Hearts supporters have painful memories of the defeat inflicted by Tottenham last season. Picture: SNS
There was a time when Hearts against Liverpool in Europe would have been relentlessly billed as a 'Battle of Britain' in the biggest and boldest of headlines. Now? The phrase has been eased into retirement.
Scottish football knows its place. A battle of Britain implies that a) two generally equal sides will compete and b) some sort of cross-border supremacy will be established by the outcome. Neither applies to the pair of games at Tynecastle on Thursday and Anfield a week later. Hearts are not the best team in Scotland and Liverpool are even further from being the strongest in England. Even in the aftermath of Liverpool's appalling opening-day result on Saturday, any optimism which threatens to take root around Hearts tends to be extinguished by their own memories. They dared to hope something exceptional could unfold this time last year when they took on Tottenham Hotspur. The 5-0 lashing they suffered at Tynecastle was unforgiving and brutal.
It would not be a surprise if manager John McGlynn was privately feeling a sense of dread about these two interrogations. It is impossible to believe his new, inexperienced team can be ready for the sort of questions they are likely to be asked by Liverpool. Hearts are poorer now than they were against Spurs. Ian Black, Ryan Stevenson, Stephen Elliott and Rudi Skacel are all long gone and Marius Zaliukas may miss Thursday's tie because of a dead leg. Liverpool's first game was 18 days ago when they played a third qualifying-round tie against Gomel of Belarus. The likes of Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Glen Johnson and signings Fabio Borini (£10m) and Joe Allen (£15m) have games and more than a month's training under their belts. The fact West Bromwich Albion thumped them 3-0 at the weekend (Liverpool controlled the first half and conceded two of the goals after Daniel Agger was sent off) is not necessarily good news for McGlynn because it intensified the importance of the Hearts games and meant Brendan Rodgers, the new manager, must now use the first leg as a platform to reassure his club's supporters.
Many believe the manager was fortunate to land such a major job so early in his career and conspicuously there were no chants of his name in his first home fixture, against Gomel. He has to take the Europa League seriously.
A recognition of all of this has been evident in how Hearts have approached the Liverpool games. There has been exasperation about ticket pricing. Up to £45 is being charged for first-leg seats and that amounts to the club cashing in on the fact most supporters will not want to miss the occasion. Many have forked out that amount with a heavy heart, fearful that they may be paying a high price to attend their own torture. The tie is a harder sell for Liverpool: the most expensive tickets for the second leg are only £20.
What has caught the imagination of many Hearts supporters is that trip to Anfield. Ask fans what they enjoyed most about the Spurs matches and 4000 will reply the trip to London for the second leg. What noise and colour they brought to White Hart Lane, and their team rewarded them by digging out a respectable 0-0 draw. Plenty plan to descend on Liverpool and make Hearts' presence felt at Anfield, no matter the aggregate score.
That's what Scottish football has been reduced to by the grotesque financial distortion of the television income enriching English clubs. Barring a total collapse from Liverpool there is little prospect of Hearts living with them over two legs. Celtic could mount a challenge to most Barclays Premier League sides but currently they're the only Scottish club capable of that. So, instead, fans get their kicks from planting their banners and belting out their songs at the famous grounds they usually see only on television. And they hope their boys might manage a goal. After all those furious and mighty cross-border clashes over the years – Celtic-Leeds, Aberdeen-Ipswich, Rangers-Leeds, Celtic-Liverpool and others – how sad that Scottish fans now expect little more than some fun on a boisterous day trip.
And Another Thing -
There was a sketch in Only an Excuse years ago which reported that Scotland's hopeless addiction to football once resulted in 150,000 fans turning up at Hampden just to watch the groundsman line the pitch. That sprang to mind as Rangers confirmed that 49,118 had seen them rattle five goals past East Stirlingshire.
That vast attendance said it all about the mood among the Rangers support these days. The product has changed dramatically: this Rangers team is poorer than any they have had for decades and the opposition are the worst senior teams in Scotland. On Saturday, though, the football was secondary to a display of loyalty, defiance and enthusiasm. If Ally McCoist or Charles Green asked nicely right now, they would probably fill Ibrox without a game at all.
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