The Build-up

Reminiscing with Legends: The Build-up

Shortly after Stephen Fulton had returned home from helping Hearts defeat Dunfermline Athletic 2-0 on the last day of the league campaign, his sister-in-law, Ashley, arrived at his house armed with her hairdressing kit. 

The midfielder’s three young sons - Jay, Dale and Tyler - watched on with a mixture of intrigue and amusement as their aunt set about dying their father’s hair peroxide blond. This was to be Fulton’s eye-catching new look for the following weekend’s Scottish Cup final. When he rocked up at Edinburgh Airport the next morning to meet the rest of the squad ahead of their pre-cup final trip to the Midlands, Fulton - as was so often the case - found himself getting ribbed by his team-mates. “Me and Jose Quitongo had a wee agreement that we’d get our hair done if we got to the final but he backed out of it!” Fulton explains. “I don’t know why I did it because I’m not actually one who likes the limelight and dying your hair blond kind of goes against that.” 

Quitongo was also teased by the rest of the squad as he hadn’t stuck to his side of the bargain. “I tried it and my hair turned ginger so I had to dye it back,” the Angolan laughs. “Fulters actually suited that hair!”

The relaxed, upbeat mood in the Hearts camp the weekend before the final was in stark contrast to that of their opponents. As the players boarded their Sunday-morning flight to London Heathrow in good spirits, their Rangers counterparts - serial winners within Scottish football - were waking up to a realisation that, after nine successive years of league title glory, their dominance of the Scottish Premier Division was finally over; they had missed the opportunity to win a record tenth title in a row. While Hearts were beating Dunfermline in the Gorgie sunshine and rediscovering the verve and confidence that had eluded them for much of the previous month, Walter Smith’s men were playing out a 2-1 victory over Dundee United at Tannadice which was rendered meaningless by the fact Celtic defeated St Johnstone 2-0 at Parkhead to remain two points clear of the Ibrox side at the end of a remarkable league campaign. 

Of course, until just four weeks previously, Hearts had also been heavily involved in this battle for the championship before their challenge fizzled out after the gut-wrenching 2-1 defeat away to bottom-of-the-table Hibs on Saturday 11th April. As everyone connected with the Tynecastle club could testify from their bitter memories of May 1986, if you’re going to miss out on a league title, it’s probably best that it doesn’t happen on the last day of the season, the week before a cup final. “If we’d gone on to lose the 98 final, after the way we fell away in the league, I’d probably have been able to understand how Gary Mackay and Robbo (John Robertson) felt after losing the league and the cup in 86,” Fulton acknowledges. “But even though we’d fallen away in the league, I had no doubt in my mind that we could pick ourselves up for the cup final. We never got enough points against the Old Firm to finish ahead of them but we had been close enough to them in most of our games. It wasn’t like previous years when you’d look up at the scoreboard at Ibrox or Parkhead and see yourself 4-0 down. That Hearts team had something more about us so there was no fear going into it. It was the third time we were playing that Rangers team in a cup final in three seasons. The first time we got pumped off them, the second time we were a lot closer and so when it came to the third time, we were thinking ‘right, this is the time we’re going to do it’. There was a lot of pressure on Rangers as well. They had just lost the league and the team was all breaking up. I felt there were loads of factors in our favour.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems fair to surmise that it was something of a blessing in disguise for Hearts that their title bid was effectively ended with four league games still to play, allowing just over a month in which to dust themselves down and recover, both mentally and physically, ahead of the final. After losing at Easter Road, and slipping four points behind both Rangers and Celtic with four games remaining, they were left with only one realistic prize to shoot for and all their eggs duly went into the Scottish Cup basket. “After we were out of the title race, we were able to put all our focus and energy on the cup final,” says midfielder Thomas Flögel.

As galling as it was at the time, Hearts effectively had five weeks before the defining match of their season in which to banish the deep disappointment of missing out on a title they felt for long periods of the campaign was within their grasp. The last four league matches were basically an exercise in trying to restore some spark and poise to a team which had lost its mojo around Easter time. Gary Naysmith, Stefano Salvatori, Paul Ritchie, Flögel, Stephane Adam and Colin Cameron, who was battling a pelvic problem, all sat out at least one of the four season-closing fixtures as players were given the opportunity to recharge batteries and refocus minds after the strain of a three-way title battle ultimately proved too much. When Hearts lost 3-0 at home to Rino Gattuso-inspired Rangers in their penultimate home match, just three weeks before the final, it was hard to see how the hosts could take any positives from it. On the afternoon of Saturday 25th April, after witnessing their beleaguered team lose three or more goals to their cup final opponents for the third time in four meetings, 13,000 demoralised Hearts fans filtered out of Tynecastle fearing the worst about their upcoming rematch with the Ibrox side. Crucially, though, Jefferies and Billy Brown were able to use this setback - their last defeat of the season - to help them plot a path to glory.

“I remember vividly going to see Jim on the Thursday before the last league game against Dunfermline, so nine days before the cup final,” recalls football journalist Graham Spiers, who was writing for the Scotland on Sunday newspaper at the time. “I always got on well with Jim; he seemed to take a shine to me for some reason. I said to him ‘look Jim, I need to come and see you to preview the final. Can I have half an hour with you by myself?’. That was probably a bit selfish of me because he was doing loads of other media stuff to preview the final. It was at the end of the working day, possibly about 4.30pm. I arrived at the traditional pre-rebuilt Tynecastle main stand and he took me into his office. Jim was a bit cagey at first but then he said something along the lines of ‘I don’t know if I should tell you this but I’ve been speaking to Billy (Brown) about it and we’ve decided to do something totally different for this final’. Hearts had been unable to get a result against Rangers in each of the games against them that season so Jim and Billy were going to spend the next week in training working on a new idea and a new system. I remember sitting thinking ‘gosh, this is quite revealing stuff’ and Jim joked at the end ‘what the hell have I been telling you?’”

Although the main part of Jefferies’ work in the closing weeks of the league campaign revolved around trying to raise morale levels within his squad while pondering team selection and tactics for the final, there were plenty other things to be taken care of ahead of the big day; most notably, how they were going to spend the week leading up to the final. “The board of directors were brilliant for us in terms of the preparations,” recalls Jefferies. “We had our disagreements at times but when it came to preparations for a game, I don’t think they could have supported me any better. Preparation is huge. I remember when I was Kilmarnock manager and we lost 5-1 to Hibs in the 2007 League Cup final, I didn’t think our preparations were as good as they should have been. Money was tight for Kilmarnock at that time and you can’t do all these nice things for nothing. But the Hearts board in 98 never quibbled about a penny. They said to us ‘we’ve got to get this right sometime and we don’t want to lose out through a lack of preparation’. They gave us everything we required and all they wanted in return was the Scottish Cup! We did it sensibly - we didn’t go over the score - but we knew we’d left nothing to chance.”

On the recommendation of Scotland manager Craig Brown, Jefferies decided to take the squad to the Midlands, where they would spend the early part of cup-final week working on the new gameplan - alluded to by Spiers - at the impressively-maintained training fields of the National Farmers Union Mutual Headquarters on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon. The club duly booked for the squad to stay from Sunday to Tuesday at the Forest of Arden Hotel and Country Club near Birmingham and then the Tuesday night at the Ettington Park Hotel in Stratford before their return flight to Edinburgh on Wednesday afternoon.

A squad of 20 made the trip south: Gilles Rousset, Roddy McKenzie, David Murie, Grant Murray, Dave McPherson, David Weir, Ritchie, Allan McManus, Naysmith, Neil Pointon, Salvatori, Lee Makel, Fulton, Cameron, Flögel, Quitongo, Neil McCann, Robertson, Jim Hamilton and Adam. The one notable absentee from the travelling party was captain Gary Locke, who stayed in Edinburgh for extensive treatment on a knee problem as he attempted to make a miracle late recovery in time to be involved in the final. Upon arrival at Forest of Arden - a salubrious golf resort set within 10,000 acres of ancient woodland - on the Sunday afternoon, some of the players enjoyed a round of golf with Jefferies and his backroom staff at the complex, while others - including Weir, Fulton and Quitongo - chose to watch the final day of English Premiership action on television; with Arsenal having already won the league, this was a day most notable for Everton fans invading the Goodison Park pitch after a 1-1 draw with Coventry City saw them avoid relegation at the expense of Bolton Wanderers. Having played a match the previous day, some of the players also visited the on-site spa and swimming pool to unwind.

That evening Jefferies and his backroom staff enjoyed a beer together in the hotel as they crystalised the instructions they were about to start imparting to their players the following morning. The manager had a strong idea by this point of what his starting XI would be. He was already resigned to the likelihood that Locke - his first-choice right-back - would miss out, while he was hopeful that key duo McCann and Cameron would be fit enough to start despite their own injury issues. Regardless of which personnel would be available on the day, however, Jefferies was clear in his mind about exactly how he wanted to approach the game; and it involved a notable change of tact. “We had generally played 4-3-3 most of the season and got great credit for our attacking play as we ran Celtic and Rangers close,” says Jefferies. “But in our first meeting when we got down south at the start of the week, we told them that we’d be working on a different gameplan. We read out the facts because for all the plaudits we’d had that season, the best we did against Rangers was a draw at Ibrox and we had lost 13 goals in the four league games against them. We’d been losing an average of three goals per game against them and we told the players we couldn’t afford to give them a three-goal start this time. 

“We’d always attacked Rangers but they were a great team who had proved they could handle it and had the players to punish us, as they did on a few occasions. We thought if we let them come on to us, we could handle it, especially with the players they had available to them. The main threats for Rangers around that period had been Paul Gascoigne, Brian Laudrup and Jorg Albertz. Gascoigne had left by that point, Laudrup was playing his last game before going to Chelsea and Albertz was suspended after getting sent off in the last league game against Dundee United. Albertz missing out was a big thing for me because he had been digging them out of a lot of difficult situations with free-kicks and long-distance shots. The likes of Ian Ferguson, Stuart McCall and Rino Gattuso were great players but they weren’t necessarily players who would hurt you. We said, ‘look, if we can keep it tight and make it hard for them, we could maybe hit them on the break rather than the other way about’. We’d had enough praise that season for the way we had played but I said to the players that I don’t think anyone will care how we play in this game if we win the cup.”

From shackle-free 4-3-3, Hearts were preparing to go into their biggest match of the season playing a functional, safety-first 4-5-1 formation. “The gaffer explained very early in the week which way he wanted us to play, so we were ready,” says goalkeeper Rousset, who had full faith in Jefferies’ gameplan. “I didn’t really think too much about the change of tactics. I had so much respect for Jim and Billy that they could have asked me to play up front and I’d have done that. I had no problem with us being more defensive. I just thought ‘okay, no problem, let’s go for it’.”

Jefferies was keen to keep his players on their toes, so delayed naming the starting XI until Wednesday, with the substitutes announced on the day of the game itself. The first man given confirmation of his involvement in the squad was 33-year-old club legend Robertson, who had fallen down the pecking order and was alert to the likelihood that this would be his last match as a Hearts player. “Nobody knew what the team was but I pulled Robbo aside at the start of the week and told him he was going to be a sub,” says Jefferies. “Although he wasn’t in the team, he was happy that he wasn’t being left out of the squad altogether.”

Following friction with certain sections of the press throughout the season, and with Jefferies keen to ensure a degree of privacy for his players, the Edinburgh Evening News was the only media outlet allowed to accompany Hearts to England, albeit Hazel Irvine of the BBC would be given access to training on the Tuesday. On the back page on Saturday 9th May, the capital’s local paper took great delight in proclaiming to its readers that “The club have banned all newspapers, radio and television from their English headquarters - except the NEWS!”. Martin Dempster had been the paper’s Hearts correspondent since shortly before Jefferies’ appointment and had struck up a strong rapport with the manager and his players. It remains a source of pride to the journalist that he had earned the trust of Jefferies enough to be granted exclusive no-holds-barred access to the team on what would be such an historic week. “That was such a special few days in my career,” says Dempster. “The training facility there was absolutely fantastic and I was part of the whole thing that week which was a real privilege. I think the only thing I didn't get to be part of was the meeting they had to discuss what the win bonus would be in the final, which was totally understandable. The fact they gave that sort of permission for me to be there, I think said a lot about the relationship that myself and the paper had with Hearts, and Jim and Billy in particular at that time. I was able to watch all the training sessions, have lunch with them and I had a round of golf with Jim and some of his staff at Forest of Arden. I got great access to the players and it was a fantastic thing to be part of.”

Dempster watched on with fascination as Jefferies tried to instil a more defensive mindset into a team accustomed to playing free-flowing attacking football. “They had played Rangers four times that year and lost three of them,” says the journalist. “Rangers had their number so Jim and Billy knew they had to come up with a system that gave them a chance to compete and beat Rangers. That was basically 4-5-1, and they worked really hard on it those few days in England.”

While the Hearts players were being put through their paces down south away from the public glare, excitement levels were being ratcheted up among their supporters back in Edinburgh. The last of the club’s 22,000 tickets were snapped up from the ticket office, while Jambos flocked in their numbers to the club shop to grab some merchandise for the big day. “It was a crazy week,” recalls Clare Cowan, a childhood Hearts fan from Broomhouse who had just become the club’s retail manager a few months previously. “The shop was going like a fair. People wanted anything they could get their hands on: wigs, foam fingers, scarves, t-shirts, you name it. The shop stayed open later and there was just such a buzz about the place; it was brilliant.”

Well aware that the club’s struggles to win silverware had become a big talking point within Scottish football, the Hearts players were happy to be away from the hullabaloo as they focused on the task at hand. “I think it was the right thing for us to go away in the week leading up to it rather than being up in Scotland for the whole week,” says Fulton. “Especially round about Edinburgh, you knew there was a sense of tension whenever Hearts were going to a semi-final or a final. I could detect it and I hadn’t been at the club for a particularly long time. Apart from Robbo, none of us had played through 1986 and all that but it was still a stigma associated with the club. Although most of us weren’t Hearts supporters we had all developed an affinity with the club. Some of the guys had lost the two previous cup finals against Rangers and most of us had lost the previous one. I was well aware of the reputation Hearts had of being the bridesmaids and things like that. I remember well the day Hearts lost the league in 86 because I was away with Scotland Schoolboys and big Alan McLaren, who was a Hearts fan, was there. He was pretty much in tears. From then on, it was all about how Hearts would let their bottle crash. The only way you’re getting rid of that reputation is by winning something.”

Striking the balance between keeping the players focused and relaxed was of huge importance to the management team. “It was a big week for us,” recalls assistant manager Brown. “We went away to get away from all the furore back home, with the papers all talking about Rangers and how many cups they’ve won and stuff like that. We wanted to go away somewhere, keep ourselves quiet and concentrate on preparing for the game. We prepared really well. There were certainly no drinking sessions that week, that’s for sure.” 

After a double training session on the Tuesday, the squad checked into Ettington Park - a peaceful 19th-century country house with peacocks roaming perfectly-manicured lawns - and the players enjoyed a laugh together as they attempted to play some croquet, with Robertson proclaiming himself the top performer. The jovial mood was added to when Quitongo was ambushed by a group of team-mates in the hotel grounds and stripped of his wacky all-in-one Lycra running suit, which he had been given by a sponsor. Fulton duly squeezed into the little Angolan’s outfit and larked around on the grass, to the amusement of his colleagues. “It was revenge for him not dying his hair, but wee Jose’s gear was a bit skintight on me!” recalls Fulton. “I was left with just my pants on,” laughs Quitongo. “It was so funny.”

Spirits were further raised later that evening when word reached the squad that Hearts’ youth team, managed by Peter Houston, had won the BP Youth Cup for the first time in five years after a side containing future first-team mainstays Scott Severin and Robbie Neilson defeated Dundee United 2-0 in the final at Tynecastle in front of a crowd of 3470. “I was at Tynecastle on my own taking my youth team and all the boys and the coaching staff in England were waiting for reports from the game,” recalls Houston, who would otherwise have been in Stratford helping Jefferies and Brown prepare the first team. “The phone call after the game to tell the boys in England the news that we’d won was great.”

The success of the club’s youngsters was overshadowed somewhat, however, when it emerged that chief executive Chris Robinson had been accused of calling angry Hearts supporters “parasites” after they questioned him outside the stadium about why their season-tickets weren’t valid for free entry to the Youth Cup final. On the front page of Wednesday’s Evening News, Robinson was pictured remonstrating with three supporters above the headline ‘I’m sorry for ticket row’. The chief executive admitted calling those he had become embroiled with “petty” and “pathetic” but strongly denied branding them “parasites”, even though the Evening News photographer backed up the supporters’ claims that this was the word he had used. 

While Robinson battled in vain to calm this unwanted storm just a few days before his club’s biggest game of the season, there were several nuggets of good news which helped nurture a generally positive vibe throughout the week for Hearts’ players and supporters. In a huge boost to the club, Ritchie, who was due to run out of contract in the summer and had been linked with Newcastle United and Aston Villa, put the finishing touches to a new two-year deal down in Stratford while his defensive sidekick David Weir got confirmation on the Wednesday that he had been included in the Scotland squad for the World Cup in France the following month. This news was slightly soured for Hearts by the fact none of Cameron, Ritchie, McCann or Fulton - all of whom had been in the Scotland B squad and touted as potential contenders - made the cut. Salvatori, being interviewed by Dempster for the Evening News, was baffled by the squad announcement. “I’m delighted for David but why have Steve Fulton, Neil McCann and Colin Cameron not been picked as well?” the Italian wondered. “Fulton, in particular, has had a fantastic season and I can’t believe he is not going to France. Yet Craig Brown has decided to take some players who have not even been playing for their club. That would never happen in Italy.”

Any disappointment for Cameron, Fulton, McCann and Ritchie over not making the Scotland squad was offset when Jefferies told the players what his cup final starting lineup would be on the Wednesday morning, before they left the Midlands to fly back to Edinburgh later that day. Rousset, McPherson, Weir, Ritchie, Naysmith, Flögel, Salvatori, Fulton, Cameron, McCann and Adam were the eleven men who would be leading Hearts into battle...

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