and Hearts started with a front pairing of Gavin Reilly and Abiola Dauda. But even without Sow, who had hit 11 goals during the season, the team took a 2-0 lead into half-time. The home side failed to build on that lead after the interval and Hibs earned a replay, described afterwards by Neilson as a money spinner, with two late goals.

Ian Cathro struggled as Hearts boss. Picture: SNS

The replay saw Hearts deliver an insipid performance as they were knocked out by their rivals who were still in the Championship and would go on to win their first Scottish Cup since 1902.

No Style No Bottle Neilson out!

The following month, with Hearts sitting third in the table 11 points ahead of fourth place, a plane flew over Tynecastle in an incident that will be looked back on for years to come.

The plane carried the message: NO STYLE NO BOTTLE NEILSON OUT!

Steven Naismith's injury during the Betfred Cup semi final against Celtic in 2018 hit Hearts hard. Picture: SNS

Defeat to Hibs had hit hard and some within the support clearly felt one man was to blame. It was a moment which created a divide which eventually grew into a schism between the Hearts support which persists, some way or other, today.

There was a suspicion growing that Craig Leven, in his role as director of football, was having too much influence, put down to the change to a more functional style of play. It was a feeling more keenly felt in the summer. The club exited the Europa League qualifiers embarrassingly to Maltese side Birkikara with what was seen as too much respect paid to the island side.

It was the first time recruitment at the club became an issue, many seeing it exemplified by the decision to give Conor Sammon a three-year deal.

During a 3-3 draw with Inverness CT in late October 2016, Neilson was booed by some in the travelling Hearts support when we went to collect a loose ball.

Ian Cathro ‘experiment’

Following the departure of Neilson to MK Dons and the club’s plan of promoting from within parked, the club went for the headline-making appointment of Ian Cathro, a coach close to Craig Levein and someone who was seen to have huge potential within Scotland.

Hearts fans protested for the sacking of Craig Levein earlier this season. Picture: SNS

It was a disaster. Cathro took charge of a team which were sitting second in the Premiership – some saw it as a false position – and left after watching his side miss all three penalties in the most pointless shootout of all time against Dunfermline Athletic in the Betfred Cup group stages. As he stood helpless in the rain, the home support turned on him.

During his time at the club, there was little clarity as to what he was looking to achieve or instil within the team. He radiated nervousness rather than confidence. A meet-the-manager event saw fans leave with more questions than answers.

It was a period which brought Levein’s position as director of football into question, with much made of the former Hearts boss passing notes from the director’s box to his protege on the sidelines. Aesthetically, it wasn’t a good look.

28 August, 2017

"The candidates we interviewed were, without exception, first-class. However, as the interview process progressed, it became clear to the board that the ideal candidate was already with us.”

Ann Budge heralded Craig Levein’s second spell as Hearts boss, while also retaining his director of football role.

The manager shortlist to replace Cathro could certainly be called into question. Lacking imagination it most certainly did. Perhaps Budge saw Levein as a steady hand to guide the team after the previous failure.

Despite success during his first spell in charge, plus his quality as a defender, the 55-year-old is a divisive figure amongst the Hearts support.

The first season could be best described as transitional with games at Murrayfield, a new stand, it lacked inspiration for large parts, but there was the 4-0 win over Celtic and defeat of Hibs in the Scottish Cup.

Then came the start of the 2018-2019 season. Eight wins from the first ten, the football was positive and signings were making an impact after a squad revamp. It seemed too good to be true.

Steven Naismith v Celtic

Eight minutes in and Danny Amankwa is readying himself to replace Steven Naismith in the Betfred Cup semi-final. The experienced front man had sat down on the turf and it was the end of his match, the end of Hearts hopes of causing a shock and the end of any sort of sustained title challenge.

That season Naismith was crucial to Hearts. There can be few arguments that there was an over-reliance on him, especially knitting the attack together.

The team’s win ratio with the forward was 66.7 per cent. Without, it dropped to 25 per cent.

Scottish Cup final

Despite the team’s fine performances in the cup and excellent start to the league season, there was an increasing number of voices imploring the Hearts hierarchy and Ann Budge to sack Craig Levein following the slump in the league, with many still not over a 5-0 defeat to Livingston.

The team had dropped down the table, finishing below Hibs but it was widely accepted amongst the fan base that the cup final was the perfect final match for Levein. Win and he walks about a legend, lose and it is time to move on with someone else in.

The team were very good, putting in a valiant performance despite defeat which was arguably the worst case scenario.

Ann Budge

Despite all she has done for the club in helping save it and steer it on the right course with a strong foundation, there are many who feel she has no credit left in the bank due to reluctance to sack Levein.

Budge passed up the opportunity in the summer when it felt like a natural ending point, instead allowing the manager to bring in reinforcements, creating a bulging squad which has had too much money wasted on it, whether through short-term fixes, speculative signings or lengthy contracts handed out, such as the four-year deal to Loic Damour.

Against East Fife in the Betfred Cup – another embarrassing performance and defeat on penalties – fans sang for Levein’s removal. It continued that way. Whether it was draws at home to Ross County or Hamilton, or defeat to Motherwell when a sizeable crowd demonstrated after the match.

The persistence lasted all the way to the end of October and a 1-0 defeat to St Johnstone. Between that loss and the 3-0 win over Dundee the year previous, Hearts won just eight games.

Stendel deliberation

Following Levein’s sacking, Ann Budge said the club were not in a rush to appoint a new manager.

It took Hearts 37 days to get Daniel Stendel in the door with the German pitched into five games in 16 days.

The short spell has not gone well at all. It could be argued that he was the right man at the wrong time. There was little consistency to performance and his tactics were understandably called into question.

Should he have done better? Yes. Would there have been ‘safer’ options for manager? Probably. Was he dealt a bad hand? Most certainly.

For Hearts fans, they have been dealt the worst hand of all through this. A last-place finish which was four years in the making.

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