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'It's a fixture that I will miss next season . . .'

When the fixtures were announced last summer it may have been fitting had Hearts had them printed on the back of some T-shirts.

away days: Jackie McNamara has praised the backing which Hearts supporters have given their team during an uncomfortable season in the top flight. Picture: SNS
away days: Jackie McNamara has praised the backing which Hearts supporters have given their team during an uncomfortable season in the top flight. Picture: SNS

For some time now this has not been a typical football season for the club; it is a farewell tour. They are next performing under the lights alongside Dundee United.

The Tayside club will not be back at Tynecastle on league duty next season. Hearts are 11 points adrift at the foot of the SPFL Premiership and must contend themselves instead with a shot at the Championship next term. Until then the Edinburgh club will carry all the hallmarks of ageing rockers reliving the good old days before they finally bow out.

They have been worn down by the excesses of the past, no longer play together quite as well as they used to, while numerous changes to the line up have left them lacking in the star quality which used to strut around back in the day. For all that Jamie MacDonald is a popular member of the current Hearts team, it is much easier to imagine such as Rudi Skacel chucking a telly out a hotel window after he won the Scottish Cup.

Instead it is the club which will plummet from the top flight at the end of the campaign. Hearts will take to the stage in front of a United support tonight for what could be the last time for a good while and they can expect a heartfelt farewell from some among the away side. Jackie McNamara, for one, is disappointed to see the back of Hearts.

"They've got a great backing from their fans," said the United manager, who is hopeful on-loan Newcastle United defender Curtis Good will recover from a hip injury in time to face Rangers in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup. "They've been excellent all season. It's disappointing what's happened to them off the field.

"In such cases, it's always the fans and the players who suffer. But Gary Locke [the Hearts manager] has given a great account of himself. He's conducted himself really well over the season. He deserves great credit for that. Like most people, Gary Locke will want to see Hearts in the top division. It's a fixture I'll miss next season. I think that's the biggest thing from this season, the fact you want big clubs and good teams to be in the top division."

It has been common for managers to treat wistfully the prospect of a season without Hearts in the top flight, although there has been greater optimism among those of a younger generation. John Souttar, the teenage United defender, listened to the discussion of Hearts' decline and met it head on to suggest that the young players in the squad have it in them to restore a sense of prestige to Tynecastle quickly.

Souttar spoke with conviction, a strength forged by his friendship with such as Sam Nicholson, Jordan McGhee and Callum Paterson of Hearts. All three of them have been promoted at Hearts as a result of the club's administration but Souttar is certain that they have each grown up a lot as a result.

"They are all good players," said the defender. "They have just been put in a really bad situation. It's been hard for them to deal with but I still think they've done well. I know Sam Nicholson, Jordan McGhee and Callum Paterson. Hopefully they'll hang on to young boys like them and build the club from there. In terms of the experience of this year damaging them, I do and don't agree with that. I still think they will be better players because of what's happened this season."

It is uncertain whether Souttar will pass on those sentiments to Hearts' young players before taking off home. Brad McKay will not be in need of a comforting words in any case, with the Hearts defender having relied instead of his own book of quotes to get him through the rough moments of this season.

At 20, McKay has had to mature quickly and has found strength in the pages of a motivational text. That has survived even the most enthusiastic teasing from some of his team-mates. "It's called 'The Secret' and it helps me, it might not help everyone," said the Hearts defender.

"It keeps me sane, simple as that. Sometimes you will open it and it doesn't make sense to you because it is about the universe. But other times I'll flick it open and read it and it does sense to me. It relates to the day you have had, the week you've had or even the year you've had. One wee quote can make a difference and make you deal with something a lot better."

A football match harbours the potential for a few choice phrases too. See you again soon, might just be one of them.

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