A corner that will forever be Hearts

Scotland shall remember them: players with a greater cause
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The Independent Football

There is rarely a lull in the traffic which courses through Haymarket, one of Edinburgh's busiest junctions. Today, however, everything will grind to a halt in honour of the men who swapped the roars of the crowd for the sound of gunfire. Every November, the players and officials of Hearts gather for Remem-brance Sunday and let their thoughts drift back to the players who valued valour more than titles. On the 11th day of the 11th month, though, there is greater poignancy for football's most courageous XI.

There is rarely a lull in the traffic which courses through Haymarket, one of Edinburgh's busiest junctions. Today, however, everything will grind to a halt in honour of the men who swapped the roars of the crowd for the sound of gunfire. Every November, the players and officials of Hearts gather for Remem-brance Sunday and let their thoughts drift back to the players who valued valour more than titles. On the 11th day of the 11th month, though, there is greater poignancy for football's most courageous XI.

The only British team to answer the call of King and Country, en masse, to fight in the First World War have been honoured this way for the last 80 years. Instead of being celebrated for their skills on the football field, it was the battlefields which became their legacy. Seven first-teamers perished in France and Belgium. Their names do not trip off the tongue like Manchester United's Munich victims, but their story is as remarkable.

Hearts were galloping towards the Scottish league championship when war broke out in 1914 and when Lord Kitchener issued his call to arms, the entire team went to the Haymarket army recruitment office and signed up together. Within a fortnight, more than 400 shareholders and 1,300 fans had followed their example.

Many of those fans died alongside their heroes in the trenches, as C Company of the 16th Batallion of the Royal Scots Guards. Four players died in the Battle of the Somme alone, and it was 1958 before the club won the league again. "Every Remembrance Sunday, we go along to the club's memorial, without fail," said Douglas Dalgleish, Hearts' public relations executive. The memorial was erected from public subscription in 1922 and the solemn service has been part of the fabric of the club for eight decades, especially those who inherited the legacy of the maroon shirts.

"It is a requirement of all players that they go along," said Dalgleish, "and even the foreign players we have brought to Tynecastle in recent years have taken it on board. Two years ago, our then-goalkeeper, Gilles Rousset, who is French, laid a wreath at The Somme."

On 1 July, 1916, in that corner of France which will forever be Tynecastle, Hearts player and platoon leader, Sergeant Duncan Currie, led his men over the top. He died with team-mates Private Harry Wattie and Private Ernest Ellis and Lance Corporal James Boyd was killed two days later. The war also claimed Corporal Thomas Gracie and Private James Speedie in 1915, while Sergeant John Allan was killed at Arras in 1917. Yet when that fateful 1914-15 season began, no one could have guessed the tragedy which would befall Hearts.

"We were top of the Scottish league," explained Dalgleish, "having beaten Celtic 2-0 on the opening day to go on an eight-game winning run before enlistment." The club's official history notes that the weakened squad left behind at Tynecastle led the table for 35 out of 37 weeks before Celtic took over and "cruelly denied" Hearts the title.

Football – which never stopped in Scotland during 1914-18 – came in for fierce criticism in the House of Commons and many players were seen as hiding behind contracts to avoid enlist-ment. Duncan Currie and his team-mates gave up their £4 a week for the shilling-a-day wage in the army.

That ethos is in stark contrast to today's players. "I don't think many of our young players will know anything about the First World War," reflects Dalgleish, "but once you have stood at the memorial and think what those brave men did, it grips you."

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