London Hearts Supporters Club

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Board split on Hearts coach


HEARTS’ hopes of qualifying for Europe for a third successive season hang in the balance this morning, and so too do John Robertson’s prospects of keeping his job. The Tynecastle manager’s fate will not depend on the result of this afternoon’s Edinburgh derby, but that should not be a source of consolation to him, for the blunt truth is that even if his side win handsomely at Easter Road he may still be sent packing after just a few months in the job.

Robertson has known since November, when he moved from Inverness to take over from Craig Levein, that his position would be reviewed in June. He was aware, too, that the post at the club he had graced as a player probably came too soon in his career as a coach. Realising the chance to manage Hearts might never come again, however, he decided he had to take the job.

Whether he is still in office come the end of the season will depend on the outcome of deliberations within the split Tynecastle boardroom which have been going on for some time. Vladimir Romanov, Hearts’ principal shareholder, is keen to see evidence of progress as soon as possible, and his representatives on the board will not let sentiment deter them from making difficult decisions. They may have paid lip service to Robertson’s status as a Hearts legend, but they are well aware that the goalscoring exploits of decades past do not pay the bills in the here and now.

If Robertson is given longer to prove his worth, it will probably be because of the persuasive powers of George Foulkes. Unlike his Lithuanian colleagues on the board, the club chairman has first-hand knowledge of Robertson’s role in Hearts’ history, and also has a keener awareness of the place the former striker has in the affections of the team’s supporters.

If Foulkes is to win more time for the manager, though, he will have to convince Romanov’s appointees that Robertson, although not yet the ideal man for the job, has at least shown the potential to become such. The team’s record since November will be one measure of that suitability, but perhaps of greater importance, so will Robertson’s behaviour in what might be termed the diplomatic side of the job.

To take the footballing evidence first, there is little doubt that, under their new coach, Hearts have played a more open and enterprising style of football. At or close to their best they have played with a brio which Levein’s side managed only on those rare occasions when Jean-Louis Valois was on song.

On the debit side, their defensive record has slipped. As a result, they have lost the indomitability which often wore down lesser sides.

It is hard to envisage the highlight of the season, the last-gasp UEFA Cup victory in Basel, being achieved under Levein. With the teams locked at 1-1 and time running out, his instinct would have been to shut up shop in the knowledge that a point would still have left Hearts with a chance of qualifying in the final group match.

It is equally difficult, though, to imagine the Leicester City manager having presided over some of the team’s poorer recent performances. Having dominated the first half against Hibs as they did last week, for example, the Hearts of seasons past would have closed the game down.

Levein’s cautiousness was a source of frustration to the fans at times, which is why Robertson’s more outgoing approach was initially welcomed. What the Hearts board want now, though, is a synthesis of the two types of coaching: the successful and the entertaining.

The jury is out on how Robertson has fared on the field, and even the remaining five matches may not produce a clear verdict. What if, for example, Hearts finish fourth, a point behind Hibs? Having gone to extraordinary lengths to blame an official’s decision for their home defeat by Rangers, the board could hardly scapegoat the manager.

Off the field, on the other hand, Foulkes or any other advocate of Robertson’s will have a far harder time building a positive case. The coach has shown little sign of growing into the job, or even of understanding how the manager of Hearts is expected to behave in public.

In his early weeks in the job he regularly lambasted referees. At the end of his team’s last UEFA Cup tie, he kicked out at the Ferencvaros coach - then, as if unaware of the number of cameras at the match - denied having done any such thing.

Since the turn of the year, while calming down about match officials, Robertson has failed to become more diplomatic in other respects, and at times has simply seemed overwhelmed by the demands on him. He has endured the strains on his personal life of relocation to and from Inverness, and his - at times - unkempt appearance has attracted adverse comment.

Adherents of the old school of Scottish football may wish to argue that what you do in your own time is a private matter, but the reality in the new environment at Tynecastle is that being the Hearts coach is essentially a 24-7 occupation. The Lithuanians are models of courtesy themselves, and are used to similar behaviour from others: they have grand ambitions, and want a manager who can be a plausible embodiment of those aspirations.

To be fair to Robertson, in different circumstances he might well have fared better - if, for instance, Hearts had appointed a senior Scottish figure as director of football. Donald Park, his second in command, is a calmer figure, but does not have the assertiveness required to persuade Robertson when it is time to bite his tongue.

Anatoly Byshovets, who was mooted as director of football before being given a less hands-on role, is certainly assertive enough. But he lacks local knowledge, and appears to operate more happily on his own, as a sort of super-scout, than as part of a management team.

At times, though, Robertson has compounded the difficulties of his circumstances by making life difficult for himself. On occasion he has been reduced to self-pity, and after Hearts lost to Dundee United last week he talked of how mistakes by players cost coaches their jobs.

Yesterday, by contrast, he was in a more buoyant mood when asked if he felt that either the board or the supporters had expected too much too soon from him. "There’s always expectation there," he said.

"The fact that Hearts have finished third in the last two seasons means that’s the expectation level for the following season. That’s just the way it is.

"Teams like Hibs and Aberdeen have been fortunate in the respect that they finished in the bottom six last year, so both have probably exceeded their expectations [this season]. At Hearts our fans demand that we do well and finish third in the cup.

"There’s five games to go, we’ve still got an outside chance of qualifying for Europe, we’ve been to two cup semi-finals, we’ve been in the UEFA Cup group stages. So all in all I don’t think it’s been too bad a season."

Not too bad indeed, for those Hearts fans accustomed to the dreary years of struggle. But probably not good enough for a board intent on achieving rapid growth.

Taken from the Scotsman

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