By Gerry Smith
It's been a long time coming but it doesn't make it any less sadder.
I can still remember the first time I saw Hearts. I was just a nipper. Ross County, then in the Highland League, were the team of choice. But everyone also supported a 'league' team. My Uncle Ian also followed the Jam Tarts, so naturally so did I.
It was a big, big day. Down South, Southampton were set to shock the world by nabbing the FA Cup from under the noses of Manchester United. At Hampden, I excitedly thought about seeing the likes of Drew Busby and Jim Jefferies lift the Scottish Cup.
42 seconds later my schoolboy dreams were shattered. In front of 85,000, Rangers had other ideas. Hearts indeed made a name for themselves that day though. In the world's longest running cup competition, they conceded a Cup Final goal in the quickest time ever.
Even as a 9 year old, though, their heroic failure endeared them to me even more. Relegation's soon followed. But then a resurgence from the most unlikely of sources. Uncle Ian and I filed out of Kilbowie Park, Hearts on the end of a 1-0 defeat at Clydebank.
Green Day had the right idea. "Wake me up when September ends." This was the end and the Edinburgh side had just 7 points from 8 games. A few weeks back they'd been gubbed 6-2 at St. Mirren. As we departed, me back to London and Ian back home to Inverness, he said gloomily "It's another relegation, isn't it." I could only agree.
October came and passed. Unbelievably, unbeaten. November. December. January. Not a defeat in sight. From nothing, Hearts had somehow hit form and hit the top of the SPL. The cultured play of Craig Levein at the back complemented the class of John Colquhoun in midfield and the deadly duo of John Robertson and Sandy Clark up front.
And so the run continued. February. March. Celtic were keeping pace. As were Dundee United, with games in hand. April arrived, as did the Jambos at Tannadice. Hearts swept aside the home title challenge 3-0. It was the mark of champions. And Cup finalists again too. Unbeaten in all competitions for 6, and as April ended 7, entire months.
Scotland was agog as April turned to May. It seemed as if the whole footballing world's attention was focused on Dens Park, home of lowly Dundee. All Hearts had to do, as in their 31 previous games, was to simply avoid defeat, and the title was theirs. But Uncle Ian knew. I knew. As the minutes ticked by at Dens it was like awaiting a firing squad.
Hearts lasted until 6 minutes from the end. Then it happened. They fell behind. Now suddenly chasing the game, they were hit by a classic sucker punch. 2-0. A big Celtic victory at the same time meant the title was wrenched back into the clutches of Glasgow. It's never left the Old Firm since.
Hearts, of course, fell apart after that, soundly beaten 3-0 by Aberdeen at Hampden in the Scottish Cup Final the following week. It was Alex Ferguson's last domestic honour with the Dandy Dons before his unheralded arrival at Old Trafford. On the Hampden pitch, surrounded by maroon shirted players on their knees, he kindly said "It's Aberdeen's day but it's Hearts season. Nobody will ever forget what they did."
Alex was right. It's never been forgotten. Anyone who knows of my Gorgie allegiances mentions that they remember "that season" within seconds. If Hearts had won the title and then the cup it would have been forgotten by anyone except their own supporters. The Tynecastle club had surely written a bit of niche history.
The years went by. Success, at last in the Scottish Cup. 1998 was the year of karma. Rangers beaten 2-1 on the back of a penalty for a foul that was clearly outside the area. In the first 30 seconds. With Hampden being renovated, the final had been switched. To Celtic Park. Oh my, such a sweet, sweet day.
It had followed a wonderful season where they had been a three horse race for the title. The Old Firm and Hearts. We all knew they'd slip away eventually, as they did in the last few weeks, but were cheered by at least putting a decent challenge in.
Then onwards to 2005. The reviled Chris Robinson had been replaced by Vladimir Romanov and his cronies in the Hearts boardroom. Romanov had boasted the previous year "It is inevitable that Hearts will reach the level of Celtic and Rangers." Time would prove him to be only half right .....
Meanwhile, manager George Burley had put together a side that again sat proudly atop the SPL table. Just one defeat in the first half of the season, winning the first 8 on the bounce. Romanov's reaction, for reasons still unclear bar the probable interference in playing matters, was to sack Burley. It inevitably came crashing down. Again the title was lost to Celtic. But this time by 17 points.
It's been a steady decline since then. On the pitch, there's been occasional success. Hearts at least finished 2005-06 with another Scottish Cup, beating the now defunct Gretna on penalties. And just last year, under the guidance of Paulo Sergio, came another Scottish Cup, this time gloriously, as Hibs were humiliated by their Auld Reekie derby rivals 5-1.
It came, though, with one arm tied behind his back. With Romanov at the helm, debts spiralled, and East European influences both on and off the pitch came in, whether anyone else wanted or needed it or not. Hearts gradually slid down the table. Then, last summer, Sergio was replaced by John McGlynn, a cheap and cheerful replacement, and the prized playing assets sold.
As Ross County came to town in October, share issue forms were being given out at the gate. The £1.7m raised, it promised, would be invested in youth. Days later, a £1.5m tax bill was revealed. The supporters weren't stupid. The Hearts Foundation was formed by disenfranchised supporters, having seen the demise of Rangers and knowing what was about to hit Hearts.
And so to now. The entire playing staff up for transfer. Even with thousands renewing their season tickets, and increased average attendances in 2012-13 despite the absence of Rangers and a third bottom SPL finish, Romanov bleats that they haven't the money to see out the summer.
A tax bill, which is thought to be less than £50,000, remains unpaid. The club is under a transfer embargo due to non-payment of player wages. And now administration, incurring a 15 point deduction at the start of 2013-14. Even if they survive that long, Hearts are assured of relegation, with no playing squad of the name to speak of.
We've seen it coming, ever since Chris Robinson pulled the Hearts purse strings as chairman, let alone Romanov. The writing has been on the Gorgie Road wall for so long it's begun to fade a bit. It's no surprise to many, almost inevitable, but seeing Hearts wither and die like this, well, it feels like a part of you has died with it.
The supporters, though, will endure. If necessary, a new club, a new chapter, a new history, will be written. And something that will never fade is those memories. Of '86 and all that, of those wonderful cup winners. Even as a kid, the hope and excitement just before kick-off in '76.
I'm heartbroken but optimistic. It's what Heart of Midlothian were all about. Heartbreak and optimism. After all, it's all we have left now.