Continuing our look at the key Hearts men in recent decades ….
After a 2nd relegation in 1979, Hearts started the decade in the “First Division” with a team devoid of any star players. Against the backdrop of low crowds and outbreaks of hooliganism at places like Dumfries and Methil, Hearts doggedly succeeded in winning the Championship in 1980 under new manager Bobby Moncur. However the old problems – lack of goals – re-surfaced the following season as Hearts finished bottom of the Premier League in 1981 and faced their 3rd spell of relegation. With Hearts staring at financial ruin, the team`s lack of experience and spark was there for all to see.
Who, then, could have imagined that an exciting resurgence lay just round the corner ?
Starting with those dark days, here are my pick of the key figures who turned Hearts fortunes around and turned the 1980s into one of the most exciting decades for the fans.
With a debt of a quarter of a million pounds and the club relegated once more to the First Division, the Hearts board had run out of ideas on how to keep the club afloat. They announced that the club was for sale to anyone who would take up a new share offer. Local bookmaker Kenny Waugh (a well-known Hibs fan) submitted an offer, and for a while it looked as if Hearts and their supporters would have to take a leap of faith into the unknown – the club being owned by someone whose motives were highly suspect.
We have our former playing hero Donald Ford to thank for alerting a wealthy acquaintance of his to the impending plight of the club. Wallace Mercer had made his money in the Edinburgh property market, despite being a Glaswegian with more of an interest in rugby than football. He responded to Ford`s promptings, and eventually submitted his offer – and the Hearts board voted 3-2 to accept it instead of Waugh`s.
Despite having no experience of running a professional football club, Mercer was a flamboyant character with a flair for publicity who quickly found out that intuition and guile were needed to keep the business going. He quickly spotted the management potential in veteran ex-Rangers midfielder Alex McDonald, (cleverly recruited by Bobby Moncur in 1980), and appointed him player-manager – a move which was to be the catalyst for Hearts resurgence in the 1980s as a strong force in Scottish football.
From 1982 onwards, Mercer cleverly oversaw the strengthening of the playing staff and balance sheet. After selling John Robertson to Newcastle in 1987, he was astute enough to realise the true importance of our star scorer, and pounced a year later to bring him back. In 1990, he launched a controversial take-over bid of Hibernian. Although the financial reasoning behind such a move was sound, the football emotion within a 2-club city back-fired on Mercer when his house and family were threatened by angry Hibs fans. The move sparked a “Hands off Hibs” campaign which was ultimately successful with the help of Tom Farmer.
Mercer started to withdraw from his own businesses in the early 1990s, spending long periods in France amid rumours of ill-health. Consequently, he slowly lost the spark of everyday involvement with decision-making at the club, and eventually sold his majority shareholding to Chris Robinson and Leslie Deans in 1995.
Despite suffering from terminal cancer, he found enjoyment in the resurgence generated by Romanov in 2005. His death came in January 2006, and an award was named in his honour in the Hearts Hall of Fame – a fitting accolade to a man who took over at a real low-point in our history and took us on an amazing roller-coaster ride which brought some great players to the club and came agonisingly close to delivering trophies too.
As Hearts descended into the First Division for the 2nd time in 1979, few fans would have thought it possible to attract a player with a pedigree such as “Doddie”. A tenacious midfield player who had won all domestic trophies (several times) plus the European Cup Winners Cup with Rangers, his influence and ability were not reflected by his single international cap for Scotland. Amazingly, his Ibrox team-mate John Greig (when he became manager) decided that Alex was no longer worth his place at the age of 32 and agreed to sell him to Hearts in 1980 for £30,000. His experience and background brought a fresh spirit and professionalism to Hearts just when it was most needed, and he willingly combined playing and management duties until 1984, when he decided to hang up his boots. He added several ex-Old Firm players over the years in an attempt to drive Hearts into the top 3 each season, such as Sandy Jardine, Willie Johnston, Roddy McDonald, Jimmy Bone, Sandy Clark, John Colquhoun, Dave McPherson and Derek Ferguson.
A favourite memory is the first Derby game for 4 years, in August 1983 at Tynecastle. McDonald was a substitute that day, and the team had youngsters Dave Bowman and Gary Mackay in midfield. Sadly Hearts were over-run in that area in the first half, and Hibs went in at the interval leading 1-0. The player-manager came on at half-time to replace Mackay, and the transformation was astonishing. It was if everyone was inspired by McDonald`s mere presence – suddenly the midfield started winning the ball and using it wisely. The 3 goals scored by Hearts that day to win the match have passed into legend (2 from Robbo and the winner from Jimmy “the Bear” Bone) – yet the contribution from Alex was immense.
McDonald brought in Sandy Jardine from Rangers in 1982 at the age of 34 to be his assistant player-manager – and they assumed “co-manager” roles in 1986, until Jardine was dismissed in 1988. Following a disappointing start to the 1990/91 season, McDonald was dismissed – rather rashly I thought.
With his Tynecastle career spanning the entire decade, there`s no doubt in my mind that Alex McDonald`s place as a post-war Hearts icon is thoroughly merited.