Where did it all go wrong for Hearts?
After the talks regarding league reconstruction in Scotland have been discarded, Hearts face at least a season playing Championship football. Jamie Mcintosh takes a look at how the maroon side of Edinburgh have fallen at this sorry conclusion to their season.
With the Scottish Premiership looking set to be called as it stands after talks about league reconstruction were firmly flung off the table, Hearts are left facing next season in the Championship.
All teams in world football will lose serious amounts of money as a result of no supporters walking through turnstiles, however as far as Scotland is concerned, Hearts will be one of the teams worst affected by a lack of ticketing.
The Jambos are set to lose at least £3 million due to relegation and with a ridiculously large wage bill due to recruiting so many players and staff, Hearts surely need to start cutting their losses if they are to survive the current crisis. All this before the talk of legal action being taken by the club against the SPFL in response to them being “ejected” from the league.
So the question you need to ask from a Hearts point of view is, where did it all go wrong? To find the answer, we need to take a look back at when Hearts were last in the second tier of Scottish football – May 2014, when Ann Budge became the owner of the club.
In her first statement as owner, Budge said, “We must make changes. We must stop thinking short term. We must put in place a three–five year plan that will see our commercial activities totally revamped, such that they once again provide a solid financial under pinning to our football club; and we must also completely revitalise and re-focus the football side of our club.”
Six years on from the start of that so-called “three–five year plan,” Hearts will ironically find themselves back where they started – in the Championship.
Back then of course, the club was on its deathbed. They had received a 15-point deduction after going into administration in 2013, and relegation was inevitable. Off the pitch however, supporters rallied to raise funds to keep the club afloat before an Edinburgh businesswomen by the name of Ann Budge came in to help supporters save the club.
A not-for-profit organisation known as the Foundation Of Hearts was set up in 2010 by a group of local businesspeople. In 2013 the Foundation was opened up further and Hearts fans were able to join the foundation and make monthly pledges to help save the club during its time of need – something in which they duly did.
As of April 2020, the Foundation of Hearts pledgers had raised over £10 million pounds for the club. The vision of both the Foundation and Budge had was that Hearts would become a fan owned club by 2020, a goal which was well on its course to reality until the pandemic struck.
The 2014/15 season saw Hearts bounce straight back up from the Championship at the first time of asking, in record-breaking fashion. A seriously impressive feat considering Rangers and local rivals Hibs were also playing their football in the second tier that season. Hearts, under new management in the shape of former player Robbie Neilson, won 29 of the 36 league games they played that season, losing only 3. They racked up 91 points in total, finishing 21 points above second-placed Hibs and 24 above third-placed Rangers. In a league that promised to be a very tight 3 horse race, the maroon horse cantered to victory on the bridle.
In their first season back in the top flight (2015/16), Hearts arguably overachieved, finishing 3rd in the league behind Aberdeen and Celtic, with both clubs being expected to battle it out for the title in Rangers’ absence. This was a very promising time for Hearts and considering the position they were in three years previously, you could say it was beyond anything Ann Budge could have dreamt of.
Hearts soldiered on under Neilson, who was beginning to make a name for himself in the managerial world. Although he wasn’t particularly popular with some of the Hearts support due to this slightly pragmatic style of play, there can be no arguments that it was effective in the manner that got Hearts results.
There were strong rumours in December 2016 that Neilson was on the brink of moving to English outfit Milton Keynes Dons. After a 2–0 win over Rangers, which saw Hearts move into 2nd place in the league after 15 games, Neilson left Hearts to join MK Dons.
This, in my eyes, is where things took a turn for the worst.
A few days after Neilson departed, Ian Cathro was appointed as the club’s new manager. There was some reservation about this appointment, due to the fact that the former assistant manager of Newcastle had no managerial experience and a very short CV when it came to a playing career.
To put it bluntly, Cathro ruined Hearts. Evidently having no knowledge of the Scottish game’s physicality and frantic pace, he focussed on signing foreign imports who may have had good reputations, but were the wrong build of players for Scottish football.
Under Cathro’s “guidance,” Hearts were reduced from second to fifth in the league and were dropped out of the Scottish Cup by Hibs, with the eventual champions winning the replay at Easter Road after Hearts threw the tie away at Tynecastle.
Cathro lasted 7 months in the job before being sacked after a humiliating league cup group stage exit, which saw defeats to lower league sides Peterhead and Dunfermline. During his time at Hearts he created a mess, which was going to be very difficult to clean up quickly, especially considering his sacking was announced just a matter of days before the opening game of the new 2017/18 season.
Under 20’s coach Jon Daly took charge of the first 4 league games of the season before Craig Levein, the Director Of Football at the time, was appointed to take temporary charge and “steady the ship” after the failed experiment that was Cathro. Austin MacPhee would be his assistant alongside Jon Daly and Liam Fox, with Andy Kirk taking over the under 20’s side.
This decision made a lot of sense in my eyes. Hearts were a mess and at the time it seemed like we needed somebody who had experience with both the club and the Scottish game.
Levein ticked many boxes as a temporary solution to the clubs current problems. However, as someone who had previously managed the club to not a huge amount of success, and had also never won a trophy during his 35 years in football, many Hearts fans were unimpressed with his appointment.
Hearts had an uninspiring 2017/18 season, as many expected going by Levein’s previous managerial reign. However, he was brought in to steady the ship when the club needed a safe pair of hands and that is exactly what he did. He could return to his role as Director of Football with his head held high having done what was asked of him, while the search for a new long-term manager could continue through the summer months.
But no, that was far from what happened next. Levein remained Hearts manager for the following season to the disgust of supporters.
However, remarkably, at the beginning of the 2018/19 season, Hearts were a completely transformed team. New players such as Peter Haring, Uche Ikpeazu and the returning Steven Naismith saw Hearts go unbeaten in the league until October.
However, a ridiculous amount of injuries soon engulfed this Hearts side. Hearts had all three of their much loved new boys sidelined with injury, alongside club captain Christophe Berra. All of these injuries were long term and manager Craig Levein admitted in a press conference that he “didn’t know what to do” following these injuries to key players. Levein’s lack of options saw Hearts crumble and the club went on a wretched run of form for the remainder of the season.
A Monday night Scottish Cup quarter final tie away to lower league opposition Partick Thistle was the perfect opportunity for Hearts to lift the spirits of their disgruntled supporters and give them a Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden to look forward to.
After taking the lead early on in the game, it was Hearts’ game to lose. Instead of attacking against a fairly poor Partick Thistle team, Levein decided to defend the lead. In the second half, Thistle deservedly equalised. Hearts fans were furious with the tactics adopted by Levein and even at 1–1, Hearts continued to protect the scoreline, which would force a replay at Tynecastle.
As the full time whistled sounded, confirming the replay, Hearts fans reacted as if they’d been knocked out of the competition by the Championship side.
It was understandable however, as Thistle were struggling in their league and Hearts, especially after scoring early, should really have won without much resistance. I would say this was the game were Levein’s relationship with Hearts supporters was at a point of no return. Alarm bells were now ringing from a supporter’s point of view and you have to wonder if the Scottish Cup was the only thing that kept Levein in the job till the end of the season.
Hearts’ league form continued to be woeful. A derby defeat at home to Hibs meant the Scottish Cup semi final against Championship side Inverness the following weekend was a must win to calm supporters who were growing increasingly frustrated with the way the club was being run.
Hearts were booed into the Hampden changing rooms at half time with the game deadlocked at 0-0. This ended up pushing the Edinburgh side on as they came out in the second half and brushed Inverness aside, winning the match 3-0 and booking a place in the final, with Celtic chasing the famed “treble treble.”
The league season petered out with Hearts picking up a single point from their five end of season split fixtures to take us into the cup final. Hearts had finished sixth, a position in which Ann Budge had previously stated would be deemed “not good enough for a club of Hearts stature”.
The fans had the simple view that the cup final was the perfect time for Levein to bow out no matter what the result. If we won, it would be a fairytale ending to a poor season and if we lost, then it would a poor ending to a very poor season.
It is also worth noting that Hearts had an extremely easy road to the final, playing junior side Auchinleck Talbot, Partick Thistle and Inverness. There is a strong case to be argued that had Hearts played a Premiership team along the way, they would have been knocked out.
After the first 45 minutes of the final, Hearts had survived through what, admittedly, had been a fairly poor game of football. At 0-0 though, the Edinburgh side came out optimistic and opened the scoring through Ryan Edwards just seven minutes after the restart.
However, a rash challenge from the goalkeeping wildcard that is Bobby Zlamal gave away a penalty and unfortunately from this point, there was only going to be one winner and it wasn’t Hearts. Odsonne Edouard tucked away the penalty before springing a flimsy offside trap to score the winner.
I left Hampden that day not at all surprised by the result, but a bit more disappointed at the fact that we were so close to winning before mistakes cost us badly.
That brought an end to a rather sorry season in which many believed would be the end of Craig Levein. The warning signs were there for Ann Budge to see, Hearts were saved from relegation simply due to their good form in the opening 6 weeks of the season.
Michael Stewart highlighted numerous times on Sportscene that Hearts’ form between November to May was that of relegation candidates and should they stick with Levein, then Hearts would be relegated next season.
Needless to say, Hearts stuck with Levein.
Many Hearts fans I know had chosen to boycott matches and stop supporting the Foundation until Levein was sacked and while I continued to attend games and pledge my money, I cannot and will not blame any supporter who did protest.
In my eyes, Ann Budge has ruined a large part of the legacy she built six years ago due to the blind faith she had in Craig Levein. Budge is an extremely successful businesswomen but her football knowledge is limited, and that’s putting it mildly. The whole point in employing a Director of Football was that they would oversee proceedings on the pitch, while Budge would focus on the business side of the club. It sounds like a good plan until the Director Of Football appointed himself to be the manager… All jokes aside, it was believed to be a board decision that Levein took charge in the short term. A decision that got us in the position we’re in today.
August 2019 – the beginning of the new campaign. Hearts still had Craig Levein in charge assisted by Austin MacPhee, Jon Daly and Liam Fox.
With Hearts continuing to perform poorly, a 1–0 defeat at McDiarmid Park in October against Hearts’ bogey team St Johnstone courtesy of an ironic own goal from our captain finally spelled the end for Craig Levein.
Hearts were joint bottom of the league after the opening 11 fixtures, with their only win coming against Hibs – perhaps unsurprisingly, considering Levein’s impressive record against the Hibees as both a player and a manager.
On the 31st October, a day after the St Johnstone game, Levein was “relieved of his duties as manager.” He would remain at the club until the end of his contract however, much to the bemusement of, well, pretty much everyone.
I don’t really know how to explain Levein’s sacking, if you want to call it that. He still remains at the club in May 2020, with his contract having a matter of weeks left to run. Levein has overseen the worst Hearts squad for some time and also an unusual amount of serious injuries. Supposedly a Hearts fan himself, if he had any love for the club or the supporters, he’d have left the club a long time ago. Instead, even during this pandemic where clubs are struggling for money, Levein continues to steal a wage for wandering about in the shadows. It’s worth noting, rather bizarrely, that nobody actually knows what Craig Levein is getting paid to do at Hearts right now!
Anyway, with Levein no longer in charge fans were somewhat happier, despite frustration and confusion as to why he was still employed by the club. Austin MacPhee was put in temporary charge of the team while Budge searched for a new manager and also a new Director Of Football
Five and a half weeks later, with Hearts struggling at the bottom end of the table, the decision was finally made to appoint a new manager. This came in the shape of Daniel “The Diamond” Stendel. That’s not a wrestling nickname, but in fact a song Hearts fans adopted to show their appreciation to their new manager for coming in and “saving Hearts”. Something that looks a bit daft now.
Stendel had previously managed Barnsley and the feedback you read on social media from Barnsley fans was positive in terms of the way Stendel played the game. Plenty of entertainment and attacking intent – the polar opposite to Craig Levein.
Stendel’s tactics defensively were non-existent and it was very much a gung-ho attitude in terms of attacking style. We were all over the place in defence and some of the goals we conceded were comical.
Many fans have taken the approach that Daniel Stendel was the right man at the wrong time. While that point can be debated another time, the fact is that Stendel couldn’t save Hearts from the drop and having been in the job four months, he couldn’t lift Hearts off the bottom due to poor results in must win games.
The final game before the pandemic was a miserable 1–0 defeat in Paisley against St. Mirren. In terms of clichés, it was a relegation six-pointer, although you wouldn’t have been able to tell based on Hearts’ performance.
Hearts were atrocious that night. The players didn’t look like they cared and there was a sense of inevitability about it all as a long ball split our centre backs and Jon Obika bullied his way past some weak defending to score. As the full time whistle went, Hearts had lost yet another must win game and they now sat 4 points from safety with time, and matches to save their season, running out.
Hearts deserved to be relegated for their performance alone that night. Fortunately however, the pandemic provided a halt to my miserable afternoons and evenings spending my hard earned cash watching this hopeless side.
In my mind, there is no doubt Hearts would have still been relegated had the pandemic not arrived. Hearts’ inability to perform when it mattered most against teams around them in the league is what cost them this season, not coronavirus.
In conclusion, while things have been going wrong at Hearts for some time, I think the failure to sack Craig Levein at the end of the season in both 2018 and 2019 are the reasons Hearts will be in the Championship next season.
The warning signs have been there for some time, however Ann Budge chose to stick with Craig Levein for far too long, something she later admitted in an interview that she regrets.
And yet, he remains at the club.
There have been many baffling decisions at Hearts in recent years but offering Craig Levein a new contract would be the biggest mistake Ann Budge could possibly make. Making Hearts wear green home kits next season would receive a similar response to a new contract for Levein.
Ann Budge claimed in December 2019 after she had “sacked” Craig Levein that she wouldn’t rule out offering him a new deal when his current contract expires – quite a remarkable statement. Whether this happens or not is unclear, however one thing for sure is that if Craig Levein is offered a new contract at Tynecastle then World War 3 will begin. That, I can personally guarantee.