Remembering the time Hearts fans had one big laugh on the final day of the season
Rangers 2, Hearts 0. Ibrox Stadium. May 7, 2006.
The final fixture of any league season will typically be one of two things: a complete nerve-shredder where ecstasy and agony hang finely in the balance, or an absolute dead-rubber that is instantly forgettable the moment it finishes. Well, at the conclusion of the 2005/06 season, Hearts fans were able to enjoy something a little bit different.
Finger nails had already been chewed down to the bone the previous Wednesday when Hearts took on Aberdeen at Tynecastle. Having defeated Celtic 3-0 the game prior, the Tynecastle side required just a victory against Aberdeen to secure a place in the Champions League qualifiers the following term. Failure to do so would set up a winner-takes-all battle at Ibrox with third-place Rangers. A once commanding lead over Alex McLeish’s side had been steadily reduced as the campaign wore on and there was real trepidation that Hearts would blow their chance of battling for a place in Europe’s premier competition.
Thankfully, Paul Hartley’s early second-half penalty and a resolute defensive performance secured a 1-0 triumph over the Dons and sparked scenes of jubilation in Gorgie – who can ever forget Takis Fyssas grabbing the microphone and signing “Champions League, la la la la la” after the full-time whistle? It meant that when over 1,000 Jambos made the trip through to Glasgow for the final match they were in celebratory mood – and wished to troll their hosts for 90 minutes. Like any follower of a non-Old Firm club, these supporters were used to Rangers fans lording it over them. So they didn’t want to miss the chance at retribution.
It began right from kick-off. An idea which originated on leading fans forum Jambos Kickback spread throughout the travelling support. Sunday newspapers were brought inside the ground and merrily passed around. When the match began it looked like the tourists from Edinburgh should’ve been sitting on their couch with a cup of tea, not taking in the crackling intensity of a live football match. A banner was also stretched out for everyone in the ground to see. It read: “Ibrox Stadium Champions League section.”
Those fully committing to the newspaper bit might have missed seeing their team, wearing an all-white kit, almost take the lead in the first 30 seconds. Boss Valdas Ivanauskas – the third permanent manager the Jam Tarts employed that season under volatile owner Vladimir Romanov – made wholesale changes to the side as he looked to give key players a rest before the following weekend’s cup final with Gretna. Only Rudi Skacel started both contests and he nearly had the chance to put his side in front. Mirsad Beslija showed one of the few flashes of ability which convinced Hearts to make him their most expensive ever player (a record which holds to this day) when he spun away from his marker and flew down the right flank. The Bosnian winger had both Michal Pospisil and Skacel waiting in the centre, but he dragged his cutback too far behind his Czech team-mates. Skacel managed to rescue the ball and fired it back across goal but there were no takers.
Even though it was almost a complete reserve side, there was still a lot of quality on show and Hearts had two further opportunities to open the scoring. Skacel caught a shot on the angle perfectly but could only send it straight at the goalkeeper, while Pospisil failed to fully wrap his foot around an effort from the edge of the box and he looked to curl it into the far corner.
Kris Boyd missed a couple of chances before opening the scoring on 36 minutes as he got free from a Peter Lovenkrands corner to power a header beyond Steve Banks in goal. The beaming away support didn’t even let a little issue like their team going behind spoil their fun. After the initial shock sarcastic cheers could soon be heard from the away end.
Boyd would score again later in the match to ensure a 2-0 victory for the hosts in McLeish’s last match as manager, but not until after Hearts had passed up another couple of great opportunities to get something out of the game. Typically this would have been a major annoyance for the fans. The team had created several decent chances at Ibrox but left with a 2-0 defeat. However, on this day they could scarcely care less. Despite being at least a goal down for the majority they continued to sing their hearts out as the song book got progressively more abstract. At one point the Setanta Sports cameras panned over to the far corner to see everyone holding up one item of footwear in the air. The chant went: “one shoe, we’ve only got one shoe.” It was a song of no meaning to celebrate a match of no meaning.
This Hearts B team would ultimately put in a better performance than the first-choice side did the following week as they almost blew the chance at Scottish Cup glory, being held to a 1-1 draw against Second Division Gretna across 120 minutes before the terror of penalty kicks. The heavy pre-match favourites held their nerve, converting all four of their attempts as Gretna missed two of theirs and the cup was coming back to Gorgie.
The Champions League dream didn’t end as happily. After beating Široki Brijeg 3-0 on aggregate in the second qualifying round, only AEK Athens stood between Hearts and the group stages. But two late goals conceded at Murrayfield in the first leg inflicted a monumental blow that they couldn't recover from, going down 5-1 over the two games.