Lots Of Heart, Less Hope, Little Expectation
By Gerry Smith
It was a day a lot of people believed may not have happened. Just as many believe such days may be numbered. But let's deal with the present. For the moment, Heart of Midlothian are alive and kicking.
For the second successive summer, Scottish football has presided over a famous name being caught in financial meltdown and off-pitch turmoil. If last year's demise of one Glasgow giant was met with a hefty dose of Schadenfreude, this time around, green half of Edinburgh aside, it seems as if there's a lot more sympathy for the plight of the Jamboes.
With debts confirmed at £28.4m, a 15 point deduction for entering administration, and a transfer embargo on signing anyone 21 or over until February, the short term future looks extremely bleak for the Gorgie outfit.
As you can imagine, however, there's been a strong shout of defiance from Tynecastle. Answering the call, Hearts supporters, renowned for generating a great home atmosphere but sometimes thin on the ground, have bought season tickets in their droves.
Sales into five figures may seem less than impressive, but in a stadium that holds less than 17,500, and in a league where attendances are mostly well below 10,000, it's a statement that says to the SPFL, to the world, "We will NOT let this club die."
If things are precarious for the Jam Tarts, it's no better for the man who was the main architect of this mess, former owner Vladimir Romanov. Having fled to Russia, prosecutors in his home land of Lithuania are seeking his return over non payments of company debts.
One of those companies, for whom Hearts owe £15.5m, hold the deeds to Tynecastle as security. Mr. Romanov, however, is said to be retreating in his Moscow base, in a property said to be worth around £50m. The further East you go, the murkier and darker it seems to get.
At least on the pitch, Hearts have clarity. Starting 2013/14 on -15 points, with a squad where only a couple of players are over 21, with no prospect of signing anyone with any great experience on the horizon, everyone knows the task ahead football-wise. It seems almost as hopeless as their off-the-pitch prospects.
This is where, however, hope seems to always spring eternal. Despite all three bidders offers for the club being rejected by the administrators, Hearts supporters travelled up to Perth in great numbers to do the one thing they know best. Support their team and inspire the players. That in itself brings a bit more hope that a miracle, somehow, can be found.
With McDiarmid Park drenched in sunshine, the vociferous Hearts contingent ensured a crowd of around 2,000 above the St. Johnstone average from last term. Indeed, they made up almost two thirds of the 6,000 attendance. Just by being alive as a club on the opening day, it had become an event in itself, as one side of the pitch was swathed in Gorgie maroon.
The hosts, however, had finished an excellent third last season, had already disposed of Rosenborg in the Europa League, and had won away in Minsk a few days ago. They were and are an impressive outfit and, as the game wore on, will pretty much superior in every aspect of play. New boss Tommy Wright has simply kept things ticking over after the departure of Steve Lomas to Millwall, and they looked good. Very good.
The game was decided with just a single goal in the 25th minute. The long haired Stevie May crept into the left hand edge of the penalty area, and with what seemed like minimal space as the Hearts defence began to close, beautifully curled a low shot across the six yard box, past the despairing hand of Jamie MacDonald, and into the right hand corner of the net.
In truth, though, St. Johnstone won with much more ease than the scoreline suggests. Their back line was rarely troubled and Saints keeper Alan Mannus could have got a deck chair and good book out for long spells of the match, such was his lack of involvement.
In midfield, Chris Millar and David Wotherspoon were showing that sometimes you just can't beat experience, mopping up any opposition threat and getting the Saints moving forwards with timely tackling and accurate passing. Just the simple things, but on a scorching hot Perth day, so effective, making Hearts run and chase all through the increasingly tiring afternoon.
The only grumble the McDiarmid Park faithful may have had is the relative paucity of clear cut chances. Goal aside, Stevie May had a shot parried and then Steven MacLean a header pushed away by Jamie Macdonald with the space of a minute just before the hour mark. A number of corners and the inevitable scrambles inside the area aside, that really was more or less all St. Johnstone created.
It will be something to build on, to improve, however, for Tommy Wright and his coaching staff, rather than a real worry. Four games into their season, three wins, a draw, just one goal conceded, and progress in European competition beckoning. The good times really are here for St. Johnstone.
As for Hearts, though, with no shots on target, and a Callum Patterson effort in the first 20 minutes being the only half noteworthy attempt on goal for the whole 90 minutes, their problems are so much deeper. It's something everyone knew about though. A squad high on youth and eagerness, but with little or no experience. The 15 point deficit Hearts have looks like being one of permanence throughout 2013/14. If they survive that long.
But from such gloomy reveries, those magnificent Heart of Midlothian supporters, filling up McDiarmid Park, still with the temerity to mock city rivals Hibernian with Swedish flags after their astonishing 0-7 humiliation against Malmo in the Europa League, still singing, still chanting, still being there.
They are the very essence of Hearts. One way or another, as appertained to earlier, they will not let Heart of Midlothian die. That will be Scottish football's biggest victory of the weekend. And perhaps the season.
St. Johnstone 1, Heart of Midlothian 0