THE scars of 1986 are buried deep within Gary Locke’s soul. Each visit to Dens Park brings them briefly to the surface, no matter how much he tries to forget.
Locke was in the ground as a ten-year-old that fateful day when Hearts lost the Premier Division title in the final game of the season. He left in tears, along with his father and brothers and thousands of other devastated Jambos.
Every time he walks through the main entrance at Dens, reminders of one of the most harrowing experiences of his life are unavoidable. Yet Locke is not the type to go seeking retribution. Tomorrow, he is charge of a Hearts team which can relegate Dundee from the Scottish Premier League by winning on Tayside. The truth is, it probably wouldn’t even come close to exorcising the ghosts still lingering from 27 years ago.
“You do think about it when you’re up there. It was a horrible day for everyone,” recalled Locke. “I was only ten at the time and it was just a disaster. It was a horrible time in my life to be honest with you, even at such a young age, so it’s not something I like to reflect on. I try to look ahead because you can’t change what has happened in the past. You can’t change 1986, but you can’t change the fact we won the Scottish Cup last May.
“I bought into the theory in 1986 that this was going to be Hearts’ year. I was at every game and we were winning every week. You’re thinking: ‘Right, we’re going to go and do the double here.’ Obviously, it was a shambolic end to the season and probably something Hearts fans will never forget.
“I left Dens Park in tears that day and I saw my dad in tears as well. It was a terrible experience and something I hope I never need to go through again.”
Is he motivated at all by the prospect of sending Dundee back to the First Division after just one season in the top flight? Their manager, John Brown, was playing on the aforementioned day which traumatised Locke’s childhood. Locke is not a bitter person. He is driven by the chance to guide the club he has supported all his life towards more stable waters for next season.
More immediately, he wants to build momentum following back-to-back league wins against Ross County and Kilmarnock – the first time Hearts have managed successive victories in this campaign.
“I’ve never really thought about it [relegating Dundee]. All I’m concentrating on is Hearts. Whatever happens to Dundee will happen,” he continued.
“I’m just thinking about us going up there and putting in a similar performance to last week at Kilmarnock. It was a performance I was delighted with because of the way we worked, threw ourselves in front of shots, passed the ball and attacked. All that concerns me is getting something similar to that this weekend.”
He is right to be wary of Dundee. Hearts’ last win at Dens Park came back in 2004, although for most of the intervening period the Tayside club have been in a lower division. They won the first two meetings between the clubs this season until a John Sutton goal in late January secured three points for the hosts at Tynecastle.
Brown in particular will be a formidable object. Uncompromising as a player, he has proven no different as a manager since replacing Barry Smith. The impression given is he relishes the challenge of trying to rescue Dundee from a seemingly impossible position at the foot of the SPL. Being written off never fazed him as a player either, as Locke discovered.
“He was a winner. I think that’s the best word to describe him,” said the Hearts manager. “He did everything to win, whether that meant kicking you, pulling your strip or whatever. He’s a guy I’d loved to have played beside in my career.
“He played at the back and I was at right-back mostly when I played against him. Although I used to try and get forward, I very rarely came into contact with him. You’d be better asking Robbo or any of our other strikers because I think he used to kick them up and down the place. He was a fantastic professional and you wouldn’t have got many people playing as long as he did with the injuries he had. That shows his character.”
Hearts have injury doubts over Danny Wilson and Michael Ngoo, with 16-year-old Jordan McGhee expected to be named in the senior squad for the first time. Locke is unlikely to deviate much from the team which won at Kilmarnock last weekend. He was satisfied with the performance and hunger shown by his players as they attempt to finish the best of the rest in the bottom six.
“Since I’ve taken over, I’ve been delighted with the whole squad. The effort and commitment they’re showing every day at training has been first-class. If we can get more performances like last week at Rugby Park, I’m confident we can pick up a few points.”