The rise, and possible fall, of the Edinburgh football club Heart of Midlothian is a morality tale of modern soccer. It is also a story about Scotland's relationship with the beautiful—and cruel—gameby Harry Reid / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Celtic and Rangers, the so-called old firm, are Scotland’s two most famous football clubs. Their intense and visceral rivalry is rooted in the country’s sectarianism, which seeps out well beyond their home city of Glasgow—including into Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, 45 miles to the east.
Celtic have a dual identity, being both Irish and Scottish. Brother Walfrid, the founder of the club, aimed for social integration: Celtic would be a club that both Irishmen and Scots could support. But even to this day, many Celtic supporters believe that their club represents an exiled people, and that any success it gains is compensation for generations of suffering. This gives an atavistic potency to the fan base. The 1920s and 1930s saw bitter industrial agitation in parts of Scotland. On Clydeside, and in the coalfields of Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Fife, many of the Catholic Scottish-Irish moved en masse into the Labour party.
Rangers also draws on powerful feelings and symbols, and, like Celtic, express only a qualified Scottishness. The club is closely associated with unionism. There was at one time in Scotland a very strong link between unionism, Orangeism and the Tory party. While Celtic fans were joining the Labour party, Rangers were often associated with the Conservative and Unionist party, as it was then known. One of the leading figures in the pre-war Church of Scotland, John White, led overtly racist campaigns against Irish immigration to Scotland. He asserted that a superior race was being supplanted by an inferior one. He demanded the deportation of Irish-Scottish Catholics. When accused of religious bigotry, he blithely explained that his campaign was being pursued entirely as a racial rather than a religious matter. Nonetheless, the Church of Scotland has always been associated with Rangers, the Catholic church with Celtic. And the flags that the clubs’ fans wave tend to be Union Jacks (Rangers) or Irish tricolours (Celtic). You rarely see Scottish saltires at either ground.
It may seem odd that tensions from three or four generations ago can still infest a significant part of Scottish football, but they do, and there is nothing to gain from ignoring the fact. Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent academic historian, has edited Scotland’s Shame?, a book of essays on bigotry and sectarianism in modern Scotland. He told me: “The horrors of the 1920s and 1930s in Scotland were racist rather than religious, and the racist element is still potent to this day, partly because of Northern Ireland. The split is there in Scottish civic society and we cannot deny that this is what gives the old firm its continuing power. Yet if you look just about anywhere else in Europe, including England, this racial baggage is relegated to the past… I think that the safety valve argument—that the old firm provides a useful conduit for the release of anger that might otherwise manifest itself in more dangerous ways—may have had merit when there was still structural sectarianism, when there were few mixed marriages and so on. But that is almost dead. On the other hand, what I call attitudinal sectarianism is actually growing. Although the religious passion isn’t there—most old firm supporters never go near a church or a chapel—I know many intelligent, educated and prosperous people who can hardly cope if a result goes against them. These tensions now seem more powerful than ever.”
Edinburgh has its own two clubs, Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian, and their provenance to some extent mirrors that of the two grisly titans of Glasgow. Hibernian, usually known as Hibs, was founded in 1875 and from the beginning enjoyed the support of the city’s expatriate Irish community. Hearts, on the other hand, was associated with British patriotism, as the club proved spectacularly in 1914 when the entire first team volunteered in the Royal Scots. Seven players failed to return from the war, and two of those who did struggled to resume their playing careers, having been gassed in the trenches.
Hearts, helped along by associations (however tenuous) with that Edinburgh Tory Walter Scott, whose finest novel was entitled The Heart of Midlothian (1818)—though the club was actually named after a dancehall of that name—was always the city’s establishment club. Hibs had a more raffish and bohemian pedigree; its players tended to be cavaliers, and the club was not averse, over the years, to recruiting exciting non-Scots. These included the mercurial English centre-forward Joe Baker, who had two stints at the club, and even the late George Best, who had a few games in the evening of his fitful yet gorgeous career. And although both of the capital’s teams remained in the shadow of the two behemoths in the west, they have not been wholly bereft of the curse of sectarianism: witness the Scottish cup semifinal between Celtic and Hearts last April, at which a large minority of the Hearts supporters noisily interrupted the minute’s silence for Pope John Paul II.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, as soccer’s power and wealth became more concentrated, Celtic and Rangers extended their hold in Scotland. They had always dominated the Scottish game, although there had been the occasional assault on their pre-eminence, as when Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen won the league three times between 1980 and 1985. But they now began to exploit their worldwide fan base and turn themselves into brands. (I know one Rangers supporter who, when he took his seven-year-old son to his first game, found it very hard to persuade the youngster to leave the club superstore to watch the actual match.) The stadiums were expanded and even bigger cohorts of season ticket-holders were recruited. The trick was to make them pay for all games, the dire ones as well as the big ones (and alas, in the lopsided Scottish Premier League, there were too many dire ones against lesser teams beset by a chronic poverty of ambition). Large sums were spent on players, many of whom moved on in the blink of an eye. And the gulf between rich and poor continued to grow. For example, on a Wednesday evening in October 2004, Celtic played a league game at home against Aberdeen. The crowd was just over 57,000. At the same time, much further north, Inverness Caley Thistle hosted Dundee; the attendance was 1,254.
I cannot think of any league anywhere in the world with a disparity on that scale: two games involving four clubs in the same league of 12 clubs playing at the same time with one crowd well over 40 times bigger than the other. Scottish football was always predicated on the romantic notion of the wee guys beating the big guys, but this was ridiculous. And so the two great Glasgow clubs seemed to have completely outgrown the Scottish game, with its proud emphasis on tradition and its blazer-ridden old-fashioned governance.
And yet, by other criteria, the Glasgow giants are not that big. They are not members of the G14, the unofficial grouping of Europe’s super-elite clubs. While some would welcome them into the English premiership, others, especially at European football’s governing body Uefa, worry about the precedent that such a move would create. Would the three top Portuguese clubs, far ahead of their rivals, be allowed to join the Spanish league? A more likely short-term home for the old firm would be the Uefa-sanctioned Scandinavian Royal League, for the elite clubs of Denmark, Norway and Sweden—although most of those clubs are much smaller than Celtic and Rangers.
So the old firm is too big for Scotland but too little for the European big time. Yet, ironically, many European leagues, including the English, now find themselves in what might be termed a “Scottish situation.” Thanks to the disproportionate rewards that go to the biggest clubs—and the way that success can now be “locked in”—only two or three clubs have a decent chance of success in most leagues.
Meanwhile, the Scottish situation has continued in its predictable routine, with two disliked megaclubs scrapping for all the spoils and everyone else looking on, beset by frustration and resentment. Hearts and Hibs, for example, long seemed devoid of serious ambition. They drifted along, with average attendances of around 12,000. Until suddenly, at the start of this season, all this changed. Hearts swept to the top of the Scottish Premier League, and stayed there.
In April 2004, Hearts had appointed a new chairman, a politician called George Foulkes. He in turn brought in a new major shareholder, a new chief executive and a new manager. This quartet presided over a quiet revolution. Would the old firm’s dominance finally be smashed? There were many doubters, and Edinburgh was awash with rumours of personality clashes and power struggles behind the scenes at Tynecastle, Hearts’ compact and venerable old ground in the west of the city. While everything was progressing with such serene smoothness on the pitch, most fans ignored the gossip about backstairs turmoil. But tensions were building. Despite the success on the field, the quiet revolution transmuted into spectacular, noisy civil war at the end of this October. To understand what happened, we need to know a bit more about the four key figures at the club.
First was the chairman, George Foulkes, a New Labour loyalist who had served as a minister in two of Tony Blair’s administrations. After stepping down from the Commons at the 2005 election, he was elevated to the peerage as Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. An ebullient and capable man, his fondness for whisky led to a notorious altercation with a policeman in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster in 1993, when Labour was in opposition. The episode seriously damaged his career; without it he might well have been in the cabinet with his colleagues Robin Cook, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, all of whom had also served apprenticeships in Edinburgh politics.
Like many Scots, Foulkes had lived a double life geographically, representing an Ayrshire constituency to the west of the country but choosing to spend much of his time in Edinburgh, where he had been an enthusiastic Hearts supporter for more than 25 years. His love of the club was, and is, sincere. And his essential footballing decency is shown by the fact that he refused a salary as chairman.
Foulkes was not even a director of the club when, while in Mexico as part of a Council of Europe delegation, he was contacted and offered the chairmanship. To a man, his friends and advisers told him not to touch the job. But George ignored them, and one of his first tasks as chairman was to bring some financial muscle to the club in the shape of the small and dapper figure of Vladimir Romanov, a very rich 58-year-old Lithuanian businessman.
Romanov was ecstatically received in west Edinburgh as the Scottish version of Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich. Foulkes used this period of euphoria to ensure that the club remained at Tynecastle—there had been a proposal to sell the old ground to a housebuilder and move Hearts to Murrayfield. The prevention of this was in itself enough to turn Foulkes and Romanov into folk heroes.
The two other members of the new quartet were Phil Anderton, the new chief executive, a competent corporate figure with a forceful personality who had previously run Scottish Rugby Union; and the club’s new manager, George Burley, a former Scotland full-back who had achieved some success in charge of Ipswich and Derby in England and was known in the game as an astute coach, even though, like his new chairman, he was partial to the occasional drink.
Everything seemed to be progressing well—and so the events that took place at the end of October could hardly have been imagined. First, Burley was fired on the 22nd after one too many rows with Romanov. This came despite the fact that his team was sitting, splendidly, atop the league, having beaten Rangers and drawn with Celtic in a memorable game in Glasgow that month. Foulkes says retrospectively that he should have resigned at this point, but he decided to remain in post because he felt that he could be a calming influence at a club that was now in crisis.
Three days earlier, Johnny Haynes had died. Haynes had been an exceptionally gifted forward with Fulham and England in the 1950s, and the first £100-a-week footballer. When he retired he moved to Edinburgh, where he and his wife ran a dry-cleaning business. Haynes became a committed Hearts fan and his fine footballing pedigree represented a link with what many traditionalists thought was a more decent era. There was something especially poignant about his death at this turbulent time, particularly as he died in a car crash near Tynecastle. His funeral, on 27th October, was attended by leading football personalities from north and south of the border, just a few days after Burley had left the club in a hurry.
That evening, after the wake, Foulkes was in good form at a literary party in Edinburgh’s old town. He thought he had steadied the ship. And he was telling everyone that he was confident that the departure of Burley was a mere blip and that a high-profile replacement coach, possibly the ex-Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri, was about to be appointed. But four days later the chief executive, Anderton, was fired by Romanov after a stormy board meeting. Foulkes concluded that he now had no option but to resign. Romanov rushed across Scotland to Foulkes’s house in Ayr to plead with him to stay, but Foulkes stuck to his course. Within a few days, Romanov had installed his son Roman as chairman and chief executive.
For the bemused Hearts fans, worse was to follow. Burley’s replacement turned out not to be Claudio Ranieri, but Graham Rix, a former Arsenal and England winger who had failed as a manager in brief stints at Oxford and Portsmouth. To compound the disillusion, the coach was well known for having served several months in prison after being convicted of having sex with an underage girl in 1999. He was still on the sex offenders’ register. This aspect of his past brought out the best and the worst in the club’s supporters. The more charitable insisted that Rix had been punished for his mistake, and should be given time to prove himself. The rest decided that Rix had shown himself to be a man of dubious character; moreover, a consequence of his misdemeanour was that he was banned from working with young people, and a club like Hearts needed to concentrate on youth policy, whatever Romanov’s reputed millions. (After the appointment of Rix, that weasel word “reputed” began to insinuate itself as a routine qualification when allusions were made to Romanov’s wealth.)
The brouhaha about Rix’s personal background deflected attention from his record as a coach and also from what appeared to be the increasingly tyrannical disposition of the Romanovs. Yet at the time of writing, in early December, Hearts are still flourishing on the field. They no longer head the league but are second, trailing Celtic by just three points.
So what lessons, if any, can be drawn from this strange story of a Scottish football club? The main one is that everything in modern football seems to be done in a great rush: appointments, sackings, signings. Yet unless football clubs have a huge fan base or a super-rich chairman or both, the best approach must surely be to grow organically, producing home-grown players. This involves the long and patient process of youth development. The pre-Foulkes dispensation had bequeathed Hearts something very precious: a state of the art training complex on the Riccarton campus of Heriot-Watt University. Hearts players now had access to the best of contemporary sports science. The Hearts training staff no longer had to beg, steal or borrow training facilities across the city and beyond, and ferry players around from field to field.
Such basic things as training facilities and youth policy can often be eclipsed in the modern game by the big signing or the boardroom power struggle. And the taken-for-granted fan, forced to dig into his pocket for ever pricier seats, is usually painted as the innocent victim of this “quick-fix” culture.
But the truth is more complex. The fans are often the strongest advocates of the quick fix, and they are no longer powerless bystanders. The rise of the fanzine, the phone-in, the internet chatroom, the gossip factory—these have given fans a voice, and they make it heard. Fans now communicate with each other and with the wider world loudly and constantly, and they demand speedy success. Managers are under pressure after just a couple of bad results and money is seen as the answer for everything—go out and buy a couple of stars, preferably big-name foreigners, and everything will be fine.
Few directors, let alone chairmen, have the resilience to resist fan pressure for instant action. They are, after all, fans themselves. And some of the Hearts fans who were so sentimental about the club’s past that they were hostile to proposals to sell the old (and inadequate) ground and move to a new stadium saw no contradiction in embracing as owner a man they knew nothing about, a man who had no understanding of the club, its achievements and failures, its traditions and aspirations. Rather, they received him with open arms because he was very rich and so would, they hoped, provide instant success. His lack of knowledge of their club was not an issue. Romanov actually has interests in various football clubs in eastern Europe as well as a wide range of businesses across several countries. He owns an aluminium smelter in Bosnia and textile factories and a bank in Lithuania. Before Foulkes brought him to Tynecastle, he had looked at three other Scottish clubs.
The point is that of the quartet described above, only George Foulkes had any long-standing Hearts connection. And he had a vision for the club. He knew that the club’s stadium had to be in full use more than just once a fortnight, that the club needed to be more involved in the community, that it needed to attract more young people and women and families to games, that it needed restaurants and a hotel.
But did he too allow the yearning for glory to subsume his vision? Did the fan in him, frustrated by years of failure, reach out too quickly for success? Maybe. But perhaps the above account is too bleak, too conservative. Perhaps the Romanovs will transform Hearts, and create a new power in the east, a club able to mount a real challenge to the old firm.
Meanwhile, Scotland continues to be obsessed with football, not least because Scots well understand that football, as well as being the beautiful game, is also the cruel game. This is because the outcome of a game of football, unlike tennis, golf, rugby, cricket or basketball, is decided by very low scores. Most organised football games across the globe finish with three or fewer goals having been scored.
When three or fewer goals are scored over a minimum of 90 minutes, there is obviously scope for unfairness, even grotesque miscarriages of justice. You can be defeated, and legitimately assert that you were robbed. Thus we have the syndrome of glorious failure, so beloved of so many of us Scots.
I remember driving back with some pals up the M6 the day after England had beaten Scotland 5-1 at Wembley in 1975. As we passed an ancient bus, weighed down with a sizeable squad of the bedraggled tartan army, belching smoke as it laboured over Shap, we noticed an improvised banner draped across the back window. It read: “Ye couldnae make it six.”
Perhaps we have indulged this kind of thing for too long. Perhaps the Romanovs, father and son, will wake us up and shake us out of our nostalgia.