As the May Bank Holiday weekend approached, I had a look under the bonnet of this blog to see how many matches I’d been to this season. Including pre-season, it only amounted to 44, which is massively down on the last two years and, truthfully, a little disappointing.
But I excused myself through the fact that I’ve lived in four different places since that soggy summer afternoon at Tattershall Road when Boston Town sounded the first klaxon warning of Boston United’s campaign. Not only that, but I was presently working a job which stole my Saturdays - the first time I’d had to work on the traditional matchday since 2007. In the end, I convinced myself that 44 wasn’t a bad effort at all.
With a turbulent Scottish season drawing to a conclusion, opportunities to boost that total - and, in the process, notch up my 100th football ground (Wednesday night left me on 99) - were dwindling fast. Hence this Sunday afternoon visit to the western side of Edinburgh for the penultimate round of SPL fixtures.
My first ground visited was - naturally enough - York Street back in November 1996 and, after a rather slow start, I’ve zoomed up to a century mainly through watching the Pilgrims on the road but also through the many random games I go to - like this one at Tynecastle.
Watching football has parallels with journalism in that it gives you reason to visit towns and areas of the country that, in the everyday course of life, you would never have cause to visit. And I’m sure I’m much the richer for it, at least in terms of geography and instinctive reading of train timetables!
Unlike Kilmarnock the other night, this fixture still had something riding on it. These two teams had squeezed into the upper half of the post-split SPL and were squabbling over the Europa League place that comes with finishing fifth. Hearts have another shot at reaching continental competition later this month when they play hated rivals Hibernian in what is surely the most eagerly-anticipated Cup Final for many a year.
The pride at reaching this showpiece was much in evidence around the ground prior to kick-off. The megastore, which was adjacent to the ticket office queue, was doing a brisk trade in hastily-printed cup final merchandise and the burning question on everyone’s lips was: “Have you got your ticket yet?”
Whether the ground is Hampden or Hucknall, you can’t do much better than a seat overlooking the half-way line, and that’s exactly what I got here. Fine, it did cost my £27, which is costlier than anything I’ve come across so far in Scottish football, but it did allow a superb view of the action and was lofty enough to allow a lovely glimpse at Edinburgh Castle and the High Kirk behind it over the roof of the main stand.
At first I wasn’t so sure. Tynecastle is plonked right in the middle of residential streets and i took at least three wrong-turnings in the maze of terraced houses and convenience stores before finding my turnstile, at which there were large queues. The seats in my section seemed to belong exclusively to season ticket holders - even the one I had been allocated, which had someone’s name printed on it!
So, I spent the first 15 minutes of the game anxious that I might be turfed out at any moment by the real owner, or worse, that the chap had died earlier in the season and his seat was meant to be left empty as some kind of loving tribute!
Anyway, nobody questioned my presence and, once assured my £27 leather padded - yes, leather padded - seat was indeed mine to keep, I enjoyed a good Hearts performance and, ultimately, a victory which leaves them in the driving seat for Europe.
Last time I saw Hearts - at St Mirren in the Cup - their love for Rudi Skacel had been plain to see and at Tynecastle the Czech is treated like a demi-God. Fans on all sides of the ground waved Czech flags at him, bowing in adulation whenever he ran towards them. It wasn’t hard to see why - his strike on 19 minutes was an outstanding piece of technical skill. Ryan McGowan advanced down the right and spotted Skacel unmarked ten yards from goal - the cross was accurate and the club’s top scorer pivoted his body to finish in one smooth movement.
The visitors from Perth, backed by probably 500 or so fans in the corner over to my left, controlled the rest of the half without troubling Mark Ridgers in the home net. A long-range tester from Jody Morris was about as close as they came.
The contest was settled shortly before the hour mark. Hearts won a free-kick on the right flank and Danny Grainger found himself in deep conversation with teammates over the best method of delivery. Presumably at some point, someone said ‘Aim for the head of Andy Webster,’ so he did and the defender headed in. The ground again rocked to the sound of ‘Baby Give It Up’ by KC and the Sunshine Band. Oh yes.
I sensed Tynecastle must be a phenomenally atmospheric ground for big occasions, but it was lacking here. Mind you, things did get noisy when Derek Riordan, the former Hibs favourite, was introduced as a St Johnstone sub. The pantomime villain, Riordan’s every movement was heckled and he couldn’t relax in any corner of the ground.
Being the last home match of the season, the customary lap of honour followed the final whistle. Skacel delighted the stand away to my left by tossing his shirt into the fans - a nice memento for somebody. In reality, however, the real highlight of the season is yet to come for Hearts.
Next Match: Opportunities for football this season are starting to run out, so this could well be the last entry for 2011-2012. But hopefully not!