How Good Was Neil McCann?
Hearts' veteran winger Neil McCann is currently attempting to negotiate a new contract with the club, and reading between the lines it's looking more and more like this season will be his last at Tynecastle...as a player, certainly.
I can't imagine many people opposing the suggestion that McCann's second spell at Tynecastle has been something of a disappointment. From pretty much day one it seemed like a move destined to bear little fruit, with McCann being on the end of a brutal tackle at Rugby Park barely 20 minutes into his first match as a Hearts player the second time around.
That incident has really summed up 'Terry''s luck over the past few years - he was commendably able to battle back from that setback only to survive a few months of first team action before a horrendous leg-break at Parkhead around this time last year ended his season again. He's only just on the fringes of returning to full fitness now, and for a player whose main asset was always pace, you'd have to think that these injuries are going to be taking their toll on the wee man in a big way now.
But in years to come when people are asked to recall Neil McCann's Hearts career, I'm quite sure that they'll be casting their minds back to the dynamic, electrically fast winger who arrived at Tynecastle in the late '90s from Dundee rather than the luckless, disconsolate figure we've seen over the past couple of years.
McCann was without question one of Jim Jefferies' most influential signings during a period of success for Hearts a decade ago, which famously climaxed on that glorious spring afternoon at Parkhead when they lifted the Scottish Cup for the first time in 42 years.
He was probably the first player Hearts had had since John Colquhoun the decade before who combined genuinely lightning-quick pace with an ability to finish and assist others.
Sure, he was inconsistent as all wingers can be, and people often used to criticise his final ball, but generally speaking Hearts back then were an infinitely more dangerous proposition with McCann in the team than without, and opposition managers clearly knew this.
Just think about the number of times you'd see opposition defenders doubling up on McCann. This meant that even if he was having a quiet game, there would be plenty of space for others to roam into, and in that excellent Hearts side including the likes of Fulton and Cameron who could break quickly from midfield, this helped to make it a wonderfully entertaining time to follow the famous. It was arguably the most free-flowing, attacking side that Hearts have had in the last 25 years....I said arguably!
Despite the great challenge that Hearts put up in both the league and Scottish Cup in that 1997/98 season, for me the pinnacle of McCann's Hearts career was actually in a game that the team lost: the final of the League Cup in 1996. I don't think I've ever seen an individual performance quite like it from a Hearts player before or since - quite simply McCann tore one of the best Rangers sides of modern times to pieces, so much so that despite the Glasgow giants' 4-3 win on the day, including two sublime goals from Paul Gascoigne, he took the man of the match award. Time after time that day he took on and skinned his marker, and I think it ended up at the stage where three Rangers players were on bookings due to consistent fouls on McCann, who eventually had the freedom of Parkhead because none of these guys could afford to touch him or they'd be off! The highlight that afternoon was him setting up Robbo for the equaliser to make it 2-2 after Hearts had been two goals down, but like most stories involving Hearts teams back then, it didn't have the happiest of endings.
Still, McCann and co more than made up for that in '98, and I'm quite sure that everyone who played their part that afternoon will forever be fondly remembered by everyone connected with our great club.
But where would you put McCann in the list of all-time great wingers to have played for Hearts? It's obviously quite a difficult question to answer as you will invariably end up with names from different eras being compared, but I'd have him at number two or three on the list behind John Colquhoun when considering those I've seen in my lifetime.
For me JC has to still shade it for overall ability and longevity, but McCann is probably the next in line, with honourable mentions going to Allan Johnston (sublime talent that ultimately went to waste) and Jean-Louis Valois, who perhaps only gave us three months but WHAT a three months! Some may cite Rudi Skacel, but I never really saw Rudi as a winger - not in the traditional sense anyway.
Older fans may consider the likes of Eamonn Bannon (from his first spell with Hearts) or perhaps some of the guys from the 50s or 60s, but I can't really comment having only ever seen tiny clips of them on old film.
Regardless of who your favourites are here, I think that Neil McCann deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the best of them.