Hearts great on his run-ins with Romanov
Plus match report:
St Mirren 0 Celtic 0
Andy Webster strode out of school with a bundle of Highers and had university keeping a place for him if the football hadn’t worked out. Of course it did work out but, as one of Scotland’s hottest young talents, his idea of downtime was studying psychology. Now, as a reserve team coach, he’s reached the Masters stage of his degree in Sports and Business Management.
So don’t call him stupid. Webster as a classy defender may have been many things: assured, strong-willed, opinionated and, when the occasion demanded, arrogant. The 2012 Scottish Cup final demanded it and Hearts, with Webster in charge at the back, went on to give their fans the greatest day since the pomp of the Terrible Trio.
Stupid, though, is what Hearts or more specifically Vladimir Romanov wanted him to ’fess up to being when he returned to the club the previous year. Webster had left Tynecastle in 2006 under the biggest and blackest cloud of any Scottish footballer in modern times, and given that the circumstances changed the law, possibly ever. The highly combustible character behind the maddest reign at a Scottish club, no question, insisted the player could only come back if his tail was firmly between his legs, if he admitted to being a naughty boy, if he promised not to do it again.
“He wanted me to read out a statement,” recalls Webster. “I was to say that I was young, naive, stupid. I should never have left the club. This, that the other. On and on it went. There was no way I was going to stand up and say all of that. It simply wasn’t true. Romanov wasn’t actually at Tynecastle that day; he was in Lithuania. The message came back from him: I had to read out the statement or I couldn’t sign. I said we should just call the deal off and then things simmered down. I didn’t have to read it.”
Webster made history when he walked off down Gorgie Road and his test case has its own Wikipedia page. Simply put, the “Webster ruling” enables players to quit a contract after a fixed period rather than wait until its conclusion. “Funnily enough, I’ve just reached the sports law part of my degree and at the lecture the other day my name popped up on one of the slides.” The wrangle wasn’t funny or simple, however, featured a number of “intimidating” letters from Hearts’ lawyers and lasted 18 months. No one, not his legal reps or agent, dragged Webster through the process; he was the driving force. If Jean-marc Bosman is the Pele of players’ rights trailblazing then our man is probably the Maradona.
Webster, 36, runs the second string at St Mirren, also overseeing the Under-18s. I catch him for a coffee at the Hillington interchange of the M8 on his way home to his wife Julie and their three children, but not to talk about the ruling. I’m more interested in what tabloids, in the wake of
some big drama or other, used to quaintly call “happier times”. I want to know about the second biggest “What if ?” moment in jamb oh is tory and I want to know about Craig Levein.
Levein, first time around as Hearts boss, was the man who took Webster to the club, basically as a younger version of himself. The Pele of “What ifs?” for the maroon-clad hordes was the 1985-86 title lost in the last ten minutes at Dens Park but at the start of ’05-’06 Hearts, with Webster one of the stars, streaked to 12 games unbeaten and the fans dared to dream again. Right now, with the current team perched on top of the Premiership thanks to a 100 per cent record and with who else but Levein in charge, Webster’s views should prove interesting.
At the dawn of the Romanov revolution, prompting the tribute Cossack hats to be worn at a jaunty angle, it was George Burley in the dugout. “We were playing attractive football, fast football and other teams couldn’t live with us,” says Webster. “The recruit- ment had been excellent, really, really good, and that was down to George and the backroom team. We had a strong base, good experience, international players. Rudi Skacel’s goalscoring was better than Henrik Larsson at that point. I liked George’s style of management. He was quite dismissive of opponents. ‘Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish,’ he’d say, ‘and let’s get after their right-back.’ That made you feel good about yourself and we started to have an air of invincibility.”
Hearts beat Rangers, hammered Hibernian, Celtic squeezed a draw against them and ,13 years ago, webster was September’s Player of the Month. But then: crash! Burley was sacked. To this day Webster doesn’t know why. “My only theory is that when he bought the club Romanov got all the limelight and he loved that, but then the attention shifted to George…” Hibs promptly ended the unbeaten run. “George leaving took the wind out of our sails. There was a rumour that two or three weeks after he was sacked, Romanov asked him to come back.” That didn’t happen and the faithful were left to wonder what might have been.
Webster – who would play fleetingly for Wigan Athletic in England’s top flight and then Rangers in between his two Tynecastle spells, lifting the Scottish Cup while on loan at Dundee United and amassing 28 Scotland caps – pauses to consider the issue of motivation as he contemplates a manager’s job at some point in the future. “The St Mirren reserves played at Hamilton on Monday and were really flat. I asked the boys: ‘Where does motivation come from? What do you want to achieve?’ I said to them that, yes, I must have had a bit of talent when I played but my motivation was major.” Webster is fascinating on millennials, snowflakes, their love of social media, their disinclination to problem-solve, the freedom he had as a kid that youngsters don’t have now and the responsi-
ON GEORGE BURLEY’S HEARTS TEAM “We were playing attractive and fast football and other teams couldn’t live with us. The recruitment had been excellent and that was down to George and the
A kilted Vladimir Romanov and Andy Webster are all smiles in Liverpool during Hearts’ Europa League adventure in August 2012. But the pair didn’t always see eye to eye.