It is February 2016, a cold night at the end of a long winter. In a dark corner of an Edinburgh pub a group of men sit in conversation. They are rebels, true believers, hatching a seditious plan to topple a regime.
They want to take down Robbie Neilson, a likeable young man who bears the burden of managing the football club they support. His record’s no worse than most other Hearts managers but it’s the style of play they don’t like. He’d played for Hearts just a few years previously, a storied career which saw him captain the club, lift the Scottish Cup, score a famous goal in Europe and earn a testimonial before leaving for the riches of the English game. But he’s a boring manager, his detractors argue. Defenders shouldn’t be allowed to run clubs.
They’re determined to find a new way to express their frustration, booing just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore, so this unhappy band are going to let the manager – and everyone else in Edinburgh – know exactly how they feel. They’re going big, and going high, chartering a light aircraft to tow a banner across the sky as the Jam Tarts play far below.
It’s not their first meeting, in fact there’s a rumour this hapless mob tried to get their protest off the ground a few weeks earlier – they’d originally planned to fly over a packed Tynecastle as Hearts played Celtic between Christmas and New Year. The timing made sense, the team had gone four games without a win at that point and there was discontent aplenty in the stands, but, rumour has it, the conspirators had blown their savings on festive nights out. No money, no protest – if only they hadn’t been tempted by that awful office Christmas party.
They were jaded, frustrated and grounded for a few weeks until they could cobble some more cash together, but they were no less determined.
By the time the group had the funds back in place, Hearts were, somewhat inconveniently, back on track. Other than a slip up at Tannadice, they hadn’t lost a game since the start of January, a great run of form which began with a six-nil battering of Motherwell. The Jam Tarts were, frankly, flying.
“Still, can’t be helped”, reasoned our bold boys; they’d bought the banner so up it went.
It was a weird spectacle, a tiny single-engine aircraft flying so high the message trailing behind it was barely visible. “NO STYLE, NO BOTTLE, NEILSON OUT!” it read. The plane buzzed above the ground for ten minutes or so, then buzzed off. On the pitch Hearts cruised to another three points against Partick Thistle, cementing third place and a spot in Europe.
It was all just a bit odd. The banner brigade were at the extreme end, granted, but there was a large element in the Hearts support who backed the sentiment, a vocal and sizeable group for whom, win or lose, the manager simply wouldn’t do.
Neilson laughed off the stunt after the match but he was gone by the end of that year, preferring a future at MK Dons to another full season as the target of supporters for whom three points were never enough.
So the malcontents won? Well, not really, no. Hearts replaced Neilson with Ian Cathro, a young and wholly inexperienced coach. That experiment lasted just eight months and yielded a meagre seven wins from 30 games.
Next in the dug-out was Craig Levein. Oh dear, the boo-boys really didn’t like him at all. Towards the end of his two-year tenure a cordon of police officers held back a baying mob of supporters who were trying to storm the stand to get at him.
In fact the only coach who went down well at Tynecastle in recent years was Daniel Stendel, an affable German who managed just seven months in the job and got the club relegated.
Given the evidence above, it’s fair to conclude the Hearts support are a tough bunch to please. One man can take the team into Europe and be hounded out of the club, while another can take them down the divisions, get his jotters, and leave town a hero. Again, odd.
Now, of course, Neilson’s back. He’s been in charge at Hearts for two full seasons. The first saw them promoted back to the Premier League as champions, where, after some sensational work in the transfer market, they finished third, securing European group stage football.
At the time of writing, midway through season three, the side are heading for Europe again, sitting comfortably, if not unassailably in that “best of the rest” spot below the Old Firm.
Neilson has built on his own progress, playing well in the transfer market and curating a dressing room full of players who’ll put everything on the line for each other. After a goal – and there are many – the celebrations are telling, every outfield player is involved, there’s genuine delight for each other and big grins and clenched fists for the boss. Neilson, still relatively young, kicks every ball with his squad. They know it and they respond.
The boo boys? Oh no, they still don’t like him, obviously.
You’ll never hear Neilson’s name sung at Tynecastle. Despite all the success there’s never been a Robbie Neilson song and nor are we likely to hear one. Among the Hearts support the manager sits alongside religion and politics as subjects best left undiscussed, topics with instant potential to divide opinion and spoil the mood.
Despite all the success a resentment still simmers in the stands and it’s rarely too far from the surface. If anything goes wrong – anything – Neilson is to blame. Zander Clark drops a cross? “Neilson out”. Ginelly misses a sitter? “Neilson out”. Gorgie Farm’s to be turned into flats? “Neilson out”.
The players get the rough end of it, too. It’s rarely edifying when fans boo their own team and at Hearts these days there’s plenty of that. During a tough run of games earlier this season the centre-back, Toby Sibbick, was booed ONTO the pitch when he appeared as a second-half sub. Already struggling with a crisis of confidence he had another stinker, proving the malcontents with more ammunition.
It’s all just very odd. I’ve spent long
afternoons in my seat at the back of the main stand trying to work out what’s changed in the Jambo dynamic. I still hear pundits and players describing the ground as “a fortress” but anyone using that term hasn’t been there recently.
Tynecastle is a great stadium; steep, high and tight. I’ve a million treasured memories of wild days and nights there; Ian Ferguson’s goal against Bayern, Jose Quitongo’s last minute leveller against Celtic, any number of John Robertson strikes against Hibs. These days, though, it takes a lot to get the Hearts fans going. The big nights under the lights used to be electric, but even our prolonged European run this season failed to properly ignite.
It can’t just be the style of play. Neilson has a reputation as a boring, cautious manager but in truth when this Hearts side hit their straps they can push forward with an energetic flair. This is not an average squad, it’s a good side, expertly assembled and well coached. The whole is unarguably superior to the sum of the parts.
Perhaps success itself is the problem: have the Hearts support been spoiled?
For generations we watched our club win nothing. By the time I saw Hearts lift a trophy it was their first in almost half a century. Now, anything less than a semi-final spot is deemed a failure, and a European place is the benchmark in every league campaign. There’s nothing wrong with high hopes, of course, but there’s a chasm of difference between ambition and expectation.
Anne Budge, without whom there would be no Hearts, is a controversial figure at Tynecastle. That’s another mystery. Many clubs would have erected a statue to her outside the stadium by now, instead she’s derided by that same section of the support for whom nothing will ever be good enough.
There’s something of the “troubled republic” about Tynecastle these days; a government runs the place efficiently from a secure headquarters in the capital, but the rumblings from the mountains up country are never far away.
Perhaps that explains how the different managers have been received. Daniel Stendel; a failure, ultimately, but a rebel, brought a high risk, high-press, buccaneering style of football, refusing to conform even when everything was on the line. The restive elements of the population loved him, whereas Levein and now Neilson are very much Government men, beloved of the board room, therefore less trusted in the stands.
This useful analogy is complicated, however, by the fact that Heart of Midlothian is owned by its supporters. Shelling out more than a hundred thousand pounds in donations and direct debits every month, they’ve pumped more than fourteen million quid into the club over the past decade. Ultimately, then, the power lies in the hands of the people. It’s not quite a democracy, but nor is it a dictatorship. The Government need to keep the voters onside.
And there are green shoots growing at last in that regard. The atmosphere is creeping back into the stadium with the emergence of a group who call themselves the Gorgie Ultras.
Just a few short seasons ago the club went to war with this “young team” of fans. Their behaviour inside and outside the ground had left much to be desired, individuals were banned and blocks of seats were closed off at home games in an effort to calm the unsavoury fringe down or drive them away altogether.
But somehow, since we’ve all emerged from lockdown, a compromise seems to have been achieved and now this rowdy group is breathing a bit of fresh life back into the place. It is much needed.
They march to the ground in impressive numbers, then stand (not sit) in the sections Ms Budge had once shut down. They set off flares and pyrotechnics, they bang their drums and they sing – not only when we’re winning.
There’s direct dialogue with the board, peace talks which, it’s rumoured, could soon result in the Ultras getting their own dedicated standing section of the ground.
None of this, of course, will win Robbie Neilson a place in the hearts of every Hearts supporter (it’s difficult to imagine what would) but it’s progress.
The Gorgie Ultras are young and rough around the edges but they’re bringing a noise and a positivity that Tynecastle’s needed for years. They’re a new generation, the club’s future, and as supporters they’re giants compared to the clowns who sent up that ridiculous banner.