Remembering Kevin Kyle's brief but powerful love affair with Hearts 11 years after he signed
This past Thursday marked the 11-year anniversary of the day Kevin Kyle signed for Hearts. In total, the former Scotland international would play only 22 times for the club across the space of just over five months. And yet, he forged a bond with the support that still resonates to this day. Ask any Hearts fan their opinion of Kyle and you’ll find very few, if any, who have a bad word to say about him.
The root of his cult hero status comes from his talismanic presence on the single best Hearts side there’s been since the early days of the Vladimir Romanov era. Things took a while to get rolling in season 2010/11, but when it clicked into place Jim Jefferies’ maroon-and-white machine were a juggernaut that legitimately looked in contention to challenge for a league title. Between a 2-0 win at Easter Road on November 7 and a 1-0 home victory over Rangers on January 22, Hearts won 10 of 11 league games and drew the other. They hauled themselves from fifth place, 14 points off the top, to two points behind Rangers and seven behind Celtic, whom they held a game in hand over.
Kyle was the fulcrum of the side. He wasn’t merely a target man. He possessed his own gravitational pull. The original intention had been for Kyle and Stephen Elliott (whom Kyle recommended to the club) to form an old school ‘little-and-large’ partnership, but other aspects of the side didn’t suit a flat 4-4-2 system and so results were patchy. Stationing him at the dead centre of the attack with Elliott coming off the right, David Templeton attacking from the left and the lethal left-foot of Rudi Skacel prowling around the No.10 position was a masterstroke from Jefferies. It brought out the best in everyone in the team and was the catalyst for the long unbeaten run.
Regrettably, the flame burned out way too soon. Kyle soon suffered a hip injury which ruled him out for the long term. Though Hearts won their next two games to continue their unexpected title push, it was already evident that things weren’t the same without the team’s emotional leader. Soon it all folded like a house of cards. They won just six of 19 league matches after their leading striker was ruled out, including a horrendous run to finish the campaign that saw them pick up one victory in 12 as they stumbled over the line in third.
For someone to play so few games and form such a strong emotional connection, regardless of form and impact, there still needs to be a big defining moment and Kyle got his in his final full appearance.
Hearts v Hibs. New Year’s Day. Tynecastle Park. Hearts were flying at the time while Hibs were struggling at the other end of the table. A home win seemed almost preordained and yet, try as they might, Hearts couldn’t find a way to goal. The shot tally read 19 attempts to five but the game remained deadlocked going into the closing stages. Knowing his side were dominating, Jefferies didn’t want to upset the apple cart too much. He did, however, make a double change with 12 minutes remaining, including the introduction of Arvydas Novikovas.
With just over four minutes remaining, the Lithuanian received a pass 15 yards inside the Hearts half and charged forward down the left wing. Just when it looked like he was going to be crowded out by Ian Murray, the youngster checked his run, squared up to the Hibs captain, let him see enough of the ball to put a challenge in, then skipped around him like he wasn’t there. Novikovas then produced a wonderfully whipped cross around the covering defenders deep to the back post. Kyle, drifting in unmarked, couldn’t have been any more than three yards from the byline, outside of the post, yet he managed to squeeze it into the back of the net via the outstretched left arm of Brown.
Tynecastle exploded. Kyle tore off alongside the Wheatfield Stand with his arms outstretched in celebration. Jefferies, who had initially thought Kyle’s header had struck the side-netting, soon engulfed himself in the ecstatic Hearts support as his match-winner did likewise on the opposite side.
This was the end of the brief but beautiful love affair. A match that the striker later described as one of the best of his career ended up being his last at the SPL level.
During the 1-0 win he felt a pinch in his groin. It was a recurrence of a similar injury he’d experienced at Sunderland a decade before, where it was eventually discovered the problem was his hip. The Hearts medical team did not heed the striker's words of experience and instead, according to Kyle, sent him for four hernia and two groin operations before he paid for a hip operation out of his own pocket. He missed 18 months of his career and was never the same after, eventually signing for Rangers in the third tier and then Ayr United before retiring. He also had to watch on, as still technically part of the squad, when his team-mates embarked on the 2012 Scottish Cup run and the unforgettable victory over Hibs in the final.
Many players would harbour resentment toward their former employers for such mismanagement, but it’s a measure of the man that Kyle refuses to do so. He recognises it as just one of many things that shouldn’t have occurred due to the disorganisation in the final years of Romanov’s tenure as majority shareholder. He doesn’t believe it should reflect on the club or the fans, who still hold a special place in his heart.
As he told Open Goal a couple of years ago: “If I’d have started my career at Hearts and finished by career at Hearts, I’d have been happy with that. They’re massive, a fantastic club and supporters.”