The sacking of Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown today has divided opinion amongst Hearts fans and the wider public. Some have branded the decision a “disgrace”, while others have pointed to a run of 10 winless league games and decided that the exits were merited. Beyond these considerations, the decision to remove the head coaches inbetween two European fixtures is decidedly questionable.
So are the sackings a mistake? Many pundits including BBC’s Liam McLeod believed that the Jefferies-Brown axis had brought stability to Tynecastle, after years of internal strife from managerial staff citing boardroom interference to players publically criticising the running of the club. Now that stability is gone, and with it many of the fans’ beliefs that Controversial Majority Shareholder Vladimir Romanov had stopped interfering with the club, to the detriment of performances. This latest sacrifice to his personal idea of success is potentially the gravest error of his era.
That Hearts have not won in 10 league games is a fact, but this statistic (like all statistics) does not necessarily reflect the truth. In the first case, the two matches played this season were against champions Rangers, and against Dundee United just four days after a European fixture. The former was hailed as a good result, taking a point from Ibrox after having had the lead. The latter was understandable, given that the squad were not only tired, but hit by a rash of injuries, and playing against a team that finished fourth last season. Factor in the consideration that six of the eight non-wins last season were against all the other competitors in the top half of The Split (i.e. the best 5 teams in the SPL at that point) and the run starts to look understandable. There were losses to Rangers, Celtic, and Dundee United (away). The two matches that weren’t against upper Split rivals were away draws at Inverness Caley and Hibs. Inverness incidentally lost only one of their last six home league matches, to the in-form Dundee United, and also effectively ruined Celtic’s title bid at the Tulloch Stadium, prompting Neil Lennon’s angry assault on a completely innocent bottle of water. The 2-2 thriller with derby rivals Hibs was similarly a game where one would hardly demand victory, especially as Marius Zaliukas had characteristically been sent off after half an hour.
So are there any other reasons that Jefferies and Brown deserved the axe? In my SPL analysis, I admitted that Hearts “limped into third place”. However third place is still an achievement, and there is abundant evidence that this success was reached thanks to Hearts’ performances while using Kevin Kyle as a target man. Their winning streak throughout November and December featured Kyle as the focal point, and his spade work benefitted Rudi Skácel and David Templeton greatly, as demonstrated by their goal returns. Deprived of Kyle, Hearts were less impressive, as their season’s end shows. Being as Jefferies added John Sutton to the playing staff, it is clear that he identified a weakness in his squad, and moved to cover it. Jefferies’ main mistake, it would seem, is that he didn’t quite get enough cover at centre-back, given the questionable fitness of Andy Webster (and questionable disciplinary record of Zaliukas). While Eggert Jonsson or Adrian Mrowiec can deputise as centre-halves, they aren’t the complete defensive package, as the capitulation of a three-goal lead following a Webster injury showed last season.
So where now for Hearts? My season’s analysis stated that they would buck their good-season-bad-season trend of recent years and post third again, thanks to a large squad. Now, I’m increasingly tending to think that this season may well deflate into another Rix/Frail season, where a popular manager who got results is arbitrarily axed and replaced with a manager selected by Romanov’s footballing “expertise”, who will come to increasingly regret working for a despotic leader. That season, Rix was axed with the team clinging to second, and the resultant fallout increasingly poor seasons follow, finishing 4th and then 8th. One can only see something similar happening again, as insecurity and distrust grips the club.
The players will not like this development. Some – including ex-Kilmarnock players Medhi Taouil, Kevin Kyle, and Jamie Hammill – undoubtedly respect Jefferies, enough for them to follow him to a new club. The history of Romanov’s interference was tentatively thought to be a thing of the past, but the incredulous reaction from many quarters will not go unnoticed by the playing staff or supporters. Already, there are stories of fans calling for Romanov to leave the club. Such divisions can only be negative in the grand scheme of things. After a year or so of apparent stability, Vlad The Impaler is back and making brutal and unnecessary sacrifices once more. Apologists can defend his actions, but there is no way that such a destabilising action can be beneficial to the club.