How Hearts' late comeback against Rangers saved the 2015 title party
When, all going well, Hearts lift the Scottish Championship trophy at Tynecastle next weekend, it will be an altogether different experience from the one enjoyed by the squad of 2014-15.
One or two aspects will be familiar, namely Robbie Neilson in the dug-out, Jamie Walker among the squad and Ann Budge in the directors box, but that is where the comparisons are likely to end with the club’s previous second tier title win.
When Hearts turned up for their trophy presentation six years ago, it was to a packed stadium with a fervent home support eager to celebrate an instant return to the top flight.
Perhaps next Saturday, more than at any other point in this surreal season, those fans will be missed more than ever. Lifting silverware in front of a handful of journalists, TV cameras and cardboard cut-outs can barely compare to doing so to a chorus of 20,000 resounding cheers.
Likewise, while Hearts fans may not be in love with their team just now, they will still wish they could be there in the moment as the players lift the trophy, rather than watching it through a screen, as has become the norm during the pandemic.
The lack of fans is one thing, the absence of any sense of accomplishment is another.
While Neilson took Hearts straight back up last time around it was somewhat against the odds. Rangers, who had secured back-to-back promotions following their financial meltdown and demotion to League Two, were installed as title favourites. The division also contained derby rivals Hibs, who followed Hearts down the top flight trapdoor after failing to negotiate the relegation play-offs.
Three big guns all vying for one automatic promotion spot meant nothing was guaranteed, so a record 91-point season, clinching the title with seven games to spare with a brand of swashbuckling, attacking football, was an achievement worth celebrating.
Contrast that with the current campaign, where a 10-point lead over Raith Rovers has masked poor performances, not to mention the Brora Rangers debacle, then it would be hard to imagine similar fanfare, even if supporters were allowed inside the ground.
Hearts opponents for the final game of the 2014-15 season were a Rangers side who needed a victory to clinch second place in the league and, therefore, two less play-off games – and hope second-placed Hibs slipped up at Falkirk.
Stuart McCall's men threatened to spoil the occasion as first half goals from Darren McGregor and Kenny Miller put Rangers into what looked a comfortable half-time lead.
Neilson was sent to the stand after referee Calum Murray rejected a penalty appeal just before the second goal, and the party atmosphere inside Tynecastle had turned into fury and frustration.
A second half substitution was to save the day. Genero Zeefuik entered the field on 63 minutes, scored in the 82nd and again in the 90th to provide a rousing end to the season – and a fitting start to the title party.
The game wasn’t short on controversy as players from both sides refused to hold back in any challenge.
As tackles continued to fly in at a rapid rate, there were plenty incidents to keep referee Murray occupied. One needless foul by Alim Ozturk on Dean Shiels led to the opening goal. Nicky Law curled the resultant free-kick from the left towards the back post, where McGregor rose highest to head beyond Gallacher and high into the net. A player Hearts tried to sign the previous summer, the defender looked elated to put Rangers ahead.
Hibs by that stage were ahead at Falkirk so Rangers needed that scoreline to change to have any chance of beating the Easter Road club to second place. They put themselves in a stronger position when Miller doubled their advantage, but only after Hearts fans screamed for a penalty. Osman Sow chased down the late, great Marius Zaliukas and intercepted a backpass by the Lithuanian. He then tried to go round Cammy Bell but the Rangers keeper dived to push the ball clear, upending Sow in the process. The home support appealed in unity for a spot-kick but Murray played on, convinced Bell played the ball first.
To compound Hearts’ frustration, Rangers literally ran up the park and scored. A low cross from Richard Foster was tapped into the net from around six yards by the unmarked Miller as a chorus of jeers poured out from three of Tynecastle’s stands. Neilson was ordered out of his technical area by Murray for protesting, and the first half ended with a crowd of players arguing and barging as they went up the tunnel.
After the break, Hearts composed themselves and began attacking. Bell saved Walker’s 20-yard drive at the second attempt, and Kevin McHattie also forced the Rangers keeper into a save from close range. There was another penalty appeal when McHattie appeared to be caught by Law inside the box, but again referee Murray carried on.
Hearts got their breakthrough via Zeefuik nine minutes from the end. The Dutchman backpedalled to head Morgaro Gomis’ cross away from Bell into the opposite corner, sparking late hope amongst fans that they might earn a draw. It took until the 90th minute for that hope to become reality.
A long ball from Ozturk was won in the air by Callum Paterson - now playing centre-forward - and Zeefuik touched the loose ball down before driving it past Bell with his left foot. The roar which greeted the goal was one of relief and ensured the home players and fans were in party mood to receive the trophy.
Hearts were then presented with the silverware and embarked on a lap of honour before an ecstatic home support.