In the blue corner, Alex McLeish, only keeping his job because of European success; in the maroon corner, Graham Rix, in his job for reasons no one can fathom. Dianne Millen reports
Tired of the predictability of your domestic league? Hoping that more than two clubs might be in with a chance of winning it? The recipe is simple – just sell one of your clubs to a wealthy foreign businessman and watch the points (and the crowds) roll in.
Simple, indeed, or so it seemed till October. Since Hearts were purchased in February by Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov, thereby saving (for the time being) Tynecastle from being turned into flats, the Edinburgh club have provided neutrals with entertainment both on and off the pitch. On the park, the team started the season in perfect form, unbeaten until mid-October, helped by the sparkling form of midfielder Rudi Skacel, on loan from Marseille and scorer in each of his first seven games, shooting the Old Firm into the distance and promising a more open SPL for the first time since its inception.
Then, inexplicably, Romanov suddenly fired manager George Burley, who was quickly followed by the chairman and the chief executive. The maroon machine – and, with it, the promise of a more competitive league – stuttered. Hearts responded to the sacking of Burley by promptly losing for the first time in the season, a defeat made only the more painful by the fact that it was inflicted by local rivals Hibs.
His replacement Graham Rix was vilified by half the fans for being a convicted sex offender and by the other half for having no noticeable track record in management. Hearts won only one of his first five games and that was against hapless Livingston.
Meanwhile, Rangers have added to the general air of unpredictability. They have managed simultaneously to be the first Scottish club to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League while stuttering embarrassingly at home, not simply dropping points but scattering them indiscriminately up and down the country. Alex McLeish kept his job solely because of the draw with Internazionale that saw them through in Europe; Rangers go into this game a virtually unheard-of fourth, 15 points behind leaders Celtic.
So this is a meeting of two sides returning to earth, for different reasons – but not for the first time in this SPL season, activities on the park delivered considerably less entertainment than the manoeuvring off it. A chilly Ibrox, though packed out fresh from that European success, is none the less riven with a silent yet palpable tension. Not even the customary run-through of (carefully sanitised) Matchday Anthems (a CD now available from the club shop, to the excitement of the stadium announcer and absolutely no one else) raises more than a scattered, half-hearted chorus, despite the words being helpfully displayed on the video screens. Any atmosphere present comes from the small but determined coterie of Hearts fans stashed away in the corner. In between exhorting the world to “feed the weegies” (ie Glaswegians) and “let them know it’s Christmas time”, and requesting the return of their car stereos, they loudly enjoy the away-fan ritual of laughing at corpulent local “comedian” Andy Cameron as he runs on and off the pitch to read out the line-ups, stumpy legs pumping furiously in his disastrous light blue serge suit.
The match commences in a grumpy near-silence. So funereal are the first 15 minutes that one can almost hear the bronchial rasps of the ranks of nicotine-stained old men in their fur-collared car coats, sucking on badly fitting dentures and tutting in frustration as move after move disintegrates scrappily. Their younger cousins, wedged into the cramped stands like passengers on a charter flight, bulked against the cold by layers of red, white and blue wool, are no more overt in their disapproval. Whether hung over from the ecstasies of the Inter game, or blocked by the congealed residue of a season of frustration, all four stands seem unable to muster the energy even to criticise. Few join the whisky-breathed bawling of the gentleman in the row behind me as a tetchy chill descends, punctuated only by the occasional skirl of verbal abuse and the incongruously cheery flutes and hoots of the band in the family stand.
Only one man appears able to raise the home fans’ spirits to the point of song – slight, strawberry-blonde winger Chris Burke, not long back from illness, and determined to make up for lost time every time he has the ball at his feet. Again and again he tortures the Hearts left-back, Jamie McAllister, marauding up and down the right, gently turning the screw and the volume control on the still sluggish crowd. However, the downside of Burke’s youth and cheek is his tendency to want to beat seven defenders (some more than once) before crossing or shooting. More often than not, impressive runs from midfield terminate in a tame surrender of the ball.
Nevertheless, Rangers are the stronger team in the first half, with both Hamed Namouchi and Burke pulling impressive reaction saves from Scotland keeper Craig Gordon and then Marvin Andrews contriving to miss from all of six millimetres out. Each attempt draws a stronger wave of chorus from the awakening home fans, although the precise relevance of standing fetlock-deep in the body fluids of illegitimate Catholics remains unclear.
The opening goal comes from a predictable source – fresh from the equaliser against Inter and a more prosaic but equally crucial hat-trick against Kilmarnock, Peter Lovenkrands pounces on the end of a free‑kick flicked on from Namouchi to score his 11th of the season. As he heads for the corner to celebrate with the home support, lifted from their torpor into something approaching joy, Gordon and his captain Steven Pressley make straight for referee Mike McCurry, presumably to claim offside. Risky in itself, given the officials’ predilection for sending off dissenting Hearts players in previous meetings between the teams, and useless, as the goal stands.
Smooth as Rangers’ midfield passing has been, however, their final ball remains far from deadly and their growing dominance has more to do with Hearts’ apparent lack of any game plan, or indeed any sense that the men in maroon have even met each other before. At times – for example, when Paul Hartley advances towards the corner flag in the manner of an Italian protecting a one-goal lead in injury time – Hearts appear to be playing for a point. An odd strategy, since they are behind, and one loudly bemoaned by their still-singing fans. Their disarray is exemplified by a piece of slapstick just before half-time. Hartley and Skacel appear to need a referendum of the revitalised crowd to help them decide where to place the ball for a free-kick about 50 yards out (not helped by Mike McCurry’s inexplicable yet repeated insistence that they move it approximately two blades of grass north). When finally taken, the kick comes to nothing.
The second half sees Rangers apply serious pressure, but Lovenkrands is so wasteful. Fed with good passes from the indefatigable Burke, the Dane would have a hat-trick if the crossbar were 15 feet higher. Tension creeps back around the stadium, with fans recalling late Ibrox surrenders against Hibernian and Falkirk earlier in the season, but those remaining rather than heading for the subway can relax with eight minutes to go, when Hearts substitute Saulius Mikoliunas is sent off for attempting to dismember Barry Ferguson – doubtless bringing back unpleasant memories for the Lithuanian of another appearance against the hosts, which culminated in a butt for the linesman and a six-game ban for him.
So a sweaty, unattractive but vital three points for Rangers – and while many of their fans are still disgusted with the quality of the play on offer (indeed a few have headed for the pub at half-time) and the small margin of victory, this could prove a psychological turning point for both sides and is certainly a three-point gain for the fourth-placed team.
Whether this result will signal a resurgence for an unconvincing Rangers may depend on the outcome of the current contractual discussions, particularly given the role Lovenkrands has played. Although the programme rather generously attributes the striker’s recent streak of form to a stern talking-to from club stalwart and local broadcaster Derek Johnstone, the more cynical observer might suggest that it has more to do with the imminent end of the Dane’s contract (although at time of writing, he had turned down more than one offer from the club).
More significant, perhaps, will be the capture of SPL top scorer Kris Boyd from Kilmarnock. If Rangers can coax more performances like this from the mercurial Lovenkrands, and if goal-poacher Boyd succeeds where many before him have failed in sustaining his form in a light blue shirt, they may yet pull back the ground lost to Celtic over the first few months of mediocrity. More important, for those not entranced by the interminable stand-off between Glasgow green and blue, is where this defeat now leaves Hearts.
As Alex McLeish observes, this is the same Hearts team as has been together all season. How can the maroon machine that happily scythed through its rivals in the late summer sunshine, winning handsomely when playing well and winning narrowly when playing badly, have turned into this confused group by only midwinter? One half of Edinburgh and everyone else in Scotland who had been looking forward to a change of scene at the top want to know.
Given the fate of Rix’s predecessor, perhaps the first manager in history to lose his job off the back of an unbeaten run while sitting top of the league, it’s not surprising that the manager seemed preoccupied with his own role after the game. “I don’t know what it is,” he says. “We have to get together and have a little chat about it. I spoke to them before the game about being positive, but we never really came out of the traps. Am I doing the right things or saying the right things?”
So while the resumption of normal SPL service in the sense of Rangers pushing Celtic at the top of the table may not be imminent, on the evidence of this display it will not be Hearts providing what competitive sparkle remains. But those who are hoping the early promise of a revitalised SPL will be realised throughout a full season may yet see their wishes come true – thanks to Tony Mowbray’s young Hibs side, clear of Rangers and looking to put some serious pressure on Hearts. Neutrals, at least, will be hoping that Hibs, if not Hearts, succeed.
From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month