Raith Rovers' ex-Hearts contingent carry Scottish Cup fire
Rudi Skacel, Ryan Stevenson, Kevin McHattie and Jason Thomson, managed by Gary Locke and Darren Jackson. The colony of former Hearts employees at Stark's Park adds brilliant intrigue to Sunday's Scottish Cup fourth-round tie in Kirkcaldy.
Tynecastle’s current first-team squad head to Fife to face some of their most revered ex-colleagues in an eagerly awaited fixture against Raith Rovers. A packed crowd is expected in front of the BBC television cameras and producers, who quickly identified this tie as a potential powderkeg after the draw.
Stevenson was released by Hearts in summer 2014 after Craig Levein and Ann Budge took control in Gorgie. Locke was relieved of his duties as manager the same day. McHattie moved on the following year after Locke’s replacement, Robbie Neilson, told him he would no longer play regularly. Skacel and Thomson left Tynecastle as long ago as 2012, while you must delve as far back as 2000 to find Jackson’s last outing in maroon.
Skacel, who remains an idol in Gorgie, has twice been denied the chance to rejoin Hearts since his swansong in the final of this competition against Hibs. A combination of red tape, signing embargoes and managerial changes conspired to keep him away.
Everyone above will carry plenty motivation into Sunday’s game, desperate to cause a huge upset for the benefit of themselves and Raith Rovers. They all share the distressing experience of being told Hearts don’t want you any more and will try to use it to their advantage.
“It would be brilliant to put one in Hearts’ faces,” admitted McHattie, who spent a season at Kilmarnock after leaving Edinburgh. “I still have a soft spot for the club and I know people there well. I still go to some of their games and a few of my good mates play for them. I had two draws and a defeat against them with Kilmarnock but it’s one of those games you just need to take in your stride.
“Obviously it hurt having to leave. Robbie Neilson said: ‘You’re welcome to stay but you’re not going to play as many games as you need to.’ Given the age I was , we both thought I needed to play most weeks, so it was kind of a mutual agreement. Robbie was up front with me and I thank him for that. Some managers would just have let you see out the end of your contract and stuck you in the under-20s.
“It gave me a fresh start which I think I needed. I was playing for Hearts Under-20s and coming on in a few first-team games. It was a sad time to leave but that’s football.”
The irony that Hearts are now on their third left-back since letting McHattie go 18 months ago isn’t lost on the player. Juwon Oshaniwa and Faycal Rherras – internationalists with Nigeria and Morocco respectively – have failed to convince. Now it is the turn of the German Lennard Sowah, signed last week on a six-month deal after leaving Hamilton Academical.
He could make his debut this weekend in a tie which is a potential banana-skin for the visitors. “I didn’t actually know until my mum texted me saying: ‘You’ve got Hearts in the cup.’ It will be good to see some old faces and they’ll obviously bring a huge support. It will be a great game to be involved in,” said McHattie.
“Having played with Hearts, you know what it means to them in the Scottish Cup. They’ve got history in that competition but everyone here will be fired up for it.”
One of the friends McHattie is out to upset is the Hearts goalkeeper, Jack Hamilton.
“They’ve just lost big Igor Rossi, who was a main player for them at the back, but they’ll have others in. They’ve got big Jack in goals as well, who is one of my good mates. I’m looking forward to playing against him. It’ll be a good laugh if I score against him.”
There is two-fold desire for McHattie and many of Raith’s other younger players. “It’s on TV so a place in the shop window is open for every player who is playing,” the defender pointed out.
“For every young player here, the main aim is to go on to bigger things. This game is a massive game and I’m sure people will be watching.”
Raith welcome the cup distraction having failed to record a league win since October. “I think this has come at a good time for us to take our minds off the league. We can go and play with no fear in the cup.
“We’re looking to be hard to break down. We’ve conceded a few goals in the last few games. We had a good defensive record at the start of the season so we need to tighten up at the back. We need to finish our chances as well. We are creating chances and it’s just not happening for us.
“I’ve been with Gary Locke since my younger days and he’s got everyone in it together here. That gives you confidence and self-belief to know everyone believes in you.”