Fans Survey: The Results
There is a great scene from The Thick of It where Malcolm Tucker is discussing a recent gaffe with newly installed minister Nicola Murray and attempts to reassure her with the following line:
"Look, stop worrying: the PM is not going to sack you after a week. Sacked after twelve months, looks like you've fucked up; sacked after a week, looks like he's fucked up."
I always think of this scene when I consider whether Ann Budge will allow pressure from a sizeable section of the support to push her into making a managerial change after only 10 months working again with Robbie Neilson who in her own words is very close to meeting the main objective set by the club at the start of the season.
In the past couple of weeks there have been various tweets, articles, radio segments trying to make sense of the every increasing anger levels amongst the fans with many pundits and fans outside of our bubble failing to acknowledge that the concerns date back further than the Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Brora.
To try and get a feel of how the fans are feeling and what factors are contributing this, I decided to create a survey last week which received over 2,600 completed responses within 6 hours. Before I share these findings, it is important that I signpost the following:
This survey was created with a lot of emotion and is full of loaded questions which point towards the agenda that I was looking to set.
There was a response rate of 67% to the survey which means that there is a potential 33% of fans who viewed the survey and declined to submit a response due to them not buying into the narrative that my questions were looking to set.
The survey was promoted primarily through Kickback & Twitter so I hope I was able to obtain responses from various demographics.
Nearly 60% voted 7 or above for this question. For all of the concerns being raised regarding the perceived malaise that has affected the playing side of the club over the past few seasons, many fans still believe that the club is performing well in a commercial sense. A possible reason for that number not being higher may be that some supporters would like some clarification on benefactor contributions and what impact the club would see if these were to dry up.
These numbers are not going to shock anyone but this is a good time to possibly look at what percentage of the responsibility our board need to take over what has happened on the park since Ann Budge took over in 2014. It is fair to say that Ann Budge herself has always admitted that she is not an expert in on the field matters so when we discuss who is responsible for our season by season regression from 2016 onwards, why is Ann Budge the poster child for these criticisms? Head of Scouting John Murray, Roger Arnott who is responsible for youth development and Jim Jefferies who has been a football consultant surely should also be coming under scrutiny along with Ann Budge who cannot avoid the fact that her loyalty to Craig Levein has not only been a huge factor in us getting relegated last season, but has also maybe led to fans not wanting to grant Robbie Neilson more time to see if he can deliver similar results to his previous spell in the premiership with us.
It is important to acknowledge the performance of our cup winning right back during his previous spell at the club as it should help convince the powers at be that our priorities as fans are not exclusive to league standings and for some are more to do with our style of play and progress in cup competitions.
In his only full season in charge of the club in 2015/16, Neilson overseen the club reaching a very respectable average points score of 1.71 points a game along with a home average points score of 2.0. These scores rank amongst the top 10 that the club have enjoyed in the top division during the past 40 years. The average goals scored number of 1.55 has only been bettered by seasons 85/86, 87/88, 97/98 & 05/06 with an average home goals scored number of 1.95 scoring 4th highest during the past 40 years. It can and probably will be argued that we achieved this during a season that saw the absence of two of our biggest rivals in Rangers & Hibs.
One look at these stats would surely bring comfort to any member of the pro-Neilson camp, but it does not tell the whole story. As mentioned previously progress in cup competitions is imperative for clubs outside of the old firm and a successful run can paper over a range of cracks in a domestic league season (i.e Paulo Sergio in 2011/12). Neilson has been found wanting in this field with early cup exits to Alloa & Brora this season being looked upon as a failure to capitalise on what would have been reasonably favourable draws after.
Although it may not be an objective that was discussed at the beginning of the season, we have now failed on two fronts to reap the financial T.V and streaming rewards of cup ties with our neighbours due to our inability to put smaller clubs to the sword during the same season and for many fans this was the straw that broke the camels back.
Style of play has also been a key contributor behind some of the criticism being levelled at the team and management this season in particular since the turn of the year. I need to be clear that when I bring up the subject of style of play, it is not an expectation that the club play like Barca or Real. For me personally I just want to see a committed Hearts side who play at a high tempo and look to go direct focussing on possession in dangerous areas of the park rather than creating what I perceive to be a comfort blanket stat of 60-65% possession most weeks due to playing a very passive style of football. These stats do not highlight that most clubs who visit Tynecastle are aware of our deficiencies in the final third and will quiet happily sit in and allow our centre halves possession and hit us on the break. A great example of this was yesterday. One look at the stats would maybe draw comfort to fans who had not watched the match but in truth our opponents allowed us the possession and in the 1st half had around 3 or 4 very good opportunities on the break.
What I would like to see is a return to the style of play we adopted under Jim Jefferies and the peak Romanov years which saw us score in the first quarter of our matches between 33-53% of the time. This season we have only managed to score in the opening quarter of 17% of our league matches and last season that score was 10%.
My preference for management to mould teams in the image of these former Hearts sides is probably my biggest cause of concern regarding earmarking Derek McInnes as a potential replacement for Neilson as his Aberdeen sides have always been at their most effective when playing counter attacking football. When you enjoy regular trips to Hampden and 3rd places finishes, quibbles over style of play can be pushed to the back of a fans mind, but the minute those results nosedive, that style of play can quickly become another factor to beat a manager over the head with.
The image above relates to key objectives set by Ann Budge herself back in 2014 when she took control. Again there are signs that a good number of fans buy into the many positive results yielded off the park in the commercial end of the business but it is worrying and understandable to see confidence in us reaching our on field objectives during this same period that has saw significant commercial growth hit very low scores.
I would like to take some time to look at our objective to create an environment that allows young players to flourish and develop in more detail and provide the following stats linked to the promotion and use of young players at the club since 2014( this is not exclusive to academy graduates).
Firstly average age of players recruited :
14-15 - 26
15-16 - 25
16-17 - 24 (Neilson) & 27 (Cathro)
17-18 - 25 (Cathro) & 25 (Levein)
18-19 - 25
19-20 - 26 (Levein) & 23 (Stendel)
20-21 - 28
Number of youth players given their debut
14-15 - (9)
15-16 - (3)
16-17 - (3)
17-18 - (11)
18-19 - (1)
19-20 - (0)
20-21 - (1)
Appearances from youth players per season
2014/15 - 252 2015/16 - 199 2016/17 - 183 2017/18 - 132 2018/19 - 87 2019/20 - 108 2020/21 - 50
28 players from our youth set up have made their debut for the club since summer 2014
There is a total of 504 appearances between the 28 players which is an average of 18 games per player
10 players have played 25 or more times in competitive action for the club
Of those 28 players, 9 of them remain although many of these are out of contract this summer.
Of those 28 players only 1 (Aaron Hickey) was sold for a significant amount of money.
It is not surprising to see that over half of the fans polled felt that there were a number of different factors currently impacting on our ability to establish ourselves as a top 4 club. It would also be wise to acknowledge that it is not an easy feat to reach that goal given that the last time we reached the top 4 in 3 consecutive seasons was during Jim Jefferies 1st spell in charge.
Our youth set-up challenges have already been touched on above so I would like to focus on recruitment and an acceptance culture within the club.
"They offered me a contract that I couldn't refuse at the age of 28" - Loic Damour
There have been a number of long term contracts handed to players who we were never going to recoup any money for. There has also been long term deals offered to players to compete with the larger wages on offer from Aberdeen (Don Cowie & Connor Sammon two examples of adding a year to their deals to compensate for the lower wage salary compared to our rivals.)
During the past few years we have also granted deals to the likes of Glen Whelan that offered little incentive to commit to the club fully and strangely a 30 month contract to Aidy White who had not played any competitive football for two years up until this point.
On paper many players have come through the door with a CV to suggest that they can contribute but there seems to have been little thought given into whether these individuals would suit our preferred system or tactics at the time of their signing.
Take Connor Washington for example. A decent pedigree which included a big move to QPR earlier in his career and international recognition but a player who was most effective making runs down the channels and getting in behind the backline to stretch teams. Given that most teams will play with a deep defensive line, it was always likely that we would struggle to get the best out of the striker and moves like this point towards a general scattergun approach to recruitment.
The perceived acceptance culture within the club is a more difficult criticism to pinpoint. You could point to our owner describing defeat at Ibrox as "a great result (apart from the score)" as acceptance of a mediocrity at the club but then it is difficult to believe that experienced professionals are swayed by those sort of comments. It could be argued though that the continued acceptance of the managers performance filtered down to the players and that is something that needs to change.
I will post below the other results from the poll to allow anyone reading this to take they want from the data that was collated.
Thank you for reading.