As the football season approaches its finale, the Auld Reekie Ranter recalls one last day of the season scenario which occurred fifty years ago today. It was one of the most notorious results inflicted on Heart of Midlothian – and at Tynecastle too.
On 24 April 1965 Kilmarnock visited Gorgie for the final league game of season 1964/65. Normally such a fixture would have been a routine end of season affair with little at stake. However, in this particular season, this was a game the television companies of today could only have dreamt about. For Hearts were top of the league - two points ahead of second-placed Killie in the days when just two points were awarded for a win. The Maroons required just a single point to clinch their third league title in seven years even though it was generally accepted Hearts best years, the all-conquering era of the 1950s, were behind them. Indeed, Hearts could even afford to lose the game as long as it was just by a single goal. At that time goal average rather than goal difference was used to decide the winner if teams were level on points.
More than 37,000 fans packed into Tynecastle to witness history. Hearts, managed by the legendary Tommy Walker, the man who brought so much success to Gorgie in the 1950s, began like they were the team who needed to win by two clear goals. For the opening half an hour they were camped inside the Killie half. They recorded seven corner kicks to the visitor’s one. After only six minutes, Roald Jensen burst through between two Killie defenders and shot for goal. To the agony of the Norwegian, his team mates and the home crowd, his shot smacked off the post.
Hearts were creating chances in a game they didn’t really need to but such was Walker’s philosophy, the need to entertain the paying customer was the raison d’etre for playing the game. It was this spirit of adventure which had brought trophy after trophy to Tynecastle in the preceding decade. But this was now the 1960s and the importance of not losing games was taking precedence over winning and entertaining. On the half hour mark a goal finally did arrive – for Kilmarnock. Davie Sneddon was left all on his own some to head home Tommy McLean’s cross - the same Tommy McLean who, nearly 30 years later, would become Hearts manager.
Tynecastle was stunned. A feeling of disbelief enveloped the old ground. And while it did, just 60 seconds later, Killie, incredibly, scored the crucial second goal when Black beat Alan Anderson before passing to Brian McIlroy. His low shot flew past Hearts keeper Jim Cruickshank and into the net.
Disbelief had now turned into the stuff of nightmares for Hearts. But they knew that even one goal would still mean they would win the league even if it meant a 2-1 defeat. They laid siege to the Killie goal before half-time but couldn’t find the all-important breakthrough.
It was the same story in the second half. Kilmarnock repelled Hearts incessant attacks. With just seconds remaining and Killie looking like they would hang on for the title, Hearts Roy Barry burst through the defence and passed the ball to Alan Gordon. The striker hit a powerful effort which looked a goal – and, therefore, the league flag – all the way. However, Killie keeper Ferguson threw himself across his goal and tipped the ball wide for a corner. The Hearts players held their heads in their hands. Seconds later, it was all over. Hearts had lost 2-0 and thereby handed the league title to Kilmarnock by 0.42 of a goal – the tightest finish to a league title race in Scottish football history.
Many point to this game as being the one which signalled a decline in Hearts fortunes thereafter which would culminate in relegation in 1977. Tommy Walker remained as manager for 18 months before leaving Tynecastle. Many supporters, dismayed by the decline in their once great club, never returned.
Many of today’s generation of Hearts supporters still recoil in horror the events of another final day of the season calamity when Hearts lost the league title in the final eight minutes of the 1985/86 season at Dundee. The newspapers of that day looked back to 1965 and asked if history could repeat itself. Sadly, it did.
The pain of 1986 will never leave this Hearts supporter. For those Hearts fans who suffered both calamities, 24 April 1965 will never leave either.