Tuesday, September 27, 2022

‘The Butterfly Effect Goal’ – How Hearts Came To Stare Relegation In The Face

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Everything can change with a one minute detail. This is the basic idea behind the Butterfly Effect theory. Its origin comes from Edward Lorenz, who used an example of a butterfly’s wings influencing a tornado several weeks in the future. Surprisingly enough Edward Lorenz was not a known enthusiast of Scottish football although his theory can be used when thinking about the ‘what if’ of Heart of Midlothian’s demise.

The summer of the 2015/16 season was carefree and joyous for fans of Heart of Midlothian. Rangers and Hibernian had been vanquished the season previous, in a blazing display of dominant attacking football and defensive steel. The club were one year on from the takeover by Ann Budge, a prominent businesswoman who, along with the support of fans group Foundation of Hearts, spared the club from turning into dust. A battle had been won, both on and off the pitch, and the performance of the players in a breathless Scottish Championship season led maroon minded individuals to stroll through the EH11 postcode, grinning from ear to ear.

And so it seemed to continue, as Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson won his opening five games on the return to the top flight, under the watchful eye of director of football Craig Levein. It was going better than expected, with many fans hoping for a top 6 finish after their promotion. A good run of form with some defeats sprinkled in meant by January, Hearts’ league rap sheet read: Played 22, Won 10, Drawn 6, Lost 6. A mouth-watering Scottish Cup tie against Edinburgh rivals Hibs in February then beckoned.

Darren Barr of Hearts celebrating scoring a goal
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND – MAY 19: Darren Barr of Hearts celebrates scoring a goal during the William Hill Scottish Cup Final between Hibernian and Hearts at Hampden Park on May 19, 2012 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

The derby match took place at a vibrant Tynecastle. Hearts fans were relishing in the opportunity to bask at their rivals’ expense, both by the fact they were a league above Hibs, and to remind them of the 5-1 final thrashing in 2012. Bask they did in the first half, as the terrific performance of Neilson’s men had the famous old ground rocking to a crescendo of songs and cheers.

Cue the second-half fightback. Hibs were magnificent under Alan Stubbs and, led by Jason Cummings upfront and an industrious John McGinn in midfield, began to probe and forced their way back into the game. Cummings gave Hibs the sniff they needed with a superbly guided looped header that left Neil Alexander stranded in goal. The away Roseburn end was now rocking. Hibs demanded retribution and could sense the uneasiness that rippled around Tynecastle. It was end to end, riveting football, the Scottish game at its relentless best.

Hibs fans were so desperate for the equaliser they were almost on the pitch. From a 90th minute corner, Neil Alexander pulled off an incredible point-blank save but when it came back out to Hanlon, he pounced with a superb finish on the stretch. The Hibs supporters behind the goal celebrated a goal that was to have a monumental impact for both clubs in months to come – the butterfly effect goal.

Boos resonated around Tynecastle and Neilson shuffled out to give his post-match interview, “We now have another derby game to look forward to, another money-spinner for both clubs, which is great.” His answer went down like a green lead balloon in Gorgie. Some felt his comments were unfortunate, given his side had been 2-0 up and cruising. Another issue that had fans grumbling was the imminent sale of star striker Osman Sow, so crucial during his season and a half at Hearts. The Swede had been left out of the derby despite Neilson suggesting he would consider him for selection.

Instead of Hearts cruising into the quarter-finals, the Hanlon goal ensured the replay went to Easter Road. Jason Cummings’ one goal proved to be the difference in the return tie. A thunderous din erupted around Easter Road as John Beaton blew the full-time whistle. Hearts trudged off, distraught. Hanlon’s colossal equaliser from the first leg had heralded a change in belief in the green half of Edinburgh. They went on that season to finally win the elusive Scottish Cup, ending an agonising 114 years without.

The Hanlon goal also changed the mood at Hearts. During a match in March, a small group of fans clubbed together to fly a banner over Tynecastle with the slogan ‘No style, No Bottle, Neilson Out!’. It prompted a bemused reaction from Neilson to the press. He had a point to feel this way considering he had his side sitting third with three wins from his last three games and his team were the second top goalscorers in the league at the time. It was, however, to be the beginning of the end. Neilson’s side finished 3rd in their return to the top flight, qualifying for Europe. However, by July their European campaign came to an abrupt end, as Hearts were dumped out by Birkirkara of Malta.

Neilson left Hearts in December for MK Dons. 31-year-old Ian Cathro replaced him, provoking a mixture of curiosity and bafflement from the usual red top columnists. He had never managed a club previously, however, was instrumental in developing the ‘Box Soccer’ training programme favoured by many coaches. The negative reaction from columnists prompted a furious backlash from fans, eager to give the ex-Valencia assistant a chance to mould a ‘new look’ Hearts.

He had the prime opportunity when taking on Neil Lennon’s energetic Hibs, buoyed by their historic cup win and likely ascent back to the Premier League. Similarities to the previous season became apparent when the Jambos drew with their rivals to set up the replay at Easter Road. Questions about Cathro hadn’t gone away, as he was far from media savvy. ‘What’s difficult about it?’ was his response when asked how hard it was to take Raith Rovers late equaliser in the previous round. He later expressed regret over the comments. Director of Football Craig Levein’s experiment in appointing Cathro was already beginning to look doomed.

It didn’t last long, with Cathro binned after nine months. It’s hard to pinpoint just one low point; there were that many. It felt like a small army of players were signed to fully implement his possession-based style. Very few, if any, were fully successful. The change in the mood from Neilson’s swashbuckling stars was now alarming.

After what felt like the lengthiest search for a new head coach from the director of football Craig Levein and Ann Budge, Scottish football took another sharp intake of breath as Ann Budge decided to appoint…Craig Levein. The jokes were aplenty as the media took great delight in the unusual decision to appoint the DoF as manager. The man who the media had accused of hiding in the shadows and meddling in Cathro’s role was ready to step back into the spotlight.

David Milinkovic makes it 4-0 to Hearts
17th December 2017, Tynecastle Park, Edinburgh, Scotland; Scottish Premier League football, Hearts versus Celtic; David Milinkovic makes it 4-0 to Hearts from the penalty spot in the 76th minute PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxHUNxSWExNORxDENxFINxONLY ActionPlus11963207

Levein’s high points were indeed the 4-0 win over Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic Invincibles and reaching the Scottish Cup final in 2019. However, he invested heavily in several players who offered little in return. Constant injuries and an unfortunate heart scare didn’t help matters. By the time Daniel Stendel was appointed to replace him, the damage had permanently been done. A curtain had been drawn back to reveal the growing horror of relegation.

The grim reality had finally dawned. It was Levein that was the constant between Budge taking control in 2015 to Hearts’ slide into the bottom spot. He had been there all along, a less impressive Keyser Soze character of a regime that had come full circle in 5 years. Budge played the role of duped detective Dave Kujan, falling for his crafty explanations and promises of a better tomorrow. Ask most Hearts fans, and they will point to the director of football as the key factor in the club’s alarming slide.

However, looking back at the ‘Butterfly Effect’ of that Hanlon goal all those years ago will still lead to many Hearts fans to wonder, what if? What if Hanlon had missed? What if Sow had stayed? Would Neilson still be there today, roared on by a united fanbase? Would Craig Levein be appreciated rather than vilified as the mastermind behind the scenes? Would Hearts have won the cup rather than their rivals? It’s a thought to ponder on.

Editorial Note: Did you know this article was published first on Patreon?

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