Sunday 19 November and I am in Edinburgh to watch Heart of Midlothian’s first home league game of the season.
Heart of Midlothian, the club that most assume was named after the famous novel written by Sir Walter Scott as part of his Waverley trilogy. The truth is much simpler although far less romantic . The name refers to a nearby nightclub of yesteryear.
I have always maintained a deep affinity with Hearts due to the fact that we both shared a club legend. The celebrated Alex Young, best known to Everton fans as the Golden Vision had formed part of the unforgettable Hearts team that had won the Scottish League in both 1958 and 1960, the last time that Hearts were to win the title. Everton paid a fitting tribute to Alex when he died this year but Hearts were equally as respectful in their commemoration of one of their own. The match programme for their first home game after his passing featured a twenty-page homage to the Golden Vision and the Hearts fans paid a moving and fitting tribute to their hero at Tynecastle.
But it is not just Alex Young who links the two clubs. David Weir, was signed by Walter Smith from Hearts in 1999 and went on to become Everton captain for over five seasons when David Moyes assumed control. The clubs also share the common frustration of having blown a chance to win their domestic doubles in the 1985/ 86 season as Everton lost their points advantage in the league by losing 1-0 to Oxford United and then fell to a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool in the F.A. Cup final. At the same time, Hearts needed only a point at Dundee to win the title but conceded two goals in the last eight minutes to hand the trophy to Celtic. This was followed seven days later by a cup final defeat to Aberdeen by three goals to nil.
In common with many football clubs, both Goodison Park and Tynecastle have spectator facilities which were designed by a certain Archibald Leitch, the Isambard Brunel of stadium architecture. Six of the eight venues used in the World Cup in 1966 showcased structures designed by the man himself. Goodison still has two stands which bear the legacy of Leitch and until last summer Hearts had been welcoming supporters to their Main Stand which had been designed by Leitch in 1914. So today is a historic occasion in the life of the club and indeed British Architecture as the club is about to unveil the grand opening of its new main stand, the newest structure in these Isles to replace Leitch’s monument.
The building of this new facility has proved to be incredibly complicated. It was originally scheduled to be ready for the start of the new season but there were several delays in construction which meant that the unveiling has been postponed until now. Hearts have been forced to play their first four home league fixtures “over the railway” at the home of Scottish rugby – Murrayfield, a transition which was not totally successful as it resulted in just one home win. In addition, Hearts arranged for two of their original games to be switched to the home of their opponents with the outcome that by mid- November the team are lying in the bottom section of the league table. To make matters worse for the Jambos, they lost in the league at Easter Road, home of their deadliest rivals Hibernian.
It has been a hugely frustrating time to be a Jambo, as Hearts supporters are known. After a calamitous League Cup campaign, in which they lost to the minnows of Peterhead, the club took the decision to relieve the much- criticised young coach Ian Cathro of his duties. Many fans were looking for a big- name appointment to be headhunted. Instead they got Craig Levein, who was already in post as Director of Football and who many fans considered as equally culpable as Cathro. In 2009 Levein, as Scotland manager, had devised a revolutionary innovative 4-6-0 formation which meant that the team played with no strikers! It didn’t work, Scotland lost 1-0 to the Czech Republic and his reputation has never really recovered.
The construction of the new structure had surprisingly become an unexpected tourist “must see” destination, even gaining an entry on Tripadvisor’s things to do in Edinburgh. Most days a motley collection of genuine Jambos and day trippers could be seen taking photographs of the ongoing project. There was a growing air of anticipation as the club crest was installed on the exterior of the gleaming, pristine frontage.
Sadly, Archibald Leitch is still the source of one of my most embarrassing moments as an adult. In 2012 I was on a family holiday in New York and undertook a routine bus sight seeing tour. I knew that football (soccer) had grown in popularity in the USA and when the young tour guide pointed out an apartment building and proceeded to explain that the famous Archibald Leitch had lived there I was impressed. I never realised he had bought an apartment in New York. She then asked our motley crew of world denizens, Europeans, Japanese, Russians and North Americans if anybody knew who Archibald Leitch was.
There was an eerie pause. I looked around, no response was forthcoming. I was so impressed that our tour guide was obviously such a massive football fan that I had to intervene and enlighten my fellow passengers. I blurted out that he was the world -famous football architect who had designed some of the grandest stadia in Britain from Goodison Park to Ibrox. There was no stopping me as I name checked the numerous grounds he had been involved with. It was then I noticed that the tour guide was on the point of summoning assistance via her walkie talkie. Then it dawned on me that she meant Archibald Leach, more famously known by his screen name of Cary Grant. An easy mistake to make. Sometimes being a football anorak can have its disadvantages.
The main stand at Hearts was one of the last remaining examples of the architectural genius of Archibald Leitch to still be in regular use, almost eighty years after his death. The passing of this structure deserves to be commemorated, having served the supporters of the club for one hundred and three years. To many fans, the paraphrasing of a classic Kinks song would some up their emotions;
“the day they knocked the main stand, part of my childhood died, just died”
Leitch based his design of the structure on a similar prototype he had devised for Sheffield Wednesday, with the edifice running the full length of the ground which was unusual for the times. It was officially unveiled in October 1914 but due to the costs of construction almost doubling from the original estimate, Hearts were forced to sell their star player Percy Dawson for a club record fee of £2,500 to Blackburn Rovers to cover the cost. ( Shades of the Emirates perhaps?).
1914 is also a significant date in the history of the club for another far more significant reason. In the patriotic fervour that engulfed the nation at the start of World War One, Hearts became the first football team in the British Isles to sign up en -masse. Seven of the team lost their lives during the conflict, three of them at the Battle of the Somme. Another seven players were so badly injured that they never played football again. As the press proclaimed, “There is only one football champion in Scotland and its colours are maroon and khaki”. Inside the stadium there lies a statue and plaque to commemorate those who died. The club and fans never forgot the sacrifice.
Apart from some minor alterations , the main stand remained unchanged for most of the remainder of the century. It survived the implementation of the Safety of Sports ground act in 1975 and the Taylor report in 1990. The biggest threat to the survival of the stand came from the various proposals for Hearts to relocate to a new stadium. Reportedly between 1990 and 1993, the club considered up to fourteen potential new sites and even a potential ground share with Hibernian until a combination of circumstances meant the redevelopment of Tynecastle was the only option.
Over the course of the next two decades, Tynecastle was transformed as a stadium. Three brand new all seater stands were constructed as eventually it assumed the appearance of a modern football venue. In 2008, the then owner Mr Vladimir Romanov submitted plans for the construction of a 10,000-capacity structure to complete the redevelopment of the ground but as the club went into administration in 2013, those plans were shelved. Leitch’s legacy survived yet again.
Yet, for all the emotional attachment the club had with the historic main stand, it was looking increasingly incongruous next to the modern designs that occupied the other three sides of the ground. The modern supporter demands higher standards in terms of match day facilities and with the need to generate more income from corporate hospitality, the end was inevitable. The curtain came down during the summer of 2017.
Although the unveiling of the new main stand attracted scant coverage south of Hadrian’s wall, it was receiving extensive attention in the Scottish media but not necessarily for reasons that the club would have liked. The original schedule had envisaged that the new structure would be operational by the end of September, but this was then rescheduled for Sunday 5 November. Fans were expecting that this delay was due to some unforeseen construction issues or the discovery of a rare protected species of bat habitat having been discovered. As supporters started to ask questions of the contractors, the club was forced to come clean. The truth was far more worrying, the club had neglected to order new seats on time and failed to ensure that the company prioritised their request!
However, as the first weekend in November approached it was becoming increasingly obvious that the building project was nowhere near to being completed. The Edinburgh Evening news ran an extensive feature which showed photographs of the nascent main stand that still looked far from completion. It came as no surprise when Hearts had to switch another “home” fixture to Murrayfield stadium, where a crowd of over 16,000 which would almost constitute a full house at Tynecastle, was almost invisible in the 67,000-capacity arena. Hearts lost 2-1 to Kilmarnock and the team was booed off the pitch. A return home to Tynecastle was needed now more than ever. The planned unveiling of the replacement for Archie’s legacy was now pencilled in for Sunday 19 November.
Then, on Tuesday 14 November Hearts fans experienced yet another moment of déjà vu as the media started to speculate that even this date was now in some jeopardy.
Apparently, officers from the City of Edinburgh Council had assessed the building and had concluded that they could not issue the relevant safety certificate as the required standards had not been met. Hearts were forced to take the unprecedented step of informing the Scottish Premier League and Partick Thistle that the game may have to be postponed. However, the club assured fans that they would be “working around the clock” to ensure the game went ahead. That same day, the Edinburgh Evening News ran another feature showing photographs of all the work that still needed rectifying, it wasn’t encouraging.
By Friday 17 November it was still unclear if the fixture would take place. Sky Sports had finally caught up with the story and it was now meriting a sentence or two in the English press. Safety officers had reassessed the new stand again but had judged that it had failed to meet the necessary standards so they could not issue the mandatory paperwork. However, they insisted that they would be available at any time in the next two days to inspect the site again. Social media went into overdrive, with many demanding that the fixture be transferred to Partick’s ground or that Hearts should suffer a points deduction. Many commentators dared to suggest that if either Celtic or Rangers had been the visitors, the Scottish Premier League would have already called the game off, but little Partick with their limited fan base could be manipulated.
Saturday morning, still no official confirmation and then, finally at 9p.m. the news appeared on the official Hearts social media outlets, the game was on! Undoubtedly, it always pays to read the small print.Yes the match was definitely going ahead but subject to a “cursory” final check by Safety Officials at 10 a.m the next day!
Amazingly, it was announced at 10 the following morning that the final inspection had been successful! Football had returned to Tynecastle! Sadly, this news came far too late for the majority of Thistle fans who voted with their feet by selling only 579 tickets for the fixture. Who could blame them?
The home of Hearts is a difficult place to find if you are unfamiliar with the locality. The only other ground I can think of where access to the stadium is this complicated would be Luton Town. The arena is hidden by rows of old style tenement blocks and cul de sacs which lead you to a brick wall. Simon Inglis referred to it as “deliberately concealed ……. gripped in its tight urban embrace.” There appears to be no obvious access. Only one of the nearby side streets seems to provide access to the entrances. Bizzarely, the main entrance gates provide the only entry to three of the main stands!
Nevertheless, the area of Gorgie Road, with its tenement blocks, corner shops, take away cafes and the famous Tynecastle Arms pub speaks of a club rooted in the history of the community. For any football traditionalist this place is heaven and you just sense the ghosts of seasons past as you stroll towards the gates with three generations of Jambos from the same families and not a selfie stick or fifty/fifty scarf in sight.
Hearts had planned a spectacular opening event for the new stand, which looked hugely impressive but in my opinion not a patch on the original Archibald Leith structure. The guest speaker was a certain Nicky Campbell, quite ironic having the Watchdog presenter here given the chaos that had led to this game almost not taking place. The club mascot, Jock the Jambo tried to work the crowd by showing some deft touches, little did the spectators realise that this would be the highest level of skill on display for the afternoon. This culminated with a performance of the Hearts club song by the lead singer of the world -renowned band the Frightened Rabbits. It was almost a Live Aid moment.
The match itself was hardly worth the wait. Hearts took a lead early in the second half, but Patrick equalised with five minutes to go. Outside the ground, there was a problem with the turnstile scanners which meant that many fans did not get to witness the celebratory pre-match entertainment as the turnstiles would not allow them access. Perhaps Archie was trying to tell them something.
As more and more clubs, my own Everton included, see their future in a brand new state of the art stadium it is reassuring to see that Hearts have decided to stay and rebuild rather than move on to some out of town soulless monstrosity. You only have to look at West Ham to see what can happen when a club decides to abandon their traditional roots in search of a supposed brighter future.
Heart of Midlothian , firmly rooted in the beating heart of the Gorgie in Edinburgh for over one hundred and thirty years! The club that listened to its supporters and stayed!