Stand and Still Can’t Deliver

Why Tynecastle wasn’t the only missing piece of our current on-pitch puzzle.

In the 20 years and four days since my first ever Hearts game, a 2–1 win over St Johnstone, I can safely say I never considered the prospect of feeling the same wide-eyed, child-like awe I felt when I set foot inside Tynecastle that chilly November afternoon in 1997. For me, that was always going to be a one-off experience which would never be replicated.

That was until Sunday afternoon, when I walked through from the Wheatfield concourse, clapped eyes on our resplendent new main stand and felt the same goose bumps and butterflies I’d felt as a fresh-faced 10-year old.

It had perhaps felt like a long time coming, but in that moment, the delays, the missed seat orders, the jibes from betting companies pandering to our rivals, the ridiculous hysteria generated by the media then lapped up by fans of seemingly every other club in the league: none of it mattered a jot.

Having been told for years that our stadium wasn’t fit for purpose; that it would soon make way for flats and supermarkets; that we’d have to take up permanent residence across the Western Approach Road in a rugby stadium; having diced with liquidation, we united, we defied the odds and we saved our club.

Three and a half years ago, an occasion like Sunday would have felt like a pipe-dream. Now, we have a physical reminder of our achievements in that short period of time — a monument to the hard work of so many Heart of Midlothian supporters, which will be enjoyed by generations of Jambos to come.

For that reason, there will always be something special about this stand that simply isn’t embodied by the other three, and although I’ll never replicate the feeling of seeing it for the first time again, I’ll always look across at it from the Wheatfield with a beaming sense of pride.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of what’s currently on the pitch.

Since the start of the season, as we scrapped for points during an extended period away from home in the opening round of fixtures, there was a widely held belief that our return to Tynecastle would provide the kind of boost we simply couldn’t get from a cavernous Murrayfield.

With the exception of the Aberdeen match, our performances at the home of rugby were nothing short of turgid, negotiating each fixture with the kind of game plan more suited to Gregor Townsend’s Scotland side.

That may have been easier to comprehend if we were adjusting to a larger pitch, but we even went to the effort of replicating the dimensions at Tynecastle, presumably to maintain some semblance of familiarity.

Then there was the suggestion that Tynecastle’s atmosphere would have a more positive impact than the soulless effect of a stadium two-thirds empty with stands further from the pitch. However, as Andrea Pirlo argued when asked about the effect of the San Siro prior to Italy’s World Cup playoff second-leg against Sweden:

“San Siro non segna, non ho mai visto un tifoso fare gol.”

“The San Siro does not score; I have never seen a fan score”.

In other words, it is up to the players to perform. Of course, we hear players wax lyrical all the time about the buzz they get from playing in an atmospheric stadium full of their own fans. Don Cowie, for example, spoke recently about his desire to regenerate the electricity that permeated last season’s wins over Rangers.

However, as Hearts fans (nay, any football fan) will testify, the lightning rod for an electric stadium atmosphere is a positive performance from the team itself.

This is where Pirlo’s words resonate, certainly as far as Tynecastle is concerned. When the team is on fire, it spreads throughout the stands and creates the sort of environment that plays to our advantage, but when the performances are as sub-standard as they’ve been in recent weeks, the mood curdles, the atmosphere becomes tense — at times toxic — and it reverberates back onto the pitch.

Given the nature of Sunday’s occasion and the positive buzz it generated in the stands, there was a real chance for the players to take advantage and effectively press the reset button with a positive performance.

Yet, as we’ve come to expect from this current crop of players, the opportunity passed them by. If there was a preconception that Tynecastle Park itself was the missing piece of our puzzle in the build up to Sunday’s game, it was exposed as a misconception by full-time.

I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly positive person. Since I started writing this blog, that tendency to look for the positives in even the most trying situations has sometimes provoked a backlash from fellow supporters.

Even in the wake of a poor derby display last month, I wrote about how I felt that Craig Levein and his players had it in them to turn this around in the coming two-month run of home games and how I hoped that the disappointment from the defeat to Hibs would inspire a reaction from the Hearts players.

When Kyle Lafferty put us 1–0 up against Rangers, I thought we had got that reaction. Since that moment, however, we’ve turned in a handful of performances that made the derby showing look competent in comparison. One point from a possible 12 later, I have to admit I’m questioning my previous stance a little. Can Craig Levein turn it around? In time, I still believe he can. Does he have the tools at his disposal to inspire that turnaround before January? I’m no longer sure.

As Levein has acknowledged himself, the squad is hopelessly imbalanced.

Sure, injuries haven’t helped at times, but for the most part our problems are our own doing: the complete lack of width; the absence of a proper midfield playmaker and, chief among them, the glaring left-back problem which has haunted us for nearly three seasons now. All have been noted by the head coach in recent interviews, however the extent to which he can rectify those in January seems to depend very much on who he can offload first.

With just over six months remaining on their contracts, the two most likely candidates for the January chop appear to be Viktor Noring and Krystian Nowak, neither of whom has made an impact this season. Both are dead-certs to be binned in the summer at the very latest anyway, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the club went down the mutual termination route a bit earlier.

Other candidates who are perhaps going to be harder to shift are Malaury Martin, Conor Sammon and Rafa Grzelak. The first two are unlikely to ever play for Hearts again and must certainly be the first two on Levein’s clearance list, however as they still benefit from the security of those much-maligned, cushy long-term deals the club tied them to, it’s hard to see a) another club coming in and at least matching those deals and b) either player being in any hurry to go.

Grzelak, meanwhile, looks like another gamble that has failed to pay off. Frozen out after a string of performances that made even Juwon Oshaniwa look like a mildly proficient left back, the Pole’s days at Hearts already appear to be numbered, save for the two-year deal he was signed to in June, which could be another sticking point come January.

Which leaves the possibility of selling actual squad assets, the most obvious of which is Jamie Walker. When asked about whether or not Walker would stay beyond the January window, Levein confirmed it was a possibility but that the final decision would be the player’s to make.

The situation with Walker has been, and still is, somewhat of a Catch 22 situation. Given how little impact he’s made in recent months, hindsight would suggest we should have cashed in over the summer. If that dip in form continues into January, any cash offer for a player who looks set to leave anyway would surely be welcome.

On the other hand, the only conceivable scenario in which a club is going to pay for a player they can get for free six months later, is if the player is on form and likely to benefit that team over the remainder of the season.

And this is where we have a conundrum. On his day, Jamie Walker is our best player — a match-winner — and it would be hard to let him go (particularly to a rival team) if he suddenly entered another of his purple patches in the coming weeks.

However, to borrow Bill Simmons’ “Ewing Theory” — whereby a team inexplicably plays better after their star player is removed from the team for reasons of injury or departure — I’m convinced that a January exit for Walker would actually benefit Hearts. After all, there are far more pressing imbalances in this squad right now, the kind of problems that not even an on-form Jamie Walker can compensate for alone. Letting go of one of our best players would therefore free up the necessary space on the wage budget to address those problems — assuming, of course, that we’d redistribute those resources more wisely than in recent transfer windows.

For the first time in the Budge era, we can say with absolute certainty that the buck for those recruitment decisions will stop with Craig Levein.