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A hometown hero

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Saturday 14th May, 2016

Tynecastle, Edinburgh

The final whistle sounded and as one, nearly 17,000 heads sank into hands. Tears began to flow and friends turned to each other for consoling hugs. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This sort of thing was supposed to be behind us. A few moments later, scarves were lifted above heads, tears still rolling down cheeks but defiance summoned from somewhere deep inside.

Hearts, Heart, glorious Hearts. It’s down at Tynecastle they bide…

The song was belted out as loudly as I’d ever heard, louder than when the inevitable relegation had been confirmed two years previously, louder than when Hibs were pummelled 5-1 in the Scottish Cup final of 2012. Players began to pick themselves up from the turf and applaud the noise coming from the stands. The Motherwell players had gathered in front of their small band of traveling fans in the Roseburn stand, wildly celebrating their survival but whatever noise they were making was being drowned out.

I took a moment to let the atmosphere wash over me, turning from my spot on the halfway line in the Wheatfield to look around the ground and see the anger in the faces of my fellow supporters. Twelve months ago it had all been so different. I’d walked onto the pitch at the end of a long career, having helped my boyhood club back to the top flight. I could still feel the Championship trophy in my hands, taste the champagne that was sprayed throughout the night and into the early morning. Now I was just a fan, back to the days before I got paid to wear the maroon shirt, and I was watching on as the club which meant everything to me was being consigned back to the dustbin of the Scottish game.

To make matters worse, that same Championship trophy we had lifted a year ago was now being held aloft at Easter Road. We would pass them like ships in the night, the pride of Edinburgh was no longer Gorgie. Those ******** from Leith would never let us forget this, you could feel them waiting with their taunts. They’d take as much joy in our relegation as they would their own promotion.

In truth, I had never believed it would end this way. Not when our inconsistent form saw us struggle in the bottom four for most of the season, nor when defeat against Inverness Caley Thistle in April sent us crashing to the foot of the table with just four games remaining. I’d sat in this same seat three days earlier when Miguel Pallardo, Juanma and Arnaud Djoum destroyed Kilmarnock and sent us into the final day feeling on top of the world and with a fighting chance of staying up. It was more than a fighting chance. Four teams could still go down and we faced one of them on our own patch. It was done and dusted. We were staying up.

But there were no goals. Chances came and went, but there were no goals. On the final day of the season, with everything at stake, not one of the four teams who stared relegation in the face could muster a goal. But nor was the point we picked up enough. Kilmarnock had been two in front of us, so their defeat against Partick Thistle left them agonisingly out of range. Ross County went into the day a point clear, but in Dingwall they clung on for dear life to a goalless draw against Inverness. They clung on by their fingernails and kicked us down into the abyss.

For some say the Rangers and Celtic are grand, but the boys in maroon are the best in the land.

Aye, and we will be again. One day.

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Wednesday 18th May, 2016

Tynecastle, Edinburgh

“It goes without saying that the past twelve months have been difficult for Heart of Midlothian. Following the euphoria of winning the Championship after coming out of administration, we went into last season with high hopes and a squad we were convinced was good enough to secure a top six finish. As the season went on and it became clear that was not going to be the case, we gave Robbie Neilson and his coaching staff every opportunity and resource the club had to turn the situation around. Unfortunately, it was not enough and once again we find ourselves facing a season in the second tier of the game. This time we cannot blame the rules, the points deduction, or anything but ourselves. As a club we were not good enough.

Therefore, it is with sadness that I must announce that the club have today parted company with Head Coach Robbie Neilson and Director of Football Craig Levein. We thank both Robbie and Craig for their dedication to the club and their efforts in winning us the Championship title in 2015. We wish them every success in the future.

Our search for a new Head Coach and Director of Football begins immediately, and we will search far and wide to ensure we bring in the right people to restore Hearts to the top table of the Scottish game, where this great club belongs.” – Ann Budge, Chief Executive.

I finished reading and stared blankly at my laptop screen. It was no surprise really; the rumours had been circulating for months that Neilson was gone at the end of the season whether we stayed up or not. Even in the Championship winning season there had been doubts among some fans over whether he was tactically up to the job in the big games and the subsequent relegation seemed to prove those doubts true.

The media seemed to be parading the same tired names they did for every job, Billy Davies, Stuart McCall and the likes. Ray McKinnon got namechecked in a number of places after taking Raith to the play-off final before losing out to Kilmarnock, but there was little to be excited about. Then, buried away deep in one article on Neilson’s sacking was my name. I did a double take. I read the paragraph again. And again. It was definitely there.

“Some at the club believe that former Jambos midfielder Patrick Weller would fit the profile of the young, talented coach that they want to bring in to replace Neilson. Weller, who was part of the team that lifted the Championship trophy in 2015, having returned to the club at which he began his career, studied for his coaching badges in the latter years of his career. Furthermore, during his final three-year spell at Tynecastle before hanging up his boots last summer, he dedicated time to coaching youth sides at the club’s academies, impressing many who still hold positions in the hierarchy in Gorgie.

Weller made it clear when he retired at the age of 31 that he saw his future in coaching and management, but after spending a year out of the game doing media work, it remains to be seen whether the club would be willing to take a risk on someone entirely unproven at such a crucial time in their history.”

I took a long drink of the coffee that was quickly going cold and began to wonder. It had always been my intention to get into coaching, I’d just needed a break from the game after twenty years of not thinking about anything else. I kept my hand in with the odd appearance on the TV as a pundit and I’d anticipated doing the same again this year. With two years away and my badges long since completed, I knew I’d feel refreshed and ready for the task again, but this was too tempting. Did I genuinely stand a chance? I mean, the worst that could happen was that they’d ignore me and I’d follow my plan, setting myself up somewhere lower down the ladder in a year’s time, earning my way to the top.

What did Amy always say? No regrets. No f**king regrets. I scrolled down my list of contacts until I found Jeff’s name, my agent, and hit dial. It was worth a shot.

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Thursday 2nd June, 2016

Tynecastle, Edinburgh

There were more people in the crowd than I’d expected. I’d played in front of 80,000 people for Christ’s sake, a few journalists shouldn’t make me want to run away and hide. But that’s exactly how I felt. George sensed my nervousness and just before we strode into the glare of the cameras, he put his hand on my shoulder and whispered “you’ll be grand”.

“Thank you all for coming here today. It’s a proud day for Heart of Midlothian as we step into a new era and begin the fight to get back to the top and, to that end, I’m delighted to introduce our new Head Coach, Patrick Weller and Director of Football, George Adams.

We had many candidates interested in the jobs over the last two weeks, but an intensive interview process showed us that Patrick and George stood out from the crowd as the right men to take this club forward. We’re looking forward to a long and successful future with them in charge of footballing affairs, starting with an immediate return to the Premiership.

And with that, I’ll open the floor to any questions.”

I still wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. From the few times I’d met her as a player, I knew Ann was a woman not to be trifled with. She’d made her money in the business world and built up a fearsome reputation that she was now bringing to football and the club she was as much a fan of as I was. The interview had been unlike anything I’d ever gone through before, grilled with question after question on how I saw the future of the club, how I would deliver the immediate success she and the board were after, how I would go about keeping us up when we got back to the top flight. In the end I did enough, but only just. A one-year deal. It didn’t exactly suggest she had the greatest of confidence in me. I wondered whether others on the board had backed my candidacy and she was talked into giving me the job, the compromise being that I was on a very short leash.

George had been given the security of a three-year deal, but then he’d proven himself more than enough, having been Director of Football at Ross County for nine years as they won their way through the divisions and established themselves in the Premiership. I got on well with George from the moment we’d met the day before and the many hours we’d talked about players and the staff I wanted to bring in were productive.

A contract was soon offered to Simon Donnelly as my assistant manager, and I was able to bring in former Ipswich striker Marcus Stewart, former Hearts player Grant Murray and ex-Bolton and West Brom midfielder Richard Sneekes as part of my coaching staff.

“One last question.”

“Patrick, what do you make of only being given a one-year contract at the club?” I was surprised it had taken anyone this long to ask it, to be honest.

“I’ve got to prove myself. Simple as that. It’s my first job as a coach and the club have taken a risk in appointing me, it makes sense to mitigate that risk to some degree. But I’m confident that if I do a good job and get the club back into the top flight for next season then I’ll be here for a long time to come.” I looked to my left and saw a smile on Ann’s face as she nodded along and I felt a little calmer. A little more certain I was on the right path. Now I just had to go and win some games.

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Author's note:

Back once again for the renegade master. Aye, I'm trying that whole FMS writing thing again. I've got a fair chunk of the story written already and have every intention of keeping it going despite my reputation. Hope you're along for the ride and enjoy it.

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It's been too long, babe. Nice to have you onboard, Gav.

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“Frankly I could see half this squad being out the door by the start of the season, Patrick.” I was well into the second hour of my conversation with George about how we might shape the squad for the upcoming campaign. With Rangers having failed again to win promotion, we knew we had a big challenge ahead of us to do what the board wanted and finish top of the tree, not have to rely on the play-offs. However, in my first two days on the job so many of the players had texted or phoned to let me know that they wanted no part in overcoming that challenge.

“Six hundred grand and fifty per cent of whatever we bring in to spend. It’s wages that are going to kill us though.”

“Not necessarily.” I gave George a quizzical look. “I mean, we’re over budget now, but most of these lads have relegation clauses which see them lose twenty, thirty per cent come the end of the month.”

“That’s a bit better then, but it doesn’t leave us with much room to bring players in.”

“Aye, but if we use the six hundred grand to boost the wage budget, then sell a few lads to bring in more money that we can actually spend, we’ll be fine.” This was why I was more than happy to have an experienced Director of Football alongside me. George had been through this sort of crisis before and could offer a guiding hand to stop me panicking and having a tantrum.

As it stood, only one of the squad had already agreed a move for when the transfer window reopened. Polish defender Blazej Augustyn was off to Lech Poznan for £210,000 on 1st July, a move which would take £1,400 per week off our £40,000 wage bill. It was only a small drop to begin with, but a start nonetheless. And there were others attracting interest. The newspapers stacked in the corner of my desk attested to that, with stories linking both Callum Paterson and Jordan McGhee with million-pound moves to the English leagues. The pair had come through the youth system at the club, were good lads and talented players, ones I’d be loath to lose, but then the principle the club worked on was to bring through young talent and sell it on.

We moved onto what were essentially George’s staff, the scouting team. With his arrival at the head of the scouting table, it made John Murray’s position somewhat untenable. John had been in the club’s scouting department in various roles since 1995, but all decided it was best if he left for pastures new. George and I were both impressed by former Wales international Andy Marriott though, who spoke intelligently about the sort of players we should be looking to bring in and was someone we were happy to keep.

George swelled the ranks of his team by bringing in another Welshman, Tim Davies, who had worked for West Brom for fifteen years and George Rooney, who had roamed the leagues looking for players for Burnley for a decade. The final piece of his jigsaw for now was Neil McGuinness, a Scot working in Dubai, but who had been on Celtic’s books for six years. It felt like a team we could rely on to send out to find us most of a new squad.

Very few of them, if any, would be at the club in time for our training camp in Portugal though. The ten-day jaunt to get some summer sun while we worked was due to start in little over a week and with facilities booked for thirty players, we’d be taking a good chunk of lads who weren’t going to be spending the season with us. But needs must.

***



I flopped down onto the couch when I got home that evening, exhausted and smelling like I hadn’t had a shower in days. Amy sat in her armchair, wrapped up in a dressing gown at least three sizes too big for her and wrinkled her nose.

“Jesus ****. You’re having a wash before you get into bed tonight.” I laughed and threw a cushion at her, watching it bounce off her knees and land on the dog, waking him up from his dream. She was right though. When I hadn’t been cooped up in my stuffy office that afternoon I’d taken myself down to the training pitches, kicking a ball around and taking a run while I chewed over the problems that I faced.

“I’m off up. You going to be up much longer?” She got to her feet, crossed the room and kissed me on the forehead.

“An hour, maybe. Got a few reports to go through.”

“What time you in tomorrow?”

“Early. Set the alarm for half five.” She nodded and headed off upstairs, leaving me to my thoughts. The one advantage of working so late was that traffic was minimal on the twenty-five-mile drive to our house in North Berwick, but what had provided a level of anonymity during my playing days and a beautiful place to enjoy the peace and quiet of retirement now seemed something of a pain if I was going to be spending so many hours in the office. But then if we moved back into the city, I was just as likely to spend the time I saved travelling in the office instead of at home with her.

I heaved myself back up and shuffled through to the small office I had set up. The coaching staff had prepared some reports on the state of the squad and how they thought we might best attack the season in terms of style and formation. I knew a lot having been in the stands for most games last season and been part of the squad before that, but it always helped to have a fresh set of perspectives. There was particularly encouraging information in the report on the youth squad, with the likes of Callum Morrison, Jahmal Howlett-Mundle and Russell McLean picked out as ones who could have a first team future at the club.

It was well past midnight before I eventually flicked off the light and made my way upstairs, taking a quick shower before sliding into bed next to Amy, trying desperately not to wake her. As I lay there I began to wonder just what I had let myself in for.

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If I’m being brutally honest, I was beginning to get sick of the sight of George Adams popping his head round my door with bits of paper in his hand. The latest was the most serious though. He had a phone in his hand, covering the microphone as he spoke to me.

“It’s Les Ferdinand at QPR. They want Callum.”

“Paterson or Morrison?”

“What do you think?”

“How much?” He put the phone back to his ear for a moment.

“Hi, Les? Yeah, I’m just speaking to him now. Can I call you back in ten minutes? Cheers.” He ended the call and sat down on the small, beaten-up sofa that was squeezed into the corner of the office.

“It’s a good deal, Patrick. A really good deal.”

“How much?”

“Two point two million. Most of it upfront. Plus a couple of extra six hundred grand payments if he hits fifty league games and ten international caps.”

“Three point four. ****, that’s good.”

“I had to talk them into it a bit, but they were pretty willing. They want the lad.” We sat and talked it over for another five minutes. Callum Paterson may have been the club captain and one of the best players to come through the youth academy in recent years, but every player had a price on their head and this was very close to his.

“Let’s push them a little bit more. Two point five, plus the bonuses.” George made the call and after exchanges niceties, he gave them the numbers. A few seconds passed. He shook his head.

“Take the two point two.” I whispered, but by the time I’d finished he was putting his phone back in his pocket.

“He hung up. Well, he swore a few times, then hung up.”

“Shit.”

“Where did we land on the other ones?” He was as eager as I was to move the topic onwards.

“Juanma and Don? Reject them both. I’m not letting our players go for peanuts.” It was a tough balancing act we faced, living up to our promises to the players that we’d let them go if we received good enough bids while not being unrealistic about what we wanted to get for them. It was a line we’d clearly stepped over with Callum, but the £28,000 that Rangers had bid for Don Cowie and £600,000 that both Lens and Dundee United thought was enough for Juanma, our top scorer from last season, were easy ones to reject.

With John Souttar, Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson and Arnaud Djoum all expressing a clear desire to leave as well, it wasn’t the happiest of squads we met at the airport as we flew out for our training camp in Sintra on Portugal’s west coast. However, it was going to be the first chance I had to work with them on the ideas I had for how we were going to set ourselves up for the season ahead, so I had to make the best of it that I could.

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Smooth as always. Happy to have you back, Terk. And nice to have a good tale from north of the border too, with your beloved Hearts.

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Thanks gents. When I holidayed the first season and saw that Hearts had been relegated, it seemed such a natural place to get back into FMS writing

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The first day’s training had gone as well as could be expected in Portugal. We’d had a relaxed evening the previous night once the plane landed in Lisbon and we got a coach to take us the twenty miles to the hotel in Sintra and the first day was just about a light session to ease the players in after their travelling. The plan was to hit the fitness work hard in the next few days and then spend the end of our time there working on what we wanted from team shape and how we wanted to use the ball.

“F**k off, George. Every time you come over with that look on your face, someone’s trying to buy one of our lads.” I put down my beer on the table as George took a seat. “Who is it this time.”

“Arnaud.” The Belgian midfielder had been the most determined to leave of those who had so far told me that they had no interest in a promotion campaign. It was a disappointment as, watching on from the stands the previous year, I’d been impressed by the lad after he joined from Lech Poznan, a real box-to-box midfielder who had talent and touch to go with his energy. However, he was adamant that he wanted to be on his way and, even though the bids we had received seemed low, clubs were eager to take advantage of his unhappiness.

“How much?”

“A hundred grand. The deal’s done. Dundee United.”

“F**k. They’re getting an absolute steal.”

“Aye, but I reckon he’ll down tools if we don’t cave in. We’ve no choice.” He was, of course, right. I was finding out that was often the case with George. I took a sip of my beer as my mind wandered through the troubles we were facing with the squad.

“Bit of good news too though.” I perked up slightly as he spoke. “I was talking to Tim earlier and he says he’s had word from Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s agent that the lad would be more than happy to come up on loan again for the season. United want us to cover his wages, a grand per week, but that’s it.” That certainly was good news. We had Juwon Oshaniwa at left back but no one else in the senior squad who was realistically up to playing the role in the attacking manner we wanted. Cameron had spent last season on loan with the club, playing 32 games in the league and making a good impression. If he was up for coming back north for another year, then I was more than happy to have him.

“Sounds like something we should get sorted then.” He nodded and left me to my drink.

***



Cameron arrived on a flight from Manchester for the final three days of our training camp in Portugal. He was happy to meet up with friends he’d made over the last year and seemed excited by the prospect of challenging for a trophy, even if it was only a second-tier league title. The news wasn’t so good elsewhere in the squad, with Arnaud having flown back to the UK a few days earlier to tie up his move to Dundee United, followed quickly by Prince Buaben, another who the Arabs had plucked from us for £100,000. Buaben had spent four years at Tannadice before heading to England then spending two years at Tynecastle and word reached me that the fans back home weren’t happy to see him allowed to leave for such a small fee.

The other news of the week, aside from training progressing well and the team taking to the ideas I presented them with, was that the fixture list for the season was released. We had been given a kind enough opening day, a trip to face Dumbarton, before a midweek visit from Falkirk, travelling to face Cowdenbeath and welcoming Dunfermline across the Forth. Our first meeting with Rangers wasn’t until early September, and at Tynecastle, meaning that we’d have chance to put some good points on the board and build up momentum before facing the team certain to be our biggest threat for the title that the board wanted.

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There was something about getting caught in a rain storm at the end of June that felt desperately unfair. I’d nipped out to the shop to buy a paper and came back looking like I’d spent a few days at sea. It wasn’t going to ruin my day off though, so once I’d dried myself off as best I could and made a coffee, I sank deep into my armchair and flicked open the sports pages.

Of course I’d heard the news the previous evening but the papers were having a field day with it. Pages and pages of copy on Arsène Wenger and Louis van Gaal retiring from management within twenty-four hours of each other. Wenger hadn’t quite gone out in the blaze of title-winning glory he’d hoped for, but he had at least improved Arsenal from their standard third place into second.

Things had been a little better for Van Gaal, after his disappointing first season in charge he followed up with a sixth place finish in the Premier League, but United’s fans were more than willing to overlook that given he delivered them an FA Cup and Champions League double. The grumpy Dutchman who had seemed such an ill fit for the club through most of his tenure had in the end bowed out being carried aloft by the fans. It’s funny how things can change so quickly.

Naturally, the papers were having lots of fun with speculating on who would be taking over the now vacant positions. It was a strange period of change for England’s top flight. With Jürgen Klopp only a year into his reign at Liverpool and Pep Guardiola just installed and Manchester City, there were now vacancies at Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. It seemed the prevailing opinion that José Mourinho was nailed on for the United job, but Arsenal and Chelsea seemed harder to call, with a whole host of names thrown into the hat and no one able to come to a consensus. Maybe the season ahead was going to be the sort that a side like Tottenham could take advantage of.

I only had the morning off before heading into the office and getting back down to work as we prepared for the season ahead. But with Amy out at work it was a rare chance to enjoy some time to myself. We’d arrived back in Edinburgh the night before having come to the end of a very worthwhile training camp. The boys had been given the day off ahead of our first pre-season friendly on Saturday but there was still plenty to be done.

When I finally arrived at the training ground just after two in the afternoon, Kevin Stewart was already almost finished with his medical. The twenty-two-year-old midfielder had agreed a loan move from Liverpool for the season, having spent last year with Doncaster in England’s League One. Although he was more at home as a defensive midfielder, having been converted from his original career as a right back, I felt he could offer something in the box-to-box role that I’d hoped Arnaud Djoum would fill before he left for pastures new.

There were a couple more bids for our players to deal with when I reached my office, one of which was Brentford hoping that £405,000 would be enough to tempt us to part with Jamie Walker. Needless to say that was fairly easily rejected. What wasn’t, however, was a bid from St Johnstone for Don Cowie which matched the £50,000 price tag we’d put on his head. Don wasn’t getting any younger and his wages were pretty high, so we were eager to get him off the books and he was happy at the prospect of being back playing for a Premiership club.

***



The following day saw us take to the pitch for the first time since I’d taken over. It might have only been against Whitehill Welfare, a semi-pro outfit from Rosewell, a small village which sat ten miles south of the city, it would be the first time that I led the side out at Tynecastle and would certainly be a special moment for me.

I’d decided that, for the first half, I’d try to pick lads who I thought were the most likely to be around the club when the season started, so there was no Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker or Sam Nicholson, though the plan to make eleven subs at half-time meant they would still get their time on the pitch. I was surprised to see that nearly five thousand fans had turned up for the game, what was really a glorified training session but they seemed to enjoy themselves in the sunshine.

The game itself wasn’t a particularly good spectacle. We took the lead just after the quarter hour when Sean McKirdy’s pass put Billy King in the clear and he finished well into the corner of the net. We doubled the lead just before half time when a free kick from King was met on the half volley by Kev Stewart, but that was it as far as goals went. As would be expected, we dominated the game but our shooting was awful and defensively we didn’t have anything to worry about, with Whitehill not even mustering a shot off target, let alone one that troubled either Jack Hamilton or Neil Alexander in goal. We had seven days before our next outing against Arbroath and I hoped they’d give us a few more things to worry about.

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It had been less than a month since I took the job but it already felt a lot longer than that since I’d seen Amy, sat with her, talked to her. There had been something wonderful about the last year since I’d retired from the game, save from the odd bits of media work I did we had all the time in the world to ourselves. We walked along the beach in the wind and rain, we ate at good restaurants whenever we wanted, we just enjoyed each other’s company.

She’d taken a couple of years out of her career as a museum curator when we moved to Edinburgh so that we could spend the time together we’d never managed during my playing days. The fact that she’d said she was thinking about getting back into work was one of the things which added to the temptation to apply for the job at Hearts; I wasn’t much good at spending long periods on my own in the house so it was better if I had something more to do as well.

However, without doubt I’d missed that year and the fun we’d had. We’d been together for seven years, since I was at the what was supposed to be the height of my career at Liverpool but we’d never been as happy, been as in love as we were during that year. It was only natural that I’d miss it. But more than anything now I just missed her. Even though we both had to make the journey into the city each morning after she took a job at the National Museum, I needed to be at the training ground much earlier than she needed to be in, so I took the car and she took the train. With the hours I was working to sort everything out at the club, we might at best get an hour together before collapsing exhausted into bed, but as often as not she had already turned in for the night by the time I got back to the house and was sound asleep before I crawled underneath the covers beside her.

I kept telling her that things would calm down once the season got underway, certainly once the transfer window had closed but she never seemed convinced. I couldn’t blame her. She knew what I was like. During my playing days I’d always thrown myself into training as hard as I could, becoming the clichéd hard worker who turned up before anyone else and left long after the others had packed it in for the day. Even during my last year at Burnley, when I barely played because of the knee injury which eventually saw me call early time on my career, I was at the club as many hours as I could, working on my rehab and just enjoying being around my teammates. She knew that I was going to attack management in the same way and even in the short times we spent together I could already tell it was going to be a source of friction.

The day after the run out against Whitehill though, I made sure to make time. I booked a table at her favourite restaurant in the city, a beautiful little Spanish place which reminded her of a holiday we’d taken in Valencia. As we arrived and were guided through the bustling dining room to our table in the corner, I slipped my hand inside my pocket just to feel that the box was still there. Really it was just to grip it for a few seconds and calm myself down as best I could.

As we sat and ate and talked for what seemed like the first time in months I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t done this sooner. We’d met at the World Museum in Liverpool. She was giving a talk on geology that I’d taken my niece too, giving my older brother and his wife a welcome afternoon off to spend to themselves. Despite the fact that I was supposedly there looking after a six-year-old girl I found myself trying to engineer ways to get close enough to Amy to instigate a conversation. As I sat in that restaurant some seven years later, I wondered why I hadn’t asked her to marry me on that very first day. Perhaps it would have been a little too creepy.

The desert plates were cleared away by the waitress and I poured out the last of the wonderful wine Amy had selected to go with our meals and my hand crept down towards my pocket again.

“Holy ****, are you finally going to get it over with?” A confused expression crossed my face and my hand shot back up onto the table. “It’s been torturing you all night. I thought you were going for it as the mains came out.” She rocked her head back and laughed as she took a drink of her wine.

“You know?” She put her glass down and nodded. “How?”

“I saw the ring box on your desk this morning when I went in to empty the bin. You’re kind of rubbish at keeping secrets.”

I hung my head and sheepishly took the box from my pocket, opening the lid and sliding it across the table towards her. “I’d kind of hoped that this would be a much grander gesture, the whole down-on-one-knee thing, but you make me happier than I ever thought I deserved to be and this ring is a promise that I will never take that for granted again and I will do everything to be the husband that you deserve.” I took a pause and a deep breath. “Amy Elizabeth Ross, will you marry me?”

As I asked the question I was suddenly aware of the people at the tables closest to us, who had clocked what was going on and were watching intently. She took the ring from its box and slid it on to her finger and nodding her head with a huge smile on her face before she leaned across the table to kiss me. I don’t recall my heart ever having beat faster.

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When I got to the office on Monday morning, I spent the first half hour reading all the congratulatory texts and listening to the voicemails which had been left for me since we’d announced the news to family and friends when we got home the night before. Before long though, it was back to business and that meant more transfer dealing to be done.

Young centre back John Souttar knocked on the door and I beckoned him in. He’d only joined the summer before, having built up his reputation at Dundee United but with a promising career ahead of him he had no desire to spend a year of it in the Championship.

“The door’s always open for you to come back, John. You’re a good lad.”

“Thanks boss. I’ve had a good year here but I need to move on.”

“Well I wish you all the best. You’re welcome to train here next week if they don’t want you down at Villa until July. Just don’t be injuring any of the rest of the lads. Take it easy on them.” I stood and shook his hand before he left and headed out for training. In truth, there was no way we could have turned down the £1million that Aston Villa offered, even if the lad himself hadn’t been looking to move on. They were willing to pay the whole sum up front and for a defender who had only played twenty-seven times for us, it represented a good deal.

It certainly proved an easier deal to get done than with any of the clubs who were interested in Jamie Walker. Burnley were the latest to try their hand with a bid for the winger, but a straight offer of £500,000 wasn’t even close to what we wanted for someone with such talent.

One player it did seem we were going to have to bite the bullet on, however, was Juanma. We’d already rejected two bids of £600,000 for the Spanish striker, but no club in the intervening time had been willing to even entertain the idea of going higher for him. He wanted to leave and his wages could be better spent elsewhere, so when Wigan offered to pay the whole fee upfront – something no one else had so far done – we gave them permission to talk to the lad and his agent and started to look at who we might bring in to replace him.

The idea for the season ahead was that we were going to play with a 4-3-3 system, with a central striker joined in attack by two wingers who would be given the responsibility to get into the box and help share the goalscoring burden. We wanted someone with both pace and strength; qualities which didn’t necessarily often come packaged together in Scottish football. Gavin Reilly looked to have enough of both to be a decent back-up option, despite only scoring once in the nineteen appearances he made in his first season at the club. To be fair to him, sixteen of those came off the bench, so his goals-to-minutes ratio looked better if still not particularly impressive.

George had been impressed by what he’d seen of Manchester United’s Will Keane. He may not have been quite as strong as the ideal player I was looking for, but he was certainly quick and against the flat-footed defences I expected to face in the Championship, I’d take speed over strength if forced to make a call between the two. United had made it known that the lad was available for transfer, and his agent, Eddie Walker, expected the cost to be around £400,000 so he was certainly within our budget. He’d proved he had a decent enough eye for goal, having scored nine in thirty-four on loan at Wigan the previous year and we wondered whether he might be up for another temporary move.

A couple of quick phone calls later and we knew where we stood. United were willing to let him out on loan again for a nominal contribution to his wages and Eddie Walker said he was open to the idea, particularly having heard good things about the club from Cameron. However, he did warn us that there were some Championship clubs in England looking into his situation, namely Burnley and Brentford, who were interested in a permanent deal and he wanted to hear what they had to say before committing to us in any way. It was a perfectly reasonable request, but it was going to be an anxious few days before we heard back from him.

The other area of the pitch we were in desperate need of strengthening was the centre of midfield. With Djoum, Buaben and Cowie all already out of the door we had a lot of work to do and time was already beginning to feel short. I was pleased with the signing of Kev Stewart and Sean McKirdy had shown enough in training to suggest that he would be a useful option throughout the season, but we needed some ball players, someone to control the games for us.

“What do you think about Scott Allan?” George and I had been kicking around names for the best part of an hour, but this was the first one to really grab my attention.

“Lovely player. Tore me a new one when I came up against him in the derby a couple of years back.” Indeed, it had been that Edinburgh derby in which Allan had run circles around me for seventy minutes before I was hauled off the pitch that convinced me my days in the game were done. My knee just wasn’t up to it anymore.

“He only got six games for Celtic last season, they’re looking to get rid.”

“How much?”

“Half a million, so I hear.” That was very interesting news. That put him just about within our budget.

“What’s he on there?”

“Eight, nine grand a week, somewhere in there.”

“Jesus, there’s no way we can pay that.”

“Offer him games. Tell him how he’ll be a starter every week. You know what sitting in the stands at a big club is like, he’s mid-twenties, he needs games.”

“Let’s give it a shot.”

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A month and a day in the job and already I was sick of having to deal with transfers. George assured me that this was an unusually busy summer given how many of our lads were desperate to get out of the door, but it seemed we were spending far more time dealing with contracts than I was out on the training pitch, trying to get the players we did have ready for the new season. When I’d taken on the job I’d fought to have final say on transfers both into and out of the club – it had almost cost me a chance of getting the position, if I’m honest – but now I was wishing id just shut my mouth, left all this to George and just dealt with what squad I had come the start of the season.

Both Blazej Augustyn and John Souttar had left for their new clubs as the month ticked over into July and another was set to be on his way before much longer, as we accepted an offer of £500,000 from Academica for midfielder Miguel Pallardo. We held fast on our determination not to sell Jamie Walker for the same value, though Leeds were the latest club to test us with a bid, but finally it seemed we were getting somewhere on the signing front.

We may have had a game planned for the afternoon, but on the Saturday morning, George and I were locked in an office making phone call after phone call to various people connected with Scott Allan. His agent was adamant he’d be interested in the move but it took a lot of negotiation with Celtic to get anywhere close to a deal we were happy with. Eventually we managed it though, £400,000 up front, another £300,000 over the next twelve months, £120,000 more when we won promotion back to the Premiership and 35% of the profit on any resale. With the deal hammered out, we invited both Scott and his agent to the training ground the following morning to try to agree terms with them, but in the mean time we had a game to play.

Arbroath were expected to give us a much tougher test than Whitehill Welfare had and so it proved. I’d deliberately picked weaker opposition throughout our pre-season campaign in order to try to build up the players’ morale with a few easy wins, to get them used to victory again after a long, hard season behind them.

We picked a strong team, with Callum Paterson, Jordan McGhee, Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson all picked to start after only coming on in the first game. Despite spending much of his career as a winger, I decided to try Walker in an advanced central role, asking him to get on the ball and control the game and it worked to an extent. Our passing throughout the match was excellent and Walker was at the heart of much of it while he was on the field.

He also grabbed our only goal of the match when he played a lovely pass out to the right flank for Paterson and the right back swung in a cross which Walker had moved forward to meet, his header finding the corner of the net. It shouldn’t have been our only goal of the game. We managed 27 shots, 14 of which were on target, but Alex Gott was in form in the Arbroath goal and we couldn’t pull away. Eventually we were punished, just five minutes from the end when Graham Beith squared a pass across the penalty area for Bobby Linn to equalise, but it was a good run out and one from which I learned a lot.

**



“What’s Arnaud doing here?” Most of the players had the day off after the match against Arbroath the previous day, but those who hadn’t been involved were asked to come in for a session. I was slightly late arriving, but as I made my way across the car park and into the building, I noticed that Arnaud Djoum was out on the training pitch, going through the warm up with the coaches. As soon as I got inside I went to George’s office and asked what was happening.

“The deal with Dundee United fell through.”

“I thought it was all signed and sealed.”

“Our part of it was, yes. But they’ve been struggling to agree terms with him.”

“It’s been two ****ing weeks!”

“He turned up this morning saying it was all off. He’s not going.”

“****ing hell.” I paused for a few seconds. “Is he going to stay?” George shook his head.

“Still wants out.”

“Great.” I turned to leave but before I got to the door remembered the main reason why I was there for the day. “What time do Scott and Stuart get here?”

“Anytime now.”

Ten minutes later we were in a meeting room with Scott Allan and his agent, Stuart Wilson. We were hopeful we could strike out a deal for him and I started off explaining how I saw him fitting into our side. The playmaker role that Jamie had filled against Arbroath was the one I’d marked down for Scott in the long run, knowing that eventually a time would come when someone would come up with enough cash to prise Walker away.

The Celtic midfielder seemed interested in what I had to say and was pleased to hear that we had every intention of being a possession-based side. But then came the problem.

“Nine grand.”

“A week? **** off.” Stuart Wilson raised himself out of his chair and made as if he was going to leave.

“Sit down, Stuart.”

“It’s what we’re getting at Celtic.”

“I’m aware of that. You seem unaware that we’re in a lower division.”

“And you’re asking a nailed on Premiership level player, a title winner, to drop down and play below his level. We want paying for that. For wasting a year of his career.”

“Come on, Stuart. You know we can’t afford that.”

“Then why are we here?”

“We can go to six. Absolute maximum.” Stuart and Scott exchanged a glance, but there didn’t seem to be much of a smile between them.

“We can do that. If the other three is there in appearance fees.”

“No chance.” We went round and round in circles for the next half hour as Scott sat in silence, his agent doing all the talking for him. We never came closer to an agreement though and he headed back to Glasgow still a Celtic player. It was time to move on to other targets.

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“Strikers, George. We need strikers.” Juanma had completed his move to Wigan the previous day and we were desperate to bring in some competition up front.

“Loans are the best way to go.” He dumped four files on my desk, each containing a report on a striker we might consider. Will Keane had decided to join Burnley instead of us and so we were still light on the ground. There were two files in particular which interested me, Crystal Palace’s Ghanaian striker Kwesi Appiah and Aston Villa’s frontman Callum Robinson. The latter had scored 7 goals in 37 games on loan at Preston last year and could play on the left of a front three as well, while Kwesi was a five-times international capped player who had enough pace to trouble defences at this level. He also had a scoring record of 53 goals in 123 games in his professional career, but that was significantly boosted by a record of 22 in 24 during a year-long spell at Margate at a very low level in England.

According to their agents, the two lads were eager for the move and their clubs were happy to have them in a position to get first team football for a year. Villa required no payment towards Robinson’s wages, just a guarantee that he’d be used as a striker, while Palace wanted us to pay them £8,750 per month to them and £240 per week of Kwesi’s wages over the course of the year, fees we were plenty happy to comply with.

They were both in place by the time we travelled south to face Chester in our next friendly the following weekend. Robinson was given the nod over Appiah to start the game, while I brought Arnaud Djoum back into the fold after he’d put in a lot of hard work in training over the week.

We didn’t get off to the best of starts though, as in the third minute Ross Hannah played a ball straight between Jordan McGhee and Igor Rossi at centre back and Tom Peers fired a shot low beyond Jack Hamilton to open the scoring. Their lead didn’t last long, less than ten minutes later the ball fell to Djoum just outside the penalty area and he drove a shot into the corner of the net.

The day continued to get better as Robinson began to prove his worth, getting in front of his marker to meet a cross from Paterson and turn it past the keeper to put us in the lead before twenty minutes had passed. As half-time approached we put our foot to the floor and pulled away, with Cameron Borthwick-Jackson heading home from a corner and Billy King finished low into the corner after being put in the clear by Djoum.

The second half didn’t hold as much for us after we made huge changes at the break. The only goal in the second period again came three minutes in, with Hannah being put in the clear and grabbing the goal of the day with a beautifully judged lob over Jack Hamilton from the edge of the penalty area. All in all though, it proved to be a good run out and made the long coach ride back north that evening as enjoyable as it could be.

***



The following day I spent most of my time sitting at home with Amy while keeping in touch with George as he tried to negotiate a few deals. Lens had come up with £500,000 for Djoum which we were eager to accept given that we’d originally agreed to take much less from Dundee United. Meanwhile, George was trying to boost the ranks of our Under-20s side by tying up the signing of Alloa’s 17-year-old full back Dale Black. Although he sported a terrible mohawk, the young lad had made his professional debut last season and had a number of clubs chasing him. It took only £1,000 to get the deal done and he was happy to spend the season at least in our youth side, so I signed off on it without hesitation.

As the evening wore on I exasperated Amy by insisting on sitting in front of the TV with beer and snacks surrounding me as the final of Euro 2016 got underway. I’d barely been able to watch any of the tournament with so much going on at the club, but was determined to sit and enjoy the showpiece event, with host nation France taking on Serbia in Paris.

With England bowing out of the tournament early on – they sailed to three wins in the group stage but were eviscerated 3-0 by Italy in the second round – the papers had lost interest in the competition and focused on the appointments of Jose Mourinho at Manchester United and Rafa Benitez at Arsenal as their lead stories on the back pages in the previous few days. They spent a few column inches decrying the fact that a France v Serbia final was going to excite no one, but it was all just bitterness at having once again built up an England side as favourites before watching them crumble under pressure.

The game itself was a fascinating battle and Nabil Fékir gave the French the lead right on the stroke of half time. Serbia struggled to pick their heads up after the break and a Milos Veljkovic own goal doubled the hosts’ advantage not long after the break. Adem Ljajić did pull one back late on and set up a grand stand finish with the Serbians laying siege to the French goal, but Hugo Lloris pulled off a few smart saves and ensured that, as captain, he would be lifting the trophy high into the Parisian sky, celebrating their first major tournament success in 18 years.

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Genuinely appreciate the kind words, 10-3. I've missed being around too, good to be back.

-------------------------------------------

One area of the club’s business that I had handed over control of to George was the bringing in and loaning out of talent for the youth team. I had an idea that, should I earn myself a long-term contract and get us established back in the Premiership, I would take more of a hands-on role with the youngsters, but for now I was happy for George to handle it.

That’s not to say that I had no intention of playing young lads. If they showed themselves to be good enough then there would be an open path for them into the first team squad, but the day-to-day transfer business and handling of the squad was more than I could cope with as I learned what sort of manager I wanted to become.

Roger Arnott, a 36-year-old Scot, was given matchday responsibility for the Under-20s, a role he had fulfilled as part of being the club’s Head of Youth Development since 2014. As we travelled south for our next pre-season warm-up match against Crewe, I read a report Roger had emailed to me the previous day on their 0-0 draw with Ross County’s youth squad, played on one of the pitches at our training ground at Riccarton. It was impressive that he’d managed to make such a long report out of a goalless draw, but he reserved particular praise for debutant Dale Black, who George had recently brought in and who impressed at right back, while Callum Morrison and Russell McLean looked threatening at the other end of the pitch.

It certainly gave me something to ponder later on as I tried to take my mind off our woeful finishing at the Alexandra Stadium. As you might expect, we’d dominated the game, barely giving the hosts a touch and keeping them to only a single shot on target (though that shot did result in a goal, an equaliser for Callum Saunders in the 56th minute). However, we could take little advantage of the domination we built, with only Sam Nicholson’s strike in the tenth minute to show for it. We peppered their goal with shots from all angles, but most were hopeful punts that drifted hopelessly high and wide. With the next match up being my competitive debut as a manager, even if it was only in the Challenge Cup, I was starting to get seriously worried about our ability to put the ball in the back of the net.

We’d gone into the game with Kwesi Appiah playing through the middle, Nicholson on the right and Callum Robinson on the left. In theory it should have been a potent attack but they seemed to struggle to get themselves into good positions, leading to frustrated midfielders shooting from distance, and even when they did luck into a decent opportunity, they mostly lacked the conviction to make anything of it. Livingston was just a week away and I hadn’t the first clue who I was going to end up choosing to play in that front three.

***



“We could probably do with a couple of lads in midfield, then.” It seemed I had developed a tendency to state the bleeding obvious when talking with George Adams. Arnaud Djoum had, finally, completed a move away from the club as he joined Lens in the second tier of the French game. A few of the squad had seemed hopeful that after the collapse of his move to Dundee United, he would be staying around for the season but after I explained to them that he was still determined to leave they saw that there was really nothing I’d been able to do in order to keep him at the club.

“I like this lad, Richie Towell. At Brighton.” George passed me another file he had put together.

“Name rings a bell. Didn’t he spend a couple of years at Hibs?”

“On loan from Celtic when he was a young lad.”

“That’s right. Didn’t look up to that much at the time.”

“He’s improved a lot. He went back home to Ireland for a few years after Celtic let him go, had a great time at Dundalk. Scored almost one in two from midfield.”

“F*ck, that’s not bad.” I glanced down at the file detailing his career history. His spell at Dundalk had seen the bigger fish come calling again and when his contract expired he moved to the south coast of England with Brighton, but his only season with the Seagulls had seen him make just nine appearances, fail to score even a single goal and was now actively being shopped around by his agent.

“How much are they asking for?”

“Three hundred grand.”

“That’s doable.” George nodded in agreement and went on to detail how he saw him fitting into the side, challenging Jamie Walker for the role as the playmaker of midfield in the short term, taking over as the main man once Jamie inevitably left for a new club. I was quickly on board with the idea of bringing him in and George spent much of the afternoon on the phone with the various people he needed to speak to at Brighton. A deal was eventually struck for £275,000 – paid in one lump sum – and a time arranged to speak to Richie’s agent, Michael Canavan, the following morning.

The chat with Michael went well. Richie was eager to make the move back to Scotland, even stepping down to the Championship didn’t put him off as he was convinced we’d be back in the Premiership before long. A deal was fairly speedily done, with both parties agreeing on a two-year deal worth £3,500 per week, rising by 30% in the second season if we indeed found ourselves playing at a higher level. He also insisted on a release clause of £1million, but if we ever received a bid that high for him I’d be more than happy to let him go.

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Even though we had Richie scheduled in for a medical on Saturday afternoon while the rest of the squad were down the M8 in Livingston, we weren’t satisfied with the numbers in midfield. Through the week we’d looked at other options to boost the squad and both George and I settled on one name who we thought would be willing to join as little more than a squad option.

Iain Vigurs hadn’t had the best of times since leaving Ross County in 2013, first falling out of favour at Motherwell before struggling to win a regular place in Inverness. Back on the market as a free agent after just a year in the north, he had been in talks with Rangers and I was a little sceptical that we’d have any chance of landing him.

But a quick chat less than 48 hours before the Livingston match persuaded me otherwise and he jumped at the chance to join us, signing a one-year deal worth £1,500 per week, understanding that he’d be used as an option off the bench and in the early rounds of the cup. The formalities were wrapped up on Friday morning and his registration was lodged with the SFA in plenty of time for him to be considered for the squad for my opening game.

Indeed, he only had a brief run out with the squad on Friday afternoon in a light training session on the day before the game, but he boarded the coach to Livingston and was named among the substitutes for my first competitive match as a manager. The other big question I had hanging over my head for the trip to face our League 1 opponents was who to put up front, and in the end I went with Sam Nicholson and Callum Robinson in the wide roles, with Gavin Reilly pipping Kwesi Appiah to the central role.

Gavin hadn’t had much luck in his first season with the club, scoring only once in 19 appearances, but I was hopeful he had more in him, particularly at this level as he made his name as a double-figures goalscorer with Queen of the South.

It was an interesting match-up as both sides were among the favourites to win their respective divisions and I had certainly gone with a strong line-up despite the relative unimportance of the competition – certainly the board had given me the impression they wouldn’t give much of a damn if we were knocked out in the early rounds. Still, I wanted to give the players more time in their legs ahead of the league season and another chance to get used to what I wanted from them, so Callum Paterson, Jordan McGhee, Jamie Walker, all were given starting roles at the Tony Macaroni Arena.

In truth, any hopes the three-thousand strong home crowd had of this being a tight match were wiped out in the first ten minutes when we managed four shots on goal. We carved Livingston’s defence open at will and only our old friend inaccuracy stopped us from taking the lead in that time. We didn’t have to wait that long in the end though, as just after the quarter hour mark, Sean McKirdy played in Nicholson, who cut inside onto his left foot and arrowed a shot beyond Darren Jamieson in the Livingston goal.

I almost lost count of the number of times we could have added to the lead before we eventually did, not long after the half hour had passed. Even in just thirty minutes, it had become obvious that our full backs were going to be hugely important in our season. With the wide forwards asked to get into the box, they were left to provide width for the team and both Paterson and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson seemed up to the task. It was the former who was crucial in our second goal, his low cross deflecting into the path of Reilly, who finished calmly on his weaker left foot.

The one thing that the game pointed out was just how much we were going to miss Jamie Walker if and when he did leave. The 23-year-old controlled the game from the start until he was taken off with twenty minutes left. By that time, we’d added a third to the score, with substitute Kwesi Appiah announcing himself in some style. A simple pass from Robinson found the Ghanaian in space just outside the penalty area, but without even taking a touch to steady himself, he unleashed a shot which crashed into the net off the underside of the crossbar.

As the final stages of the game petered out we got the chance to give some game time to Vigurs, who took the role vacated by Walker, and young Canadian winger Dario Zanatta, whose pace and work rate had a number of people at the club quite excited about his potential. However, we didn’t manage to add a fourth goal to our tally, despite numerous opportunities to do so. Still, as I boarded the bus for the short trip back to Edinburgh, I allowed myself a little smile at how my management debut had gone.

Livingston 0-3 Hearts (Scottish League Challenge Cup, 1st round)

(Nicholson 16; Reilly 33; Appiah 64)

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The draw for the second round of the Challenge Cup gave us a trip to face League 1 side Ayr on the 16th August. That was a pain of a coach trip for a Tuesday night and as soon as it was made I began to think about taking little more than an Under-20s squad for the match. The competition held no interest to me, so if I could give some young lads a boost in their careers and keep the main lads fresh for the league then it seemed a win-win situation for me.

Given the unique way that Scottish football is run though, we had two weeks between the first round of the Challenge Cup and our next competitive match, the league opener at Dumbarton. So on the middle weekend we organised a game against Glentoran at Tynecastle, just to keep the match sharpness of the players ticking over. By that time, Morgaro Gomis had become the latest midfielder to leave the club, completing his transfer to Portuguese side Tondela for just £100,000.

After that move I still felt we were a little light in the centre and the way I wanted to play the game demanded a strong midfield, so I asked George to come up with some names for our weekly meeting on Monday, but one player who was definitely going to be a part of my midfield was Richie Towell. His performance against the Belfast side was outstanding, running the show and making us tick as he picked up two assists in our 3-0 victory, laying on a first-minute goal for Kwesi Appiah and an effort early in the second half for Billy King. That was King’s second goal of the match after he’d doubled our lead on twenty minutes and we coasted through the rest of the match to a comfortable win.

***



When I got into the office on Monday morning, my assistant Jenny had a pot of coffee ready and she told me that George was waiting inside, a look of thunder on his face. I wondered what could have upset him as I stepped nervously through the door but he seemed bright enough as he got up from the small sofa in the corner and shook my hand.

“Jenny said you looked angry.”

“Aye, a bit.”

“What’s wrong.”

“Stoke. They’ve bid for Jordan McGhee.” This was one I’d been dreading. We knew he was likely to leave, he was too talented a lad to have another season in the second tier but we’d retained a little hope that he might just pass under the radar of the bigger clubs.

“F*ck.” I slumped down into my chair and poured a coffee from the pot. “How much.”

“Most of it dependent on clauses, but two million.” He knew as well as I did that we’d have to accept it.

“How much up front?”

“Five hundred grand.”

“They need to do better than that.”

“Aye, we’ve told them they need to do one point five up front, then another half a million after ten league appearances. And a percentage of any profit they make on selling him.” It was about as bad a start to the day as I could have imagined. The only thing which could have made it worse was if they’d come up with the cash needed to take Callum Paterson away from us as well. Thankfully, I was spared that.

A few moments of quiet passed between us before George got up and placed the file he had been holding onto my desk. “Moving on.” He said. “Luke Murphy, Leeds.”

“The holding midfielder?”

“Yep.”

“Bit out of our price range, is he not?”

“I reckon we could get him for a million. If Stoke come through on McGhee, we’ll have the cash.” A thought flashed through my mind for a moment that perhaps George had orchestrated the sale of McGhee to Stoke in order to get the cash for Luke. It wasn’t the first time he’d mentioned his name to me this summer. Indeed, when I’d been set on Richie Towell coming in after George had sold me on him, at the last minute he tried to change my mind in the direction of Murphy, adamant that the base of the midfield was more important to get right. But I’m not one for conspiracy theories.

“See what you can do.” He turned to leave as I finished speaking, but just as he got to the door he remembered something else.

“By the way, we’re letting Daniel Baur go.”

“The centre back in the 20s?”

“That’s the one.”

“Why? I like him.”

“He’s not up to much.” I shook my head. “Dundee United bid thirty grand, it’s done. He’s away.”

“Thirty grand? F*ck’s sake.” George left and I threw a pen across the room, watching as it exploded against the far wall. Daniel wasn’t the sort of lad I expected to reach Jordan McGhee levels, but I’d certainly marked him out as one to get a game in the Challenge Cup, who might have the potential to be a backup squad player or bring in a couple of hundred grand in the future. Selling him now for such a small amount seemed a terrible decision, but the youth side wasn’t my remit.

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Jambos Set to Smash Transfer Record

Edinburgh Evening News, Saturday 6th August, 2016

Hearts are set to break their transfer record this weekend as they look to tie up a deal for Leeds United midfielder, Luke Murphy. The deal, exclusively revealed in the Evening News on Tuesday, has progressed quickly and last night the two clubs reached agreement on the fee, which will see Hearts pay a massive £1MILLION, eclipsing the £850,000 signing of Mirsad Beslija from Genk in 2006, though that deal was mired in controversy with Hearts – then under the ownership of Vladimir Romanov – failing to make the agreed payments for the player.

Personal terms were agreed with defensive midfielder Murphy, 26, and his agent earlier in the week, with the player expected to pocket over £4,000 per week – a figure which will rise significantly should the club gain promotion – and the former Crewe man will travel to Edinburgh this weekend to undergo a medical, with managed Patrick Weller hopeful that he’ll be available to face Falkirk on Wednesday.

***



I folded the newspaper up as the coach pulled into the car park outside the Cheaper Insurance Direct Stadium in Dumbarton. I missed the days before everything under the sun was sponsored and this ground was known as The Rock. It was an incongruous name for such a small stadium, a ground with only one stand which you’d more readily find in the non-league tiers of the English game, but which certainly had a charm to it. We’d arrived in plenty of time and as I stepped off the coach my phone buzzed with a text; Luke’s here, everything going well.

The Evening News had got pretty much everything in their article right – I did wonder for a moment who their source in the deal was – as Luke Murphy was having his medical at the club as we were over in the West beginning our league campaign. I tried to focus my mind on the game ahead, though it was difficult with what Simon Donnelly had whispered to me on the way over.

“The lads aren’t ready for this, Patrick.” He’d sat next to me on the coach and I gave my assistant manager a quizzical look. “They think it’s going to be easy.”

“It f*cking should be.” With that I’d put my headphones back in and picked up the paper, but his comment had certainly worried me. With Jordan McGhee having completed his move to Stoke I was left having to partner Igor Rossi and Danny Seabourne in the centre of defence and frankly I wasn’t confident that either of the lads was really up to the job. Gavin Reilly got the nod up front, with Callum Robinson on the left of the front three and as I looked at their team sheet an hour before the game there should have been no question about who the winners were going to be.

The opening minutes of the match reinforced that belief. We had a clear superiority over the hosts and won three corners in the first five minutes. None of them came to anything but just a few moments later, Jamie Walker slid a pass into the penalty area for Robinson, the Aston Villa man flicking the pass round goalkeeper Mark Brown before sliding a shot goalwards from a tight angle. It looked for all the world like we were about to take the lead, but Kyle McAusland managed to clear off the line and the majority of the 1,800-strong crowd breathed a sigh of relief.

That was only a temporary reprieve. In the 12th minute of the match, Kevin Stewart found Callum Paterson on the edge of the penalty area and when the fullback was tackled, Sam Nicholson pounced on the loose ball. His first effort was parried away by Brown, but Nicholson reached the rebound before anyone else and rifled home a second shot into the top corner.

It could, perhaps should have been two in the 20th minute when Stewart played a thirty-five-yard ball ahead of Robinson but his shot was headed away by McAusland with Brown once again stranded. And just two minutes later we were left to curse McAusland’s presence as Michael Hopkins found Karim Imira in space. The former Monaco winger did a couple of stepovers and darted beyond Paterson, swinging in a low cross which Garry Fleming turned into the far corner of the net. He’d got in front of Seabourne far too easily and left Jack Hamilton with no chance of stopping his deft finish.

It was one of only two shots on goal that the hosts managed in the entire ninety minutes. The other came just before half time when Fleming landed a soft header straight into Hamilton’s arms, but the closest they came to destroying our afternoon was with twenty minutes left on the clock when another Imira cross was flicked towards goal by Christian Nadé, who watched on in agony as it clipped the post and went wide.

The time in between was spent with us dominating the game. We had two thirds of the possession as our opponents were plenty willing to sit back and soak up the pressure, as well they might given that we couldn’t create anything. Sure we had plenty of shots, twenty-two by the time the ref blew for full time, but so many of them were from outside the area, hopeful potshots taken in pure frustration that we might as well not have bothered. Only one more clear cut chance came our way, and it was one which really should have ended in a goal but when Kwesi Appiah, on in place of Reilly, was slipped clear by fellow substitute Billy King, he shot straight at Mark Brown when you would have backed nine out of ten strikers to slide the ball home.

Getting back on the coach that evening and hearing news on the radio that Rangers, who were undoubtedly our competition for the season, had opened up with a 2-1 win at Falkirk made for a frustrating drive home. But as I sat there listening to some music I only hoped that we’d all learned a few lessons.

Dumbarton 1 – 1 Hearts (Scottish Championship, 1/36)

(Nicholson 12; Fleming 22)

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I haven't been around long, so all I knew coming into this was that Terk was a legend and I didn't know what else to expect...

All I can say is wow- your status is well deserved, this is wonderful, I am eagerly following.

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Very kind of you to say so, Ed. Good to have you along.

---------------------------------------

It'll have to be in the summer.” A Sunday morning spent arguing over potential wedding dates while I shovelled forkfuls of scrambled eggs into my mouth wasn't quite what I had planned and on more than one occasion as I sat there with Amy, my mind had wandered back towards everything I could have done differently against Dumbarton.

I always wanted a Spring wedding though.”

Not in Scotland you don't. All Spring is here is rain. Endless f*cking rain. Plus, when am I going to get time off during the season for a party and a holiday?”

So I'm basically limited to June or July?”

Realistically just June. July we'll be into pre-season and we'll have games.”

F*ck it, you just pick the date and tell me when to turn up.” I wasn't trying to be a pain in the arse, although it seemed that I was succeeding spectacularly.

If you hold off booking a date for a while, I might get sacked and then we an have it whenever you want.” Apparently trying to be funny wasn't the best way to go and she grabbed hold of the empty plates in front of us and stormed into the kitchen. I almost got up to follow her but instead stayed sat where I was and took my phone from my pocket.

There was a text from George. Got a couple of ideas for centre backs, if you want a chat.

I went through to the office and called George. “Don't you ever take a day off?” There was a hint of laughter in his voice, as an 63-year-old man I suspect he'd been enjoying his lazy Sunday morning.

You're the one who texted me.”

Fair point.”

Who've you got for me.”

Asked about taking Jordan back from Stoke on loan for the season. They were up for it but he wants to settle down there, so that's a no go.” I had a cork board on the wall of my office at home with players' names written on little slips of paper which I used to mess about with selections and formations. I'd refused to take Jordan McGhee's name off it in the hope that we could get the lad back for one last season but now I had to admit defeat and tossed his piece of paper into the bin.

So who else is there?”

In terms of loans there's not much out there. Jake Clarke-Salter at Chelsea could be worth a look, not much cop in the air though.”

Then he's no use in Scotland.”

There's Mason Holgate at Everton. Quick, composed, decent on the ball, can cover at right back if we need.”

Can he head the ball, George?”

Probably.” I'd perhaps fixated a little too much on finding defenders who could compete in the air, but I'd played in the Championship before and the overwhelming tactics were long balls and crosses into big strikers for them to win headers. While I did want us to pass the ball and build from the back, we'd get killed if our centre backs couldn't compete physically.

There's another option too.” I only just heard him talking as my attention was drawn by the sight of Amy walking past the door, casting a glance inside and shaking her head. I'd promised her I wouldn't be working today.

Sorry, say that again.”

Murray Wallace.”

Huddersfield lad?”

Moved to Scunthorpe at the start of last season. Or there's Fran Velez at Derby. Been told he's looking for a way out.”

Can we get tape on them?”

Aye, no problem.”

Great, get that for me as soon as and see what sort of loan deal Everton are looking for with Holgate.”

Will do.” With that I put the phone down, made a few notes on the pad of paper I kept constantly beside my laptop and then went to find Amy, searching my mind for anything I might be able to use as a peace offering.

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I think it's harsh on Gavin.” My assistant, Simon Donnelly, had been pushing hard for Reilly to keep his place from the weekend almost since full time. I hadn't seen enough from him though, and my indecision over which of my strikers it was best to use had plagued most of my time since. As I finally made the call on who would start against Falkirk, it was Kwesi Appiah who got the nod.

A far easier decision was to drop Danny Seabourne in favour of Liam Henderson. Liam was a left back by trade who had spent the previous season on loan at Stenhousemuir in League 1 and, from what I'd seen in training, looked ready to make his Hearts debut, even if it did mean playing him slightly out of position. That was the extent to which I'd been unimpressed with Seabourne.

The availability of Luke Murphy also saw our midfield re-jigged, with the former Leeds man taking the holding role over from Richie Towell, who moved to the left of the three and was given the duty of being the side's playmaker. This meant that Jamie Walker was shifted out onto the left wing and Callum Robinson dropped to the bench for the evening's game. After giving the player's Sunday off, we'd only had a light session on Monday and then a full day on Tuesday to get the players ready for the match, but they looked more focused after Saturday's disappointment and as I watched them go through their drills on a balmy August evening I began to feel confident again.

That confidence was replaced by nerves as kick-off neared. Nearly 15,000 people were sat in the stands awaiting my home debut as manager. I hadn't even been this nervous when I made my playing debut for the club all those years ago. Then perhaps the enthusiasm of youth had won the day but now all I could think about was how disappointed I'd felt as one of those supporters just a few short months ago and the possibility of letting my friends down.

I knew how moany the Tynecastle crowd could be – almost always were, to be honest – so it was a nice surprise to hear a roar as the game got underway. From the off the players responded to the noise and we looked far more comfortable than Peter Houston's side did and just as against Dumbarton we struck early on. Towell won the ball on the halfway line from Ryan McCord and before the Falkirk man could pick himself up off the ground had played a pass in to the feet of Appiah.

The visitor's defence, who had been holding a high line, immediately began retreating as Appiah turned and, just as I'd asked them to, Walker and Sam Nicholson sprinted beyond the striker. With options both right and left, and with Kevin Stewart offering himself as a backup option, Appiah threaded a pass between centre back and full back for Nicholson, who took one touch to steady himself and then smashed a shot on the half volley beyond goalkeeper Aynsley Pears to give us the lead.

We continued to dominate in the wake of the goal, with Walker and Towell combining down the left in the 14th minute to create a chance for Appiah, but his shot sneaked wide of the post. Then the Ghanaian striker turned provider once again, slipping a pass in for Nicholson just as he had for the goal, but this time Falkirk full back Victor Fernández was alive to the danger and blocked the shot out for a corner.

The visitors finally got their first shot on goal in the 22nd minute when Fernández got away down the left and swung in a cross which David Smith headed well over the bar, but perhaps we should have taken it as a warning shot that they were getting a grip on the game. However, I don't think anyone could have predicted the manner in which they grabbed their equaliser.

Aaron Muirhead lined up a long throw from level with the edge of our penalty area. We'd prepared for the danger he would pose with his long, looping throw-ins, but it did us no good. He aimed for the near post and Craig Sibbald went up for the header. However, the midfielder mistimed his jump and missed the ball, meaning goalkeeper Jack Hamilton should have had a simple catch. His concentration had been broken by Sibbald jumping across his line though and he was off balance as the ball landed in his arms and he stumbled back across the line, gifting Falkirk the most laughable of own goals I'd ever seen.

The manner in which we conceded knocked the stuffing out of us and Houston's side began to dominate the game. Unlike us, they made the most of their superiority as well, but the goal which put them in front was another which could have easily been avoided. McCord's corner kick should have been easy for Nicholson to intercept, but his mis-controlled the ball, giving it straight to Sibbald. He shifted a quick pass to his right, where David Smith took one touch to roll it out from under his feet then a second to rifle a shot well out of the reach of Hamilton and into the back of the net, sending the few hundred travelling fans in the Roseburn stand absolutely wild.

Look, we just need to calm down. You're the better players, the better team. We could have been three up before they scored. Go out there and get control of this game back.” I'd considered being much more harsh in what I said at half time, but the look on the players' faces told me they knew exactly what they'd done wrong.

I resisted the desire to make changes, but they only got a ten minute reprieve. We still looked lethargic in the opening stages of the second half, so we switched from the 4-3-3 we had been playing to a 4-2-3-1, with Towell and Stewart sitting deep and Murphy's debut coming to an end as he was replaced by Robinson. The Aston Villa man was put out on the left flank, with Jamie Walker shifted inside to play behind Appiah, who was asked to play on the shoulder of the last defender, rather than drop deep as he had been doing.

It began to pay off quickly as Towell got his foot on the ball and began to control midfield and within another ten minutes we had our equaliser. We'd been pushing Falkirk back, something they seemed perfectly happy with as they looked to protect what they had but when they failed to clear a corner, Appiah found Paterson in space and the right back, who made his breakthrough into the side as a striker, blasted a shot beyond Pears at the near post.

From the moment our second goal went in, it looked like only a matter of time before we got the third. Rather than trying to grab a winner themselves, Falkirk looked terrified of conceding again and retreated further and further back into their shells. All they did was give us as much of the ball as we wanted though and we still had plenty of time to fashion some good chances. Eventually the winner came when Robinson won the ball on the left and it was quickly shifted through Walker and out to Paterson on the right. Having scored our second, Paterson was in confident mood and his pin-point cross found the head of Appiah, who guided it beyond Pears and into the corner of the net.

Falkirk were disgusted that referee Kevin Graham hadn't given a foul when Robinson took the ball off Scott Shepherd, indeed Simon Ferry protested so vociferously that he earned himself a second yellow card and an early bath. With them down to ten men and us in the lead, we decided to ease off the gas for the final ten minutes, controlling the ball and the pace of the game as playing out time easily until the final whistle.

Hearts 3 – 2 Falkirk (Scottish Championship, 2/36)

(Nicholson 10; Hamilton (OG) 28; Smith 35; Paterson 62; Appiah 79; Ferry s/off 79)

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A decent start indeed. Always nice to get an early result over a team you expect to be a rival for the season.

-----------------

In hindsight it seemed obvious that, with three games packed into the opening week of the league season, we were going to pick up some injuries. Jamie Walker had taken a hefty blow on the top of his foot with fifteen minutes of the match against Falkirk still to go and the scores level, but with all three substitutes used he'd had to hobble through what remained of the game. We'd given the players who were in the matchday squad the following day off to rest up for the weekend, but Jamie was to be found in the treatment room.

The fear had initially been that there might be a small fracture that would keep him out for a few months, but thankfully once the docs were done with their tests it proved to be nothing more than some nasty bruising. The prognosis was that he'd be out of action for two, perhaps three weeks. Better than expected but still a pain in the arse.

There was worse news yet to come that day though. One of our scouts, former Wales international Andy Marriott, had been offered a contract by Premiership outfit Hamilton. Both George Adams and I rated Andy's opinion highly and spent much of the morning trying to convince him to stay put at Tynecastle, offering him a new deal and improved terms, but his mind was made up and he was off west. The £20,000 we received in compensation for him was scant consolation.

However, this was exactly why having an experienced man like George on my side was a Godsend. Immediately he began working his contacts in the game and brought in a fellow veteran of the Scottish ranks, Bobby Dickson, who had been working as Chief Scout at Queen's Park. The 61-year-old was only too happy to join our ranks, and George further swelled his scouting team with the recruitment of former Barcelona and Real Madrid talent spotter Arkaitz Mota, a 35-year-old who would hopefully help us continue the line of talented Spaniards who had taken to the Tynecastle pitch in the maroon jersey over the years. I still held a special place in my heart for Juanjo.

After a quick look in on how training was going for the young lads in the Under-20 squad, the rest of the day was spent looking over hours of player videos and scout reports. The latest recommendation from George's team was Joe Rothwell, a young midfielder who had been released by Manchester United at the end of the previous season. At 21, they clearly felt he hadn't progressed enough, but watching what little video we had on him made it clear that there was a player in him, confident on the ball and with a good reading of the game. He was perhaps lacking on the physical side of things, so we weren't entirely confident in pulling the trigger and offering him a deal, but both he and his agent seemed happy to accept a month-long trial to let us get to know him a bit better.

***



When the players reported back for training on Friday – a light session aimed mostly at recovery work before we went through some video analysis and tactics – it was clear that a few changes would have to be made for the trip to face Cowdenbeath at Central Park. Our pre-season hadn't prepared the lads yet for playing three games in a week, so Callum Paterson, Igor Rossi and Juwon Oshaniwa dropped out in defence, as did Kev Stewart in midfield and the front three was changed entirely, with Billy King, Gavin Reilly and Callum Robinson taking the places of Nicholson, Appiah and Walker.

We were given a warning sign early on when Nejc Praprotnik cut inside Liam Smith and shot from the edge of the penalty area, but Jack Hamilton held onto it comfortably, and within 30 seconds we were up the other end of the pitch, winning a penalty. Hamilton's clearing kick was worked out to Smith on the right and then back inside to Sean McKirdy. The youngster played a pass to Richie Towell, but the Irishman's attempted shot was blocked by Craig Reid and the ball fell to Robinson. However, before he could sort out his feet, Shaun Fraser barged into him from behind and the referee immediately pointed to the spot. Captain Luke Murphy handed the ball to Reilly and the striker, who only managed a single league goal last season, tucked away his penalty beyond Grant Adam.

Early goals are always a big boost and when we quickly added a second I felt relaxed enough to lean back in my seat in the dugout and smile. The hosts had pushed forward straight away after our opener, perhaps overreacting to our lead and a counter attack saw Billy King put away down the inside right channel. His pace took him into the penalty area and, where many would have shot from a tight angle, he showed his unselfishness to square the ball for Reilly who tapped in his second goal of the afternoon.

My relaxation didn't last for long though, as we were soon counter-punched in very similar fashion. It was part of our game plan to keep a high defensive line, but neither Danny Seabourne nor Liam Henderson were the fastest as a centre back partnership and a simple ball over the top from Praprotnik put Lewis Milne into the clear, with the midfielder having enough time to run in on goal, steady himself and finish calmly beyond Hamilton to halve their deficit.

In reality, their goal did little to dampen our dominance of the match. We continued to fashion chances, and good ones at that, but unlike in the first ten minutes we simply failed to put them away. The two most glaring misses both came from McKirdy, however, with the midfielder making a great late run into the box just after the half hour to meet Smith's cross, but his tame sidefoot volley was straight at Grant Adam. The next came just after half time when he sprang Cowdenbeath's attempts to play offside from Richie Towell's free kick and was unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box, but this time he didn't even make Adam work for his money as he fired over the bar.

It seemed like the game would progress this way for what remained of the match until the moment we were inevitably sucker-punched by an equaliser, but it took a turn for the much worse with twenty minutes remaining when Reilly fell awkwardly after going up for a header and came down heavily on his back. He lay there, motionless, as the medics from both sides ran on to help him and the sight of him being stretchered away with an oxygen mask on was hard to take, even if he did try to assuage fears with the standard thumbs up to the crowd as he departed the scene.

The injury meant we had to make our final sub earlier than I had planned, with Canadian winger Dario Zanatta taking his place on the left and Robinson moving up front. There was something of a muted feel to the rest of the match as we controlled possession, but as the clock ticked past the ninety minutes we secured the three points when Liam Smith marauded forward from full back and saw his shot saved, only for Zanatta to tap in the rebound.

Cowdenbeath 1 – 3 Hearts (Scottish Championship, 3/36)

(Reilly pen 7, 10; Milne 12; Zanatta 90+1)

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They want to keep him in for a few days, but it's not as bad as it looked.” I'd spent my Sunday morning travelling to Dunfermline where Gavin Reilly was still laid in a hospital bed, so when club captain Callum Paterson called me that afternoon I at least had something of an answer for him. The mood on the coach on the way home after the game had been sombre, but with the initial tests done it seemed that the damage to his spine was only relatively minor – thankfully no surgery was needed – and he'd make a full recovery. Our medical department had been allowed to look through the results and their best guess was that he'd be out for around three months, but they'd know better once he was back at the club and they could do a full check-up on him.

With the games coming thick and fast I had to leave Gavin to the nurses and head back across the bridge to Edinburgh, as Mason Holgate was due at Riccarton in the afternoon to undergo his medical and complete his loan move from Everton. The young defender, who could also play at right back, looked like he'd be a starter for us very quickly but recruiting him wasn't the end of our defensive plans. I still wanted another centre back and, with Fran Velez at Derby demanding £9,000 per week to even consider a move to Hearts, we had to consider other names.

Arkaitz Mota suggested taking a look at veteran Spaniard David García, who had played over 400 games for Las Palmas before finally leaving them in the summer. The 34-year-old looked like he could be a decent stop gap option, but my first choice was Murray Wallace. The former Rangers and Falkirk man would cost a lot and I wanted to be sure before I committed, so we dispatched Arkaitz to watch him in Scunthorpe's games against Coventry and Sheffield United.

***



Realistically, the last thing we needed was another midweek game as we tried to get some time on the training pitch with the players to address the issues which had arisen over the first few games. However, again we had just a light session on Monday before we were back into action on Tuesday evening, with our Challenge Cup second round tie taking us over to the west to face Ayr.

I decided to go with a young starting eleven, bolstered by some more experienced names on the bench, who I would try not to use if at all possible. However, there were a few first teamers who had to play from the start, with Callum Paterson taking the armband back from Luke Murphy and Kev Stewart coming back into midfield. With Neil Alexander and Juwon Oshaniwa in defence, helping out debutant Holgate, and Iain Vigurs starting in the middle, there were some old heads to guide the young lads.

On the night it turned out that Vigurs was the standout performer. He was exactly what a manager wants from an experienced pro in a team full of kids, controlling the game and giving a calm, composed performance. Add to that the fact that his set-piece delivery saw him bag three assists over the ninety minutes and I genuinely couldn't have asked for more.

The first came just before the half hour when Stewart won a free kick on the right flank and Vigurs' delivery was aimed perfectly onto the head of youngster Russell McLean. The striker had made four sub appearances in the previous season without getting on the scoresheet, but in his first professional start he guided a lovely header beyond Greg Fleming in Ayr's goal and wheeled away to celebrate.

It was the second half before we added to our tally for the evening, this time Vigurs' superb delivery coming from a corner, with which he found Callum Paterson who bulleted a powerful header into the corner of the net. Ayr had little to offer in an attacking sense and were just trying to keep the scoreline respectable, but we added a third in the final ten minutes when another Vigurs corner was headed in by Igor Rossi, who had come on for Paterson just after the hour, with Holgate shifting out to right back for the remainder of his debut.

It was tough to draw any conclusions about the Everton man on his first appearance for the club, such was the rarity of Ayr's attacks, but he seemed to offer what we wanted and certainly put himself in the conversation for the weekend's trip to Dunfermline.

Ayr 0 – 3 Hearts (Scottish League Challenge Cup, 2nd round)

(McLean 28; Paterson 52; Rossi 83)

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“Jesus Christ, I think an oil tanker would turn quicker than him.” I watched on as a simple ball over the top had left David García floundering, with Gavin Reilly running beyond him and calmly finishing past Neil Alexander. We were running a few attack v defence drills at the end of a long session during which the 34-year-old Spanish trialist had generally impressed, but pace was not his strong suit.

“Heads everything though.” Simon was right, of course. He had shown in just one day that he was imperious in the air, something I valued greatly at this level. But I couldn’t get past how long it had taken him to turn and get after Gavin. It could have been measured in ice ages.

“He’s captain material too, for when Callum’s rested.”

“And he clearly reads the game brilliantly. But f*ck me, Simon, you’re quicker than him. I think George is quicker than him.” The session ended and as the players headed off for their meal I wandered back to my office and flicked on my computer. There was an email waiting for me from Arkaitz, who had been in Scunthorpe watching Murray Wallace.

The game he’d attended handed ended well for Murray’s side, a 2-0 home defeat against Coventry but alongside fellow Scot Jamie Ness he was one of the few players on the losing side who came out of the clash with anything good to be said about them. It seemed to me reading the few pages that Arkaitz had put together on the game and Murray’s performance that he was a solid all round defender – no particular weak spots but nothing that marked him out as exceptional either.

His strength and work rate were highlighted as his best features, while it was noted that he did get beat in the air a few times but he was comfortable on the ball, had enough pace and generally made good decisions. He was going to cost the best part of a million pounds, perhaps even more, but had a solid base and the capacity to improve. It was coming down to a straight choice between a good all-round project player or a stop-gap who tackled and headed everything in sight but curled up in the foetal position at the merest hint of pace. This wasn’t going to be an easy choice.

***



It was a rare night that I got away from the club early, but we’d shelved the García v Wallace discussion until Arkaitz had another chance to watch Murray in action at the weekend and so by five o’clock I was done for the day. I’d put together the information for the tactical and video session we had scheduled with the lads in the morning and so I jumped in the car and set off on the drive home before anything else could come up which needed my attention.

Be home by six. Should I pick up a pizza? I pressed send on the text to Amy as I turned onto the city bypass and continued on my way. So often I had to lock myself away in the office of an evening and slog through whichever mountain of work I had to do that we only really got chance to speak to each other when we sat down to eat. But the prospect of a night on the sofa with Netflix on the telly – Person of Interest was the latest series she’d got me hooked into – had me as excited as a kid in a sweet shop.

It had been a long week though and stuffed full of pizza and wine I fell asleep somewhere in the middle of the third episode of the night, occasionally catching the sound of my own snoring and startling myself awake, only to drift off again a few seconds later. When next I woke, a blanket had been pulled over me and a cushion placed beneath my head. There was no sign of Amy and it was pitch black in the room around me as I sat up and rubbed my eyes. I rummaged around in my pockets for my phone and hit the lock button, the screen lighting up and hurting my eyes for a moment. Almost 2am. I’d been out for hours. I hadn’t felt so relaxed in months. I crept upstairs as quietly as I could and slipped into bed beside Amy, gently kissing her bare shoulder before I turned over and drifted off again, knowing that tomorrow it would be nose to the grindstone again.

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“It’s f*cking August. How’s it this f*cking cold?”

“It’s Edinburgh. What are you expecting?” Simon Donnelly had a smile on his face as he laughed at me running back in from the chill day as the players warmed up on the pitch. I suppose he was right; I should be more thankful that it wasn’t raining than moaning about the lack of sun. I’d lived here most of my life, I should have been used to it by now.

Perhaps I should also have been focusing on what threats Dunfermline might pose on their visit to Tynecastle, but something about the way the players were going through their drills and the atmosphere in the when they had arrived had me calm and confident about the game ahead. They were focused, determined and on-form, today was going to be a good day.

Even Mason Holgate looked at home. I’d expected a few nerves from the 19-year-old ahead of his league debut but he was as calm as any of the other lads, sharing a few jokes with Igor Rossi in the broken English the Brazilian could manage and getting to know his fellow loanee from the north-west, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. They were part of a very strong side I’d been able to put out, with Sam Nicholson back on the right, my favoured midfield trio of Stewart, Murphy and Towell and Kwesi Appiah coming in for the injured Gavin Reilly.

My expectations of an enjoyable Saturday afternoon were confirmed as early as the seventh minute when we took the lead. We’d already picked Dunfermline’s defence apart a couple of times since the start of the match when Nicholson laid a ball off to Appiah and he slid in a pass which put Towell clear. The Irishman’s powerful shot was saved by Robby McCrorie, but the rebound cannoned into defender Lewis Martin and rolled into the back of the net.

It was a nice feeling as a coach too, as during our tactical session we’d worked on getting the ball out wide and then quickly back into the middle when just outside their penalty area, the theory being that their full backs tended to follow the ball and therefore we could expose space around their central defenders. However, it was from a set piece that we grabbed our second goal some nine minutes later.

I would never style myself on Tony Pulis and his use of Rory Delap, but one undoubted talent that Callum Paterson possessed was to launch the ball into a crowded penalty area from the touchline. In the 16th minute, he did just that and Callum Robinson got to the front post to win the flick on but it looked like the chance might have been missed when Igor Rossi smashed his effort straight at McCrorie from five yards out. However, Borthwick-Jackson was alert to the situation and reacted quickest to the rebound, sliding in to stab it home and double our lead with his first goal for the club.

If we didn’t quite feel ready to put our feet up after that, we certainly did four minutes later. Again the plan we had set in place came into play, with Towell pushing a pass wide to an unmarked Paterson on the right flank. Immediately Dunfermline left back Jason Talbot raced over to cover and Callum passed inside to Appiah. With the defence struggling to cover the gaps, Robinson made a run in behind which Appiah found with ease and the Aston Villa man took a touch before battering a shot beyond McCrorie.

The players knew that even with 70 minutes of the match still to play, the game was done and the points were won unless they did something drastic and stupid and they found no dissent from the sidelines. With another cup tie scheduled for Tuesday evening we got the message on for them to control the ball but ease the pace. There was no need to put the pressure on anymore. Take chances if they came but just keep it calm, sensible and most of all exert as little energy as possible in ensuring that the game remained safe.

They carried out the instructions perfectly until the 87th minute and by that time it was too late to matter much. Frankly, even if they’d been playing for their lives there would have been little they could have done about the fluke that got the Pars on the scoresheet. The ball came out to Daniel Carmichael, forty yards from goal on the right flank and his attempt to hit a crossfield pass was so wildly inaccurate that it sailed over the head of Jack Hamilton and into the corner of the net. At least he had the decency to barely celebrate.

As well as maintaining our unbeaten start to the season, the three points kept us well in touch with Rangers, who looked set to be an immovable object in our path to promotion. Callum Davidson’s side had put Queen of the South to the sword at Ibrox that afternoon, meaning they had won each of their four opening games, scoring thirteen goals in the process. All we could do was stick close and hope they eventually tripped up.

Hearts 3 – 1 Dunfermline (Scottish Championship, 4/36)

(Martin (OG) 7; Borthwick-Jackson 16; Robinson 20; Carmichael 87)

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“I don’t know, breaking the transfer record again? Do we want to be seen as a club who operates like that? We’re Hearts, we bring lads through.”

“That’s small time thinking, Patrick. We’ve still got plenty of lads who came through the academy. And you can play Liam Henderson as your starting centre back for the season if you want, see how far that gets you.”

“I guess I just didn’t expect to be spending like this.”

“You’re the first manager I’ve worked with to moan about being given money to spend.” I laughed at the thought.

“We can give David García a contract.”

“On your hear be it, you’ve got final say.” I got up from my behind my cheap pine desk and strolled over to the small window that looked out over the training pitches. The rain was hammering down as I mulled over the options before me.

“Get Murray’s agent on the phone.” I only had a one-year contract, realistically at this stage I didn’t have the luxury to play the long game that I might ideally have wanted to. Liam Henderson, though naturally a left back, might make a workable option in the centre given time, but to front a promotion challenge in what might be my only season as manager at the club? That would be a risk. And who was I kidding myself, David García was never really an option. He’d even been outpaced by the goalkeepers in a sprint test among the players that morning.

The deal for Murray Wallace would see us pay Scunthorpe £500,000 up front, with a further £750,000 in instalments over the next two years. Once we’d come to an agreement with the club, George went to work on the player and his agent, which went as smoothly as could have been hoped. A three-year deal worth over £4,000 per week – a figure which would rise by almost a third should we be promoted to the top flight – was agreed and he was told to pack a suitcase and be at Riccarton in the morning for a medical and to complete the paperwork. With any luck he’d be available for me to select for the weekend’s trip to Dumfries.

***



Before that, however, we had the small matter of facing Cowdenbeath in the second round of the League Cup. Having already put them to the sword in the league I felt confident that we could repeat the dose at Tynecastle, and with Murray having completed the formalities on his deal in the morning, in time to be presented to the crowd during half time in the game, there was a positive feeling all around the club.

It took less than forty-five minutes of the match for that positivity to drain through the floor and for those in attendance at Tynecastle to return to their miserable selves. There are few crowds I’d come across in my years in the game who were as quick to moan as those at Hearts, but I suppose I had to see their side of things when we were trailing at half time against a side who were likely to spend the season battling against relegation.

The first blow of the evening had come when Dario Zanatta had to be helped from the pitch with a knee injury which the doc said on first look appeared to be a nasty ligament strain; a good couple of months on the sidelines for our young Canadian international. The visitors took advantage of our uncertainty as we shifted things around with Soufian El Hassnaoui coming on for Dario and within five minutes they had the lead, Nejc Praprotnik doing just enough to stab the ball past Neil Alexander and open the scoring.

I hadn’t anticipated having to have strong words with the players during the interval and the mood in the stands somewhat dampened the enthusiasm for having Murray paraded on the pitch, holding aloft a maroon and white scarf, but nevertheless I tore into a few of them. Veteran Liam Fox was having a stinker in the middle of the park, while young Sean McKirdy wasn’t doing his hopes of nailing down a more regular starting position any good whatsoever.

Still, I resisted the temptation to make further changes, giving the players who had got us into this situation the chance to get us out of it. The performance level did pick up a little during the second half, enough at least to grab an equaliser but no more. Just after the hour, Danny Seabourne punted the ball long down the left flank for Callum Robinson to chase. With the striker out of position, Billy King got on his bike to arrive at the back post just in time to meet Robinson’s cross with a deft sidefoot finish and bring us level.

In the remaining half hour we sent on Richie Towell for Iain Vigurs and Sam Nicholson for goalscorer King, but even the arrival of two of our best players did little for our prospects of winning the game in ninety minutes. Even the first half of extra time passed by without incident, Cowdenbeath determined at least to hold on for a penalty shoot-out as their best hope of getting something out of the match. But finally as penalties loomed, our superior fitness began to tell over the Blue Brazil and twice in the last eight minutes Nicholson got on the end of crosses from right back Liam Smith to score and put us into the hat for the third round.

Hearts 3 – 1 Cowdenbeath (A.E.T) (Scottish League Cup, 2nd Round)

(Praprotnik 37; King 62; Nicholson 112, 116)

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“F*cking roll on next Thursday when all this sh*t is done and gone until January.” I was getting sick of transfers. I longed for a day when George Adams didn’t knock on my office door with another player to recommend or news of another bid for one of our players. I just wanted to know who we had, work with them, improve them where we could and get results on the pitch. I was getting close to telling George he could handle everything on the transfer front, even deciding who we would sign, but I wasn’t quite that exasperated yet.

For some reason Leeds had it in their head that we would happily sell Russell McLean, one of our best young prospects, for less than £100,000 – and less than £20,000 as an upfront payment. To be fair to George, this was an area of the squad where he had total autonomy and he was just letting me know that he’d told Leeds exactly where they could shove their bid, but also that he’d offered Russell a new contract as the young lad was entering the final year of his current deal.

I thanked him and headed down to the training pitch where I was greeted by the good news from the medical team that Jamie Walker was cleared to fully take part in the sessions again and could be picked in the squad as well. However, with just one session under his belt I wasn’t going to consider him for the game the next day; there was a two-week gap thanks to the international break afterwards and we could spend that getting his fitness levels back up to where they needed to be, then bring him back into the line-up for the visit of Rangers.

***



Jamie’s absence from the squad meant that Richie Towell and Billy King kept their places without challenge for the trip to face Queen of the South. Dumfries’ finest had a mixed start to the campaign, securing wins over Cowdenbeath and St Mirren but losing heavily to both Dunfermline and Rangers, the latter of which had been a 4-0 battering the previous weekend. I was certainly confident that we could add to their column of losses and was starting to settle down on what was going to be my strongest team for the season, with Mason Holgate joined for his debut by Murray Wallace in the centre of defence, while Billy King and Sam Nicholson took the spots either side of Kwesi Appiah in the front three.

One thing that I had perhaps glossed over in my frustration at our profligacy in front of goal was that we were playing some wonderful football in the build-up. I was determined that we were going to dominate possession as much as possible, force the opposition to tire themselves out in chasing us down and then strike. Or just pass it round them and score beautiful goals.

That was what happened in the 12th minute when a series of quick passes through the middle gave King the space to play a pass out to the left for Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. The left back was eager to get forward at any and every opportunity and his cross was perfectly placed for Appiah to sidefoot a shot beyond Robbie Thomson in the home side’s goal.

We’d already missed two chances before Appiah found the net and we missed another when the Ghanaian was played clear by a gorgeous pass from Richie Towell but shot straight at Thomson when one-on-one. A second goal could have also come when Callum Paterson marauded down the right flank and played a one-two with Nicholson before watching his shot crack back off the post.

The second goal which we fully deserved wasn’t long in coming though, when Sam Nicholson started a move with a jinking run through the centre of the park. He shifted a pass inside to Kevin Stewart, who in turn played it out to Borthwick-Jackson. Nicholson had kept his run going and Cameron played a pass into his path, giving Sam the chance to fire in a first time shot which flicked off the underside of the crossbar and into the back of the net – his sixth goal of an already impressive season.

Getting both full backs forward to stretch Queen’s defence was turning out to be the best attacking ploy we had in the match and it was providing chance after chance as we continued to dominate. In the 35th minute, Borthwick-Jackson should have had a hat-trick of assists when he slid a ball across the six-yard box but Paterson shot wide as Thomson raced off his line to close him down.

The half-time break was spent trying to ensure that the players didn’t get complacent about their superiority in the contest. The hosts had barely laid a glove on us and Murray Wallace was being given the easiest of introductions into our side, but I was aware that even a slight slip could see that change in an instant and I wanted to make sure that they kept their wits and concentration about them.

In truth I might have gone a little too far in my warnings as the second half turned into little of an event as we seemed reticent to get forward as much as we had before the interval and the hosts sat back determined not to lose as heavily as they had against Rangers. In a way it suited both sides to simply play out time until the final whistle came and that’s what happened as we picked up another three points, keeping us just two behind Callum Davidson’s Rangers, who made it five wins from five with a 2-0 success over St Mirren at Ibrox.

Queen of the South 0 – 2 Hearts (Scottish Championship, 5/36)

(Appiah 12; Nicholson 24)

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Apologies for the extended break, I've had a few other things on my plate recently. Back now though.

----------------------------------

The worst day of the season. That’s what I’d quickly come to learn in my short time as a football manager. Transfer deadline day was the worst day of the season. I’d long since grown sick of dealing with transfers. We’d had a busier summer than most with too many of our players demanding moves to greener prospects but it still felt like my first few months in the job had mostly been spent dealing with selling and signing rather than actually on the pitch coaching.

The final day of the summer window got off to a bad start when George Adams told me that he’d accepted a £30,000from Leeds for young winger Callum Morrison. The deal had the potential to rise to £110,000 with performance-related add-ons, but I still thought that was low for a player of Callum’s potential. With the news that Soufiane El Hassnaoui was going to miss four to five months with a hernia too, meaning all the clubs interested in him were going to hold fire, it felt like it was going to be a bad day.

That also meant we needed more strength in depth out wide. Had Morrison been available to me in the absence of both El Hassnaoui and Dario Zanatta, I’d have given the youngster his chance but he was on his way south for a medical at Elland Road and though I considered asking George to pull the plug on the deal, I decided to let it progress.

Our Spanish scout Arkaitz Mota had been extolling the virtues of Albacete winger Santi Jara in the previous days, suggesting the 25-year-old would fit well with what we wanted to do and in the circumstances we didn’t have much time to debate, so quickly agreed a £100,000 fee with the Spanish club and got Santi on the next flight to Edinburgh.

Just as the dust settled on that, however, we were dealt another blow. Derby came in with an offer matching the £1,000,000 up front that we’d been asking for Jamie Walker. Given that we’d told him we’d accept any bids which met our valuation, we were honour bound to do so and once we told him that he was free to talk to them, he bolted out of the training ground to make sure he could do the deal in time. Naturally, that meant we needed another attacking midfielder and George placed a few calls to a few agents, coming away with an interesting name. Dundee United were willing to let Charlie Telfer leave on loan for the season and the former Rangers man was a very talented prospect, so we agreed to their demands to pay his small wages for the season.

As the day ended with the deals done though, the biggest success was that we’d managed to keep hold of Callum Paterson and Sam Nicholson. We’d spoken to both earlier in the day and told them that there hadn’t been any interest which matched what we thought they were worth. Both lads took the news well, said they were happy to stay and commit themselves to winning promotion for the club. It was exactly the reaction I was after, and as Callum left for the day he even mentioned that he might talk to his agent about sorting out a new contract.

In the next few days I took those words to heart and so did George. When the morning came round we were on the phone and trying to sort out a deal. With the international break meaning that we had a good gap before we took to the field again we had time to dedicate to working things out, but it took only three days to come to an agreement. A new four-year deal, taking his wage from £1,700 per week to £3,000, then up another thousand when we reached the Premiership. Added to that was a cast-iron release clause of £3,500,000 which reduced to £2,400,000 if we didn’t win promotion this season. It was a deal which suited all parties and certainly made the fans happy when it was announced.

***



The international break also afforded me the chance to spend a bit more time with Amy, and with the Paterson deal in the bag we decided to take a weekend away. It was last minute but at the start of September there were still plenty of deals to be had and so on Friday evening we quickly packed some clothes, dug out the passports and headed to the airport to catch a flight to Madrid. Three hours later we were touching down on Spanish soil, greeted by a particularly unwelcome rain but almost giddy at the prospect of two full days with no distractions – she’d made me promise to leave me phone at home.

It was a wonderful weekend spent walking around the beautiful city, sitting outside numerous bars with cold beers and watching the world go by. At one point we came in sight of the Santiago Bernabeu and, though I’d promised that there would be no football to spoil things – I spent a few seconds looking up in awe at the mighty arena which had seen some of the game’s greatest names grace its turf.

By Monday morning when we were back at the airport waiting for our flight home I was refreshed and ready to go again into the heart of the season, as well as feeling as close to Amy as I ever had. As we took our seats on the plane and she lay her head on my shoulder and began to drift away into sleep I took a moment to think about how lucky I was.

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Although there had been plenty of wheeling and dealing on deadline day, there was only one change made to the starting line-up for the visit of Rangers to Tynecastle. Callum Robinson came into the front three in place of Billy King, while Santi Jara and Charlie Telfer had to make do with places on the bench. Both had impressed significantly in the week or so of training they’d had since joining us, but with the team having made a solid start to the season I was loathe to throw them in straight away and potentially disrupt things, particularly in such a crucial game.

Everyone expected Rangers to take the title this season. They’d had two cracks at winning promotion from the Championship and come up short both times, but this was their year. Some of the kinder pundits thought we might give them a run for maybe half the campaign, but the expectation was clear; come May Rangers would be lifting the title by a good ten-point margin.

Although that irritated me, I did understand why everyone was so convinced by it. Looking on paper they seemed to have the better squad – they certainly paid much better wages – and we were coming off the back of a relegation with a squad weakened by having to sell some of our best players. We had been the division’s biggest spenders in the transfer window, splashing out £2,800,000 but we brought in £5,700,000 in fees for the players who were moved out and the press were very much treating us as a team who were three million pounds worse off in talent rather than one who’d got some good deals done.

While the fans around the ground were clearly enjoying themselves in the build up to the match, I was, to use an indelicate phrase, ******** bricks. The game had been picked up for TV coverage which was something I could have done without, having to go through the rigmarole of TV interviews, answering even more banal questions than the print journalists could come up with as I tried to prepare the team for the game.

The opening half hour of the match was as tense as I felt. There was no arrogance about the Rangers side, they clearly respected us and didn’t want to overcommit forward in our back yard. For our part, we did our best to continue our path of dominating the ball, probing for weakness and trying to strike when we found it. In truth there wasn’t much success for either side in that first thirty minutes, it passed like the opening rounds of an evenly matched fight in which the boxers tease each other with jabs. The first solid blow landed came from us in the 32nd minute when Richie Towell found an inch of space and threaded a lovely ball through to Kwesi Appiah but his shot cannoned back off the crossbar.

Buoyed by that brief moment though, we began to take control of the match and Rangers began to shrink a little further back into their shells. This was not the side who had been battering every team they came across in the season so far. And as half time beckoned we finally made the breakthrough. A run down the left by Cameron Borthwick-Jackson put the full back in space and he cut a pass back to Towell on the edge of the box. The Irishman chipped a gorgeous ball to the back post where Sam Nicholson had got away from Lee Wallace and guided a header onto the inside of the far post, watching as it slowly bounced over the line before racing into the crowd to celebrate wildly.

Half time was mostly spent trying to calm the players down as they were still on a high from the goal when the referee blew his whistle for the interval. We could have hoped for little better than we’d got during the first forty-five minutes but we knew at some point they would fight back and we had to be on our guard against it. We told the players to keep doing exactly as they had, controlling the ball, looking for opportunities but at the same time not losing their shape and discipline in defence.

They performed admirably. We began the second half with every measure on control with which we’d finished the first and, though it took another half hour to come, when our second goal did arrive it was thoroughly deserved. In the 71st minute, Santi Jara had been sent on in place of Callum Robinson to make his debut, with Nicholson switching to the left wing and Santi taking up a place on the right. It didn’t take long for the Spaniard to make an impact as Kevin Stewart played an inch-perfect ball for him to run onto and his finish was fired low and hard past Wes Foderingham at the near post.

The game was dead and buried and all we had to do was see it out, a job which we were doing perfectly until the 86th minute. Even during the tighter opening of the first half, Rangers had created nothing notable in terms of a chance on goal, but with less than five minutes left they won a free kick for an innocuous foul on halfway. James Tavernier launched the ball into the box and no one won the header, allowing it to fall to the unmarked Luca Gasparotto at the back post, who had enough time to take a touch before sweeping a shot beyond Jack Hamilton. Out of absolutely nothing they had halved the gap and we began to panic.

Rangers swamped forward in search of an equaliser and won a corner, which Jason Holt fired into the box. Igor Rossi managed to head it clear to the edge of the area, but waiting there was Josh Windass, who fired a half-volley goalwards. His effort cracked off the crossbar but the rebound fell to Gasparotto, who tucked it in to bring the scores level. The Rangers fans behind the goal went crazy and my head fell into my hands until I felt Simon Donnelly tapping me on the shoulder and opened my eyes to see him pointing towards the assistant on the near side. His flag was raised. Offside. The referee was doing his best to tell the Rangers players that a free kick had been awarded. By the skin of our teeth we had survived and with Rangers brought crashing back to Earth they had nothing left in the tanks to force another threatening attack as we played out time until the end of the match.

Hearts 2 – 1 Rangers (Scottish Championship, 6/36)

(Nicholson 45; Jara 75; Gasparotto 86)

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Nice work Terk, and a win against Rangers. Couldn't ask for much more than that.

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Thanks chaps. It has been a great start to the season and to beat Rangers topped it off nicely. Long way to go yet though.

----------------------

For someone who was unhappy with the drinking culture that washed through Scottish football for so long and prided himself on his professional approach throughout his career, I should perhaps have been a little stricter about the celebrations on Saturday night. After all, it was only the first of four times we would play Rangers and the sixth of a thirty-six game season. Yes, the win had put us top of the league and we had dominated a match against the favourites for the title and I could understand the players wanting to celebrate that, given that they had Sunday off to recover, but with plenty of beer having already bene drunk before they left the stadium and headed into town for the night, I could have done a better job of keeping a lid on things.

Thankfully on Monday morning there were no stories to wake up to of them getting themselves into bother, though I have to admit I didn’t sleep all that well worrying about it in the intervening time. I had decided to take Sunday off as well and tried to relax at home with a newspaper and some trash on the TV but I was overly anxious and tried texting a number of the players to find out if anything had happened the night before.

A few were still slightly the worse for wear as we reconvened on Monday morning for training and, as such, I couldn’t stop myself from giving them a few more fitness drills to deal with than we’d normally put them through. By Tuesday everyone was back on form though and we began to look ahead to the weekend’s game, one that might feature a new face in the squad.

Former Manchester United midfielder Joe Rothwell had impressed throughout his trial period, both in training with the senior squad and the three games he’d played with the youth team. He certainly looked like he might have a future with us and as he was a free agent before the transfer window shut, we had been in no hurry to secure a deal. However, with a few English Championship clubs having watched him and started to firm up their interest, it was time to put a deal on the table and he quickly signed a two-year contract worth £900 per week.

***



Although Joe didn’t make it into the matchday squad for the visit of St Mirren, he was very much in the discussion for the midweek league cup fixture we had coming up. That was the only thought I’d given to the Hamilton match though, with the line-up for the clash with the Buddies featuring my strongest side, the only change from the Rangers game seeing Santi Jara come in for his first start, with Callum Robinson dropping to the bench and Sam Nicholson moving over to the left flank.

There was something of a swagger about the players after the previous week’s result, as well as the knowledge that St Mirren had only won two of their first six league games and were coming off the back of a disappointing 1-1 draw against Falkirk back in Paisley. That confidence certainly translated itself onto the pitch – if not the scoreline – in the early stages of the first half as we continued to play the dominant passing game for which we were starting to build a reputation, even in the Scottish press which still largely ignored anything but Rangers outside the Premiership.

The visitors played a very narrow back four with their full backs rarely venturing outside the width of the penalty area and sat deep, challenging us to break them down. That didn’t slow us down much as we just focused on getting the ball wide for Sam and Santi to cause them problems and made sure that both our full backs were pressing on to join in the attack. Nor did their deep block defence mean we had to resort to shots from distance as, of the 11 shots we had on goal in the first 45 minutes, 10 were from inside the box. The only problem was, they weren’t very accurate, with more than half being fired well off target.

However, it was the 12th shot that proved to be the crucial one, coming a minute into added time at the end of the first half. Again we attacked down the flank as Santi Jara played a pass to find Callum Paterson in space and the flying right back swung a low cross into the six-yard box which Kwesi Appiah poked home from close range.

The second half continued in much the same manner and even as we made our substitutions – with Billy King replacing Jara just before the hour mark, then Iain Vigurs and Callum Robinson taking the places of Luke Murphy and Appiah respectively – we didn’t miss a beat in our frustrating domination of the match. We carved out chance after chance no matter how St Mirren tried to stop us but our shooting was as wayward as I had ever seen it. There never felt like being any threat of St Mirren grabbing an equaliser but nor could I ever feel comfortable in a one-goal lead.

It wasn’t until injury time at the end of the match – and our 22nd shot on goal of the contest – that we finally extended our lead to at the very least what our play deserved. In the final five minutes the visitors had tried to press forward slightly in search of the most unlikely of levellers, but all that did was provide us with more space to attack them as King lofted a ball forward over the top of their back four and Robinson ran onto it, taking one touch to steady himself before sliding a shot beyond Craig Samson in the St Mirren goal.

Hearts 2 – 0 St Mirren (Scottish Championship, 7/36)

(Appiah 45+1; Robinson 90+1)

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“This football management sh*t is easy.” My tongue was firmly in my cheek as I talked to George following Monday’s training session but my confidence was certainly high. Eight straight wins in all competitions and no defeats in my nine-game managerial career was a nice way to start things, though I was also careful about pride coming before a fall. George and I had convened to discuss what our plans might be for the January window and how he might direct his scouting pool.

“I’m still not sure about our options up front. Kwesi’s done fine and Callum’s looked good in flashes but they’re both loans, we can’t plan anything with them in mind. If you can dig out a striker we can afford who might be a little less profligate with his shooting, I’d be very interested.” George was in basic agreement with me, though he thought higher of Gavin Reilly’s chances of cementing his place in the starting line up once he’d returned from injury than I did. Or, to be more accurate, than I saw him being as a long term option.

There wasn’t too much time to focus so far ahead though, with another game coming up. The Championship in Scotland isn’t the sort of league in which the games usually come thick and fast, for a start it has ten fewer games than its English namesake but this was one midweek in which we’d be pressed into action as Hamilton paid a visit to Tynecastle in the third round of the league cup.

Our Premiership opponents had been made clear favourites for the match and it was perfectly understandable why. They came into the match on the back of three straight wins in the league – over Hibs, Kilmarnock and Motherwell – which had left them sitting in third place after seven games. Player/manager Martin Canning, who had been in charge for some 18 months since the departure of Alex Neil to Norwich, had got his players firing and performing above all expectations. This was undoubtedly going to be a tough test of our talents.

The assumption of their victory was made even more certain when we named our team and Callum Paterson was fit enough only for the bench. Indeed, such was the fatigue he’d shown in training the previous day I’d strongly considered leaving him out of the squad altogether but instead decided to have him there just in case of emergency.

There were a couple of other changes made for the necessity of keeping lads fit, as Neil Alexander came in for Jack Hamilton in goal, and took the captain’s armband vacated by Paterson, while Liam Smith took the full back’s place on the pitch. In midfield, Iain Vigurs and Charlie Telfer came in for Luke Murphy and Richie Towell, while Callum Robinson came back in give Santi Jara a rest as even after an early sub against St Mirren he was still struggling to get back up to speed.

Hamilton too made three changes from their weekend whipping of Motherwell but they sent out a strong team with the prize of a place in the quarter finals at stake. Given how the first half played out though, they’d have perhaps been better fielding the exact same team who’d beaten the Steelmen so easily, though at least the changes gave them something of an excuse to hang onto for our domination of the game.

That domination came to fruition in the 20th minute of the match when Liam Smith, who had seamlessly filled the role vacated by Paterson and caused no end of trouble with his runs down the right flank, arrived first to a half-cleared header. Gathering the ball just outside the penalty area on the right, he chipped in an exquisite cross, finding the head of the unmarked Kwesi Appiah who nodded in his fifth goal of the season – so much for my concerns about him not being efficient enough in front of goal.

Appiah almost had his second just after the half hour but we were only denied extending our lead for roughly a second. After Vigurs was brought down by a rough challenge on the left wing – something which was a recurring theme throughout the game as Hamilton regularly forced the referee to intervene – Telfer claimed the free kick and made his claim for more regular game time with a perfectly weighted delivery into the six-yard box, which Appiah headed against the underside of the crossbar. Thankfully, Murray Wallace was the only one alert to the rebound and the centre back tucked the ball away into the open net to claim his first goal for the club.

We could and perhaps should have gone further in front as the game pressed on – such was becoming the story of our season – but the players seemed content to sit on their two goal advantage and play the game out. They were given a moment of pause when half time substitute Liam Caddis got in behind our defence to turn home a cross from Danny Redmond with just over ten minutes remaining but that brief hiccup aside we were in total control and no result other than our victory looked even remotely likely. We might be in the second tier for the moment, but in winning so comfortably we had proved in our own minds if nothing else that we were one of the best sides in the country.

Hearts 2 – 1 Hamilton (Scottish League Cup, 3rd Round)

(Appiah 20; Wallace 31; Caddis 79)

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I flicked on the TV just in time as the draw was just about to get underway. After our victory over Hamilton, I’d set my sights on a potential trip to Hampden so my only requirement for the draw was clear. Not Celtic.

“So now I’d like to ask Billy Dodds to draw the first home team for the quarter finals.” Billy dipped his hand into the bowl, gave them a swirl around and pulled one out. After fumbling with it to pull out the piece of paper he held it up to the camera.

“Celtic. A home draw for Ronny Deila’s side. And they will play…” Gordon Strachan delved into the bowl to consign one of the remaining seven teams to defeat.

“St Johnstone.” Thank f*ck. The next tie out saw Rangers given a trip north to face Ross County, another away journey I was pleased we wouldn’t have to face. That left Dundee, Motherwell and Raith Rovers. Raith at Tynecastle would be too good to be true.

“And the third tie of the round will be…” A quick mix of the balls for Billy and out came “Dundee, struggling a bit this season and hoping for a good run for a bit of momentum. And they’ll be playing…” Gordon unrolled the piece of paper he’d picked out and held it up. “Hearts, flying high in the Championship. A potential cracker of a tie.”

It wasn’t quite what I’d been hoping for but better than it could have been. At least it wasn’t that long an away trip and Dundee were a much worse team than Hamilton, sitting bottom of the Premiership and looking for all the world like they'd be in the Championship next season. It gave us a definite chance of edging our way into the last four. “And that concludes the draw for the quarter finals of the Scottish League Cup, the ties will be played on Tuesday 25th and Wednesday 26th October.”

The focus was quickly back on our league campaign though and the visit of Morton to Tynecastle. We’d have to put together a squad for the day without Igor Rossi, who had strained a stomach muscle during a gym session and would have to sit out up to a month of action. With Murray Wallace needing a rest after his exertions in the early weeks of the season it meant a rare start for Danny Seabourne, partnering Mason Holgate at centre back.

The rest of the defence was our strongest options, with the first choice midfield trio of Stewart, Murphy and Towell reunited as well. However, my ever rotating front three landed on Santi Jara, Billy King and Kwesi Appiah as I continued to look for a combination which set things on fire.

After a poor start which had seen Morton lose their first four games of the campaign, Jim Duffy’s side had bounced back in recent weeks with consecutive wins over Cowdenbeath, Dunfermline and Queen of the South to boost them up the table. That still kept them ten points behind us though and we had to be strong favourites for a comfortable victory.

The opening ten minutes showed just why as we managed seven shots on goal, though only one of them, a clipped effort from Cameron Borthwick-Jackson from just outside the penalty area, forced Derek Gaston into a save. After that initially flurry of domination, things calmed down over the next quarter of an hour and we didn’t trouble Gaston again until we took the lead. The goal came in the 27th minute and was a perfect example of the virtue of patience.

With Morton sitting deep we were struggling to find a way around them and the crowd were getting restless, as is so often the case at Tynecastle. Shouts encouraging the players to get the ball wide were clearly audible in a generally silent atmosphere, but after keeping the ball just outside their box for what seemed like an age, finally Richie Towell spotted the opening and slipped a perfectly weighted pass into the path of Billy King’s run. The winger didn’t even need to take a touch, instead just curling a first time effort in off the inside of the post, giving Gaston absolutely no chance of keeping it out.

We should have had more by half time as both Appiah and Seabourne headed wide of the target when unmarked from corners, while King and Santi Jara both drew good saves from Gaston as we tried to make the scoreline reflect the domination we’d had on the game. I was never worried that we’d be punished for our profligacy though, as Morton hadn’t even mustered a shot off target and seven minutes into the second half we finally doubled our advantage when Jara cut a pass back to the edge of the penalty area and Luke Murphy drilled a powerful shot into the top corner of the net.

The remaining time in the game saw us pepper the stands with yet more off target shots as we proved that it really was the worst thing about our game. Still, I suppose it’s good that it was the biggest thing we had to moan about as we cruised to a seventh successive league win which kept us firmly at the top of the table, although Rangers remained on our heels.

Hearts 2 – 0 Morton (Scottish Championship, 8/36)

(King 27; Murphy 52)

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“Christ, get that sh*te off my telly.” Amy had walked into the room as I was watching Liverpool in their Europa League campaign. Things hadn’t gone as well as I’d hoped when I moved to Anfield as a player but I still retained an affection for both the club and the city. However, being from an Evertonian family, Amy had taken enough grief about dating a Liverpool player – she certainly had no desire to sit and watch their games.

I blew her a kiss and turned my attention back to the game, the second in the group stage. Having won their opening match on the road they were back in front of a packed Anfield and hoping to give themselves another boost towards the knockout stages. It was interesting to watch a side who were perfectly capable of making the most of their chances and from eight shots on target in the game, Jurgen Klopp’s side scored four goals, a brace from Divock Origi added to by efforts from Marko Grujic and Lazar Markovic. OK, so my players weren’t on the same level of talent as those guys, but neither were Morton a side like Vitória de Guimarães – hitting the target and troubling the goalkeeper shouldn’t be the Herculean task we made it out to be.

The game was just about over when my phone rang with a number I didn’t recognise. It was nearly ten at night and I’d been thinking about turning in for the night when the ref blew for full time but I answered anyway, trying to sound polite.

“Hi Patrick. It’s Rémi Garde.” My attempts to keep the bewilderment out of my voice almost certainly failed. Why on Earth was the Aston Villa manager calling me?

“Sorry to call so late but I had a busy day. I wanted to talk about Callum Robinson.” OK, so it made a bit more sense now.

“Sure, he’s doing well. Good lad.”

“Yes, but when you asked to take him on loan you told us he would be playing as a striker. My scouts have been watching the videos you’ve sent and he’s on the left all the time. We have no interest in him learning to be a winger.” That explained the edge in his tone as well. There was silence on the line for a few moments while I tried to think of how to respond.

“Patrick, are you still there.”

“Yes, yes, I’m here. I understand you’re not happy, but he wouldn’t be starting games if we only played him as a striker. We have Kwesi Appiah who is playing that role and doing well. We felt it would be more important that Callum got time on the pitch than sat on the bench waiting for a chance as a striker.”

“Indeed, but if you had been honest about his chances as a striker we would have sent him to a different team. One where he would be the first choice.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way but I have to do what is best for my team. Callum’s a good player and we’re happy to have him. He’ll get some games through the middle and some out wide. If you’re not happy with that perhaps we should terminate the deal.” Call his bluff, that’ll work.

“No, we are not at that stage yet. I just felt we had to put on record that we’re not happy with him playing on the left. I know you have to do best for your team but I have to look out for mine too.”

“Agreed, but we’re not going to stop playing him there.”

“OK, we’ll talk again soon.” I had no doubt about that, the moaning b*stard.

***



When I got to the training ground the following morning, I walked into my office to be greeted by a scout report which might make Callum’s chances of getting game time as a striker even less. There was a note on top from George Adams saying that he’d be round later to chat about it and I only had time to flick through the cover page before he was knocking on my door.

“So who’s this lad, Marvin Ducksch?”

“German striker, in Dortmund’s second team. George Rooney has been out watching him and reckons he could do a good job for us. In the Premiership too.” That was music to my ears. “He’s scored 26 in 33 games over the last two seasons, even been called up to the main Dortmund squad and played seven times for them.” That was seriously impressive but the big question remained. How much was he going to cost?

“George has had a brief word with his agent, reckons he’d be available for around half a million. He’s reasonably quick, good in the air, clearly gets goals. I think this is the guy we’ve been looking for.”

“I want to be sure. Nailed on f*cking certain. And we’ve got time before January. Can you fly out and watch him a few times?” George nodded before heading for the door. “And get me some video of him.” Another nod of the head and with that he was gone, leaving me with the thick report that George Rooney had prepared. It was a thorough report and a quick glance suggested it was overwhelmingly positive but I pushed it to one side to read later and pushed myself out of my chair and towards the door, ready to go and put the players through their paces for the day.

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