Take it from me: reporting on a team that’s not your own can take some getting used to. But it can also be a real eye-opener.

You see, the launch of Hearts Standard back in September was a leap in the dark in many ways. Joel Sked and I didn’t know exactly what the reaction to the site would be, or whether or not Heart of Midlothian supporters would embrace it. We didn’t know that Steven Naismith’s side were on the brink of an excellent season. And, in retrospect, I don’t think I knew just what it was I was getting into.

Listeners to our podcast and viewers of our YouTube show will know that I support my local team, Partick Thistle. It’s something I’ve always been fairly up front about, and I’ve never shied away from that fact. I covered the club for a few years before Hearts Standard launched and had gotten into the swing of things, but now I would be tasked with getting my teeth sunk into the day-to-day reality of life on the beat in Gorgie and Dalry.

I must admit, a little part of me was worried when we first launched. There were a few butterflies in the stomach – a perfectly natural response for anyone involved – but there was another occasional worry too. Joel is a dyed-in-the-wool Hearts fan, after all. But I couldn’t help but imagine what fans would make of my own involvement. He’s a weegie! He’s not even a Jambo!

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Thankfully, those concerns were entirely unfounded. The response to the Hearts Standard has been nothing short of humbling, and no one seems to care about where my allegiances lie. When watching Hearts, I can’t pretend that I have as much skin in the game as anyone reading this, but I think there’s an understanding that I can perhaps provide the occasional objective take when emotions are running high or tempers are flaring; a counterpoint to Joel’s obvious passion for the club he holds dear.

I suppose that’s the first thing I learned this season: Hearts fans are a fair lot. Be up front and straight with them, and they will respond in kind. In the 10 months or so since we launched, I’ve met all sorts of supporters from all sorts of backgrounds. There have been chats at games, chats at club events, chats in pubs, chats on Twitter, chats on YouTube – and I honestly can’t recall a single interaction where anyone has been anything but kind, sincere and engaging.

It should be said that Tynecastle Park is an excellent place to take in the game, too (obviously it doesn’t hold a candle to Firhill, though). Trips to Hearts have always been among the best away days that Scottish football has to offer in this humble scribe’s opinion, but this season I’ve had the chance to get properly acquainted with the stadium. Walking across Foundation Plaza it’s impossible to escape the notion that this is a well-run club with infrastructure in place for the long haul. It’s an impressive sight. And the range of excellent pubs within spitting distance of the ground certainly doesn’t hurt either.

A quick word, too, for the Gorgie Ultras. Their enthusiasm and passion, whether it’s an electrifying win over Rosenborg or a dour 1-0 victory over Livingston, is fantastic to see. Tynecastle is all the richer for their presence. Additionally, I never cease to be amazed by the sheer scale of the Big Hearts operation and the wonderful work that the club’s charity arm do.

(Image: SNS)

On the football side of things, there has been one obvious privilege: getting to witness Lawrence Shankland’s magnificent season firsthand. I’ve been a long-time admirer of Shankland’s talent, ever since he was back at Ayr United and scoring from 50 yards into my beloved Jags. I’d been to one or two Hearts games in his debut season and watched him regularly on Sportscene, and I was impressed with his prowess in front of goal. But I’d still hear from Hearts fans: ‘No, you don’t understand. He’s so much more’.

I get it now. Watching Shankland week-in, week-out, you soon realise that he is so much more than just his goals, and he gets an awful lot of those. The way he drops deep during build-up, the way he’s simultaneously the team’s best playmaker and finisher, his improvisation, his work-rate – these are things that highlight reels simply don’t do justice. His range of goals has been astonishing, and I suspect it will be a long time before we see another Hearts player make a clean sweep of all the individual awards on offer.

There are others who have really grown on me too. I’ve made no secret of my admiration of Beni Baningime and Cammy Devlin, two players who have unique skill-sets within Scottish football. I have a newfound respect for Stephen Kingsley’s consistency and versatility, and I really like the look of Macaulay Tait. Kenneth Vargas and Calem Nieuwenhof look to be the most promising of the newcomers in terms of their potential, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be rooting for Kyosuke Tagawa.

I’ve been impressed with Naismith too. I argued that he should be given time when he was under pressure earlier in the season and some wanted the board to pull the trigger, and Hearts’ turnaround in fortunes from then to now has been remarkable. No one could have predicted back then that Hearts would finish with their second-highest points tally this century, but that is exactly what occurred and Naismith and his coaching staff deserve credit for turning it around.

READ MORE: It had to be Shankland: Why Hearts striker was only choice for Player of the Year

It hasn’t been perfect and there have been missteps along the way, but I sincerely believe that Hearts have one of the most promising young managers in Scottish football at the helm, and I’m looking forward to seeing what next season brings. The foundations for success have been laid, and it will be intriguing to see if Naismith can build on them in the new campaign. And, from a journalist’s perspective, the former Scotland internationalist doesn’t shy away from questions: something that can’t be said of all managers plying their trade in the SPFL.

My season covering Hearts has also taught me about the paradoxical nature of the expectations at the club. Playing in Europe, finishing third, reaching two semi-finals before being knocked out by one half of the Old Firm – on paper, there isn’t much more that could realistically be hoped for. And yet, it’s also the absolute minimum required to be a Hearts manager these days. It’s a club where the margins between success and failure are thinner than most, and I don’t think I really understood that until recently.

Something else I’ve learned: there is always something happening at Hearts. Whether it’s the first team’s fortunes on the park, club infrastructure projects off of it, the women’s team, the B team, the Foundation of Hearts, Big Hearts, new players arriving or old favourites leaving, there is always something to write about. Add in 150 years of history to delve into and explore, and every day really is a school day. There’s so much to analyse and examine, to recall and reminisce upon, to debate and discuss, which certainly helps us over at Hearts Standard towers.

But the biggest lesson? It has to be that Hearts fans’ passion for their club is remarkable. I see their appetite for anything and everything Hearts-related every single day, and the level of engagement and support we receive from fans is special. Believe me when I say that a project like Hearts Standard wouldn’t work for every club, and that’s entirely down to the enthusiasm of our subscribers. It’s reinforced my belief that we can do things a little differently to provide the best coverage of the club that we possibly can.

I’ve learned a lot in my first season covering Hearts. And it’s exciting to know that despite the hundreds of reports, analysis, interviews and features I’ve produced in that time that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this grand old club.