“Is it a team you support or a stadium?”
With building work well underway to regenerate Tynecastle Park, I have been compelled to join the masses in sharing my #MainStandMemories on social media.
I’m unashamed to say that I adore everything about the old girl. The elements that many view as depressingly archaic are a joy to me. The pillar restricted views, the unrepentant insistence on standing from the natives, the tiny bookmakers office in upper N – even the ‘Beware of Pickpockets’ signage that gives a nod to the social problems that were rife in the 70s. It’s all golden for many thousands; a much loved antique.
This relic has always been more than just a stand to me. It’s where my father – and his father – came to gaze in awe at the famous Heart of Midlothian; resplendent in maroon. As the world changed beyond recognition, the Main Stand was the one bi-weekly constant and a comforting throwback to simpler times.
Without being too melodramatic, I’m not afraid to admit that I’m tortured at the thought of losing that stand. That history. Whilst I absolutely accept the need for redevelopment, there’s a real part of my footballing psyche that will be left among the rubble.
And yet, as I wrack my brain for anecdotes, my mind continually wanders back to the mid noughties, and a feeling of anger rather than nostalgia.
It was a bleak January evening in 2004 and the Heart of Midlothian AGM was about to get underway. There was a distinct feeling of aggravation in the air in EH11. It was almost tangible – a rumbling undercurrent of resentment towards the club’s board of directors. The Chief Executive, Chris ‘Pieman’ Robinson, was to be the main source of maroon ire.
An arrogant fat-cat catering tycoon, Robinson had caused controversy two months prior when he publicly announced his intention to sell our club’s home of 120 years to a property developer. The pig-headed despot told the world that the solution to Heart of Midlothian’s problems was homelessness. The team would ply their trade across the West Approach road in a vast bowl of a rugby stadium and the clubs rapidly increasing bank debt would be all but wiped out.
Despite precisely zero minutes of fan consultation with the clubs 8000 season ticket holders, he drew up a quasi-corporate document infamously named ‘Tynecastle Stadium – Not Fit for Purpose’. Robinson’s white paper stumbled from one half-baked assertion to the next. It was a scatter-gun, contradictory guide to corporate suicide.
The document was a cluster-fuck of vague assertions at every twist and turn, failing even the most basic of sniff tests. The shareholders – the vast majority normal fans – were weary. Talk of moving home wasn’t new, with Robinson pursuing a stadium share with Hibernian at Straiton just two years prior. But we all felt the impending move to Murrayfield was the first step to extinction. Hence the air of menace as proceedings got underway in the Gorgie Suite.
Let’s take a moment to analyse the spurious ‘rationale’ for bulldozing Tynecastle.
First he claimed that UEFA had cruelly forced our hand. The pitch was too small for Europe’s governing body, he cried. The callous beaks in Nyon were flexing their muscles. There was no solution, as adapting the ground was impossible due to the way the club’s 3 new stands had been constructed – on his watch – in the 90’s.
This argument fell down like a house of cards when UEFA publicly stated that domestic matches were entirely unaffected. Jim Clydesdale – the architect who designed the Wheatfield, School End and Gorgie Stands in the 90s – also contradicted Robinson by stating that lengthening of the pitch would be possible.
Next he concocted a lie around the apparent unsafe status of the Main Stand – a myth debunked almost immediately as The City of Edinburgh Council reaffirmed the ground’s certification as safe for supporters.
There was more still, including a misleading claim from Robinson about the proposed financial agreement for leasing Murrayfield from the Scottish Rugby Union. Predictably, their press officer clarified that talks on the conditions of the lease hadn’t even begun.
When the Edinburgh-based Scotsman newspaper called out Robinson on the flimsiness of the proposal, they were ostracised by the Chief Executive and excluded from pre-match press conferences. Such tactics were typical of the man. A power hungry despot, Robinson would regularly take the press to task via the Press Standards Organisation whenever he disagreed with their [often factually correct] articles.
Despite the sheer amount of crap spouted by Robinson, he was as bullish as ever as he reasserted his plan to move the club from its spiritual home. Flanked by the Chairman, Doug Smith, he outlined the proposal to repay the bulk of the debt amassed due to his ruinous late 90s venture with Scottish Media Group. House builder Cala Homes would purchase the land and Heart of Midlothian would ply their trade in a soulless 67,000 seater rugby stadium. An age-old Scottish football institution would effectively be sleeping rough to appease the Bank of Scotland.
With tempers running high, several shareholders were verbally abusive towards the Chief Executive and indeed the Chairman. A Herald editorial from around that time stated that Smith was called an “English bastard” and Robinson far worse. Whilst unfortunate, that’s par for the course given the circumstances.
Robinson bristled at the criticism, as he always did. Three years prior, he responded in typically arrogant fashion when questioned over the club’s rising £10M debt:
“I would not be here if we had record losses again. The board would tell me that I’m totally incompetent. We work a year ahead with our forecasts. If our figures are not significantly better next year, you will have to be speaking to a new chief executive.”
The northern trajectory of the debt continued the following year, and he dodged repeated questions around his stewardship of the club. And here we were in 2004 – three years later – and he was as slippery as ever.
Rebuked by a shareholder loudly asserting that Hearts would be staying put, Robinson bristled before delivering his antagonising retort:
“Is it a team you support or a stadium?”
The words had barely left his sneering jaw, but most in the vicinity were already suitably antagonised.
Just two months later, Robinson was punched in the face by a supporter on McLeod Street as he left the ground. The fan movement ‘Keep Hearts in Gorgie’ was rapidly gaining momentum and it wasn’t hard to see why given his absolute arrogance in the face of rightful scrutiny.
No one, of course, should advocate violence towards any individual, regardless of how much of a creature he was. But the strength of feeling was more intense than ever as the support mobilised to protect the club.
Protests outside the Main Stand became the norm after games, with pockets of fans chanting “Where’s the money gone?” and “Pieman, get tae f***!”. On occasions, only a stringent line of policemen stopped supporters from storming the Main Stand to confront the Chief Executive. Indeed, on one occasion in February of 2004, supporters very nearly gained access to the team bus as it returned to Tynecastle after an Edinburgh derby, searching for Robinson. It was ugly.
By February of the following year, Robinson had finally bowed to relentless pressure and sold his shares to Vladimir Romanov – but not before leeching on for a further 3 months as an advisor to the new regime.
The whole sorry episode was done and dusted as Mr Romanov repaid the club’s crippling debt to Bank of Scotland and kept Heart of Midlothian at Tynecastle Park. Such news was a massive victory for Hearts supporters and a defeat for the Pieman.
As he left, Robinson fired a parting shot as he spoke to BBC Scotland:
“There’s a number of fans will always see me with devil’s horns, but that’s football and they’ll have to find a new devil in the future.. Sometimes you have to do what’s right for the shareholders, which is in direct opposition to what supporters want…”
Those comments are telling. What Robinson couldn’t fathom was that this was more than a business transaction. It wasn’t simply the stroke of a pen or a case of formalising legal contracts.
This stadium is a part of each of us. You and I. It’s treasured memories, captivating moments and, yes, some properly shite times too. But they are our shite times. Tynecastle Park will never simply be another piece of city centre real estate.
So as we look back on #MainStandMemories and celebrate our renewed commitment to the community, let’s also take a moment to rejoice in the fact that characters such as Chris Robinson were ousted and put in their place. It’s a great source of pride to know that Hearts supporters stood up to him like we always have done in the face of adversity.
The fact Robinson still has the temerity to regularly take his seat in the Main Stand – allegedly free of charge – every week is disappointing but unsurprising to see. I suspect the club has to honour this agreement as part of his severance package but it still rankles for me and, I suspect, the majority of season ticket holders.
I imagine such distaste from many won’t bother him one bit given his comments to The Herald as he resigned from his position in May of 2004:
“I’d be very saddened if any [supporters] continued to vent their anger towards me but nothing will ever stop me watching Hearts”
Well, we’re 13 years down the line and I’m still angry as ever at your utter contempt for this football club. Don’t expect that to change.
As we welcome the new Main Stand later this year, celebrate the fact that the club is in the hands of those who are worthy of that privilege, and not clowns like Chris Robinson.
It’s not a team or a stadium we support. It’s a 143 year old football club.