London Hearts Supporters Club

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George Burley <-auth Mike Aitken auth-> Craig Thomson
[R Foran pen 75]
21 of 021 Rudi Skacel 40 ;Edgaras Jankauskas 70 L SPL H

Trauma makes Hearts stronger


OUT of the shadow of division which stalked Tynecastle these past few years, the lustre of achievement surrounding Hearts' five consecutive wins in the SPL this season burns all the more brightly because this unexpected flicker of promise arrived so soon after the threat of total eclipse.

Compared to the dissent which raged around the old stadium only a matter of months ago, when the threat of removal to Murrayfield was at its height and the club's very survival seemed in doubt, the sense of expectation and mood of celebration which grips the place today has created the most exalted atmosphere in Gorgie since that famous Sunday in the spring of 1998 when Jim Jefferies brought the Scottish Cup back from Glasgow.

Hearts, of course, have won the first five league games of the campaign in the top flight before - as recently, in fact, as 1983 when St Johnstone, Hibs, Rangers, Dundee and St Mirren were all defeated in succession. Then, as now, supporters returned to back the side in growing numbers. When Hearts met Aberdeen (who would go on to win the championship by seven points) at the beginning of October, the attendance of 18,200 was 2,000 more than watched Rangers. Two goals from Aberdeen's Peter Weir, however, put paid to the hopes of the daydreamers in the west of Edinburgh. By the time Motherwell came to visit the following Saturday, the easily discouraged among the fraternity had bolted and the crowd dropped to 7,900.

The difference between 1983, when Hearts were newly- promoted and eventually pleased to finish fifth, and 2005 is marked. Although idle talk of winning the championship receives no succour from either the boardroom or the manager's office, the bond between the club's followers and the men who pick the team as well as run the business is stronger than it has been for years. While it may be unseemly early to evaluate the worth of a side barely on first name terms, George Burley's men are the first outwith the confines of Celtic Park and Ibrox to create a buzz in Scottish football since the dawn of the new century.

"We know it's very early days and no-one here is making any silly claims," observed George Foulkes, the Hearts' chairman, yesterday. "But there's a different feel surrounding the club than I can remember experiencing in a long time. We've had good runs in the past. This is something else. There's no doubt that part of the explanation for this 'feelgood' factor is that just a couple of months ago we had lost some really good players to Craig Levein at Leicester, we were manager-less and at a very low point. I think the contrast between where we were then and where we've come already is such an enormous and rapid change.

"We were a family at war for a time. Now everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. That's reflected in the boardroom as much as anywhere else. We're inviting people to the directors' box who are keen to support the club, whether they be potential investors or sponsors. On Saturday, we welcomed the actor, Ken Stott, as well as Gary Mackay, who had never been invited before."

Few with any knowledge of Hearts' history would take issue with the supremacy of Tommy Walker's team which won the league in 1958. Before Skacel gets too carried away, Jimmy Wardhaugh, who scored 37 goals in all that season, contributed five goals in five successive games not once but twice. With Dave Mackay, John Cumming, Willie Bauld, Jimmy Murray, Alfie Conn, Alex Young and Ian Crawford also surviving from the side which won the Scottish Cup in 1956, this was vintage Hearts.

The 1965 team, which lost the league to Kilmarnock on goal average, could boast Willie Wallace, Roald Jensen and a budding newcomer in Donald Ford. Jefferies' Scottish Cup winners had David Weir, Gary Naysmith, Colin Cameron, Neil McCann and Stephane Adam. As for the chairman, the Hearts' side which gave him most pleasure was Alex MacDonald's team of 20 years ago which featured Craig Levein, John Colquhoun and John Robertson before falling over the final hurdle at Dens Park.

On the evidence of the last month or so, George Burley has assembled the strongest Hearts' starting XI since Joe Jordan's side finished runners-up in 1992. The explanation for this remarkable turnaround, according to Foulkes, can be traced to the appointment of the manager himself. "If there's been a master-stroke, it was getting George as our manager. We had to persuade him that this club was worth his attention. But George has already said to me he's now very glad he came. He realises the immense potential of this club, which he hadn't grasped from afar. I spoke to George yesterday and told him I thought the real miracle was how he's been able to find these new players.

"Many people are asking 'How on earth were these guys not snapped up before by someone else?' I wouldn't say we've got anybody on the cheap or at knockdown prices, but we've been able to recruit good players at fair rates."

The man responsible for nudging Hearts into sunshine out of shadow, Foulkes is as accessible to the paying customers as any chairman in the SPL. "A lot of our fans speak to me, they stop me in the street and lean out of cars to wave," he said. "They are all very appreciative as well as excited and enthused about what's happening at our club. That's why we've just had the unique experience of putting up the 'house full' signs for the visit of Motherwell. Can anyone remember the last that happened? We've also taken 6,200 tickets for our next league game at Livingston and expect to sell them all.

"But we must keep our feet on the ground and our expectations for the season remain the same. We look to finish third, qualify for Europe and strive to reach one of the cup finals. All our plans for the season assume no more than that. I must admit, though, as we notch up the victories, the nerves before each game grow incrementally worse..."

Taken from the Scotsman

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