On Saturday afternoon Ibrox stadium will host the traditional unfurling of the league championship flag, which marks the start of the new season – and the seventh occasion that Rangers have been involved in the event since the SPL began in 1998. Visitors to face the champions will be Jim Jefferies’ Hearts side, who themselves haven’t faced either half of the Old Firm in an opening day fixture since that maiden SPL season 13 years ago. Jefferies was also in charge on that particular afternoon, when Tynecastle witnessed Hearts overcome Dick Advocaat’s new look Rangers team with goals from Stephane Adam and Jim Hamilton. Rod Wallace replied for the Gers, but they couldn’t deny victory to a Hearts team that had a certain David Weir starting in defence.
Over a decade later and Weir will lead Rangers out against his former side, in a game that history tells us should end in a home victory for last season’s title winners. In 13 SPL opening matches, all held in Glasgow of course, only once have the visitors avoided defeat. This certainly portrays Jefferies’ task as an unenviable one, although one glimmer of hope for the experienced manager may come in the fact it was his Kilmarnock side who shocked Parkhead in 2007, holding Gordon Strachan’s Celtic to a goalless draw. A certain degree of luck, coupled with a dogged defensive display and fantastic performance by goalkeeper Alan Combe, contributed to that result, and Hearts will be hoping for a similar combination of fortune and endeavour to take any points back along the M8 to the capital.
As for the Jambos expectations for the season ahead, much will depend on retaining the services of popular midfielder Rudi Skacel. The Czech international returned to Tynecastle last season following a four year absence, and was integral to Hearts finishing ‘best of the rest’ behind the Old Firm. In addition to his 13 goals, he provided more of the energy and enthusiasm that he displayed in his initial spell, as well as providing a greater work ethic and overall contribution to the team. Securing his contract must be seen as a priority for the Tynecastle hierarchy.
Unfortunately, from a Hearts perspective, it would appear that Lee Wallace is on his way to Rangers, although a fee of £1.5m is possibly the best Hearts could have hoped for considering the full back is entering the final year of his contract. Jefferies will be hoping that new signing from St Johnstone Danny Grainger can slot in and make the left back spot his own, but few will be expecting him to reach the same heights Wallace did at his peak.
Other than this potential loss, on the whole Hearts appear to have more strength in depth than last season. The acquisition of John Sutton from Motherwell means that the Edinburgh side will not be forced to rely on the injury prone Kevin Kyle as their main talisman in attack, and Jamie Hamill and Medhi Taouil offer further options in both midfield and defence.
One thing is clear, Jefferies has certainly been given more freedom in the transfer market to make his own signings than previous managers under the Romanov regime, and his decision to stick with experienced SPL players may well prove to be a wise one.
Lee Wallace’s departure certainly can’t be ignored, but Jefferies’ experience and the strength in depth of his squad – coupled with significant departures from Dundee United – puts Hearts in an excellent position to hold on to third place for at least another year. Their chances on Saturday however, and indeed against both Glasgow giants over the course of the season, are much less favourable.