When Alex MacDonald first pitched up at Heart of Midlothian in 1980, the midfielder could scarcely believe what he had walked into. The past 12 years had been littered with success after success at Rangers and his trophy haul in that time - three league titles, four Scottish Cups, four League Cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup - was enviable, to say the least.

MacDonald had become accustomed to certain standards – standards, it’s fair to say, that his new employers didn’t live up to. Hearts had bounced back to the top flight at the first time of asking in the previous campaign and looked every inch a newly-promoted side when the new season got under way.

MacDonald’s first season in Gorgie would end in bitter disappointment: Hearts finished bottom of the pile upon their return to the big time, winning just six league matches out of a possible 36. The manager, Bobby Moncur, was given the heave-ho at the end of the campaign as the search for his replacement began in earnest. As luck would have it, Wallace Mercer and his fellow directors wouldn’t have to look far.

“I couldn’t believe it,” MacDonald told Hearts Standard when asked about his arrival in Gorgie. “It was certainly a lower standard than what I was used to at Rangers. Training was different – it was mostly wee games, there wasn’t any hard training. I found I was getting tight hamstrings and things like that because I wasn’t stretching my legs the way I should have been.

“That all changed when I took over [as player/manager in 1981]. We worked hard. But the players we had at that time – John Robertson, Craig Levein, Gary Mackay – they were all Hearts-mad. It was easy to get them motivated, you know?

Hearts Standard: The 1982/83 Heart of Midlothian squadThe 1982/83 Heart of Midlothian squad (Image: SNS)

“I didn’t look at it [as if I had a big job on my hands]. When I was offered it, I told the board that I had no experience as a manager, so they better get someone else. But they said, ‘no, we want you Mr MacDonald’. So I went home and told the wife, and she told me to say aye!

“I was with St Johnstone for three years and had been at Ibrox for 12 years, so I was sure I had picked up something. You’re learning all the time. There are wee things that you do. On a Friday I would get Kenny Black to take four or five players to warm up, and Craig Levein to take another four or five, because they get sick of listening to my voice. All the older professionals would warm them up on a Friday. Wee Kenny would get suspended quite a lot so I would send him to watch teams training just to see what they do. It was for him, not for me.

“It took me a wee while to adjust. I probably didn’t eat much for a couple of weeks but once it settled down and we got a bit of hard training behind us, it got better. After a couple of years I was lucky enough to get my mate Sandy [Jardine] and I was very fortunate to get [sprinters and coaches] George McNeill and Bert Logan, plus we had [coaches] John Binnie and Walter Borthwick. Watty did a great turn for me – he knew what he was doing. The training got upped again. You’d think the 10 years I was there was all pre-planned but it all just kind of fell into place.”

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It took a fair bit of time before MacDonald’s revolution in EH11 truly took hold. In his first season in the dugout, Hearts finished third in the old First Division, pipped to promotion by Kilmarnock by a single point. A second-place finish the following year was enough to seal Hearts’ return to the Premier Division, and MacDonald was presented with a new challenge: firstly reestablishing Hearts as a top-flight team, then challenging for silverware at the top end of the table. It was an opportunity that he relished – and he had a plan of how best to go about it, too.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it, there’s no question of that,” MacDonald said. “I always had the thing in my mind – getting John Colquhoun, Brian Whittaker, Roddie MacDonald. I was always trying to go for ex-Rangers and ex-Celtic players who maybe had something to try and prove. It worked for me, there’s no question about that.

“They were experienced players and they became fit as well. It’s like anything else: you need to teach people as well. When I’m buying a player for £100,000, he’s not the full player. You’ve got to teach him things and make him better. And credit to the players because they listened. It was an excellent time and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

“There’s no question that [my upbringing at Rangers instilled high standards in me]. We had really good players during my time at Ibrox. But the secret is if you’ve got a bad player and you make him fit, he becomes a good nuisance. And if you’ve got a really good player, you make him even better by making him fitter. It’s a very simple thing. Football can be very simple if you do it right.”

Hearts Standard: Alex MacDonald in action against Davie CooperAlex MacDonald in action against Davie Cooper (Image: SNS)

MacDonald’s team certainly made the beautiful game look very straightforward. They finished fifth in the 1983/84 season to mark their return to the Premier Division in emphatic fashion before tumbling a couple of places the following campaign as they finished seventh. The next one, though, would be one of the most memorable in the history of the club.

The 1985/86 campaign was a thrilling roller-coaster that would conclude in the most devastating fashion possible for Hearts, and supporters do not need to be reminded of just how close the team came to winning a first league title since 1960. It will be a long time before that dramatic and heartbreaking finale fades from memory. It remains one of the greatest ‘what if?’ moments in the history of Scottish football, but MacDonald won’t play with counterfactuals.

“No, I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “That would just be making excuses and I don’t want to do that. The title was there for us and unfortunately it didn’t happen. It was really disappointing – not just for me, but for the supporters. They were utterly fantastic and we let them down badly.

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“When you went into the dressing room after, you realised how disappointed everyone was but especially the players. A few of them were greeting. Even myself, it took me three times to go in and try and lift them because we had a cup final the following week. I welled up three times as well. It was heavy stuff, there’s no question about it.

“I always took it one game at a time. There was no point thinking you’re going to do this or that, you’ve just got to go and do it. Maybe sometimes I would come in after a game at Ibrox, and the players have come in arguing and shouting. I’m telling them, ‘excuse me, that’s the way you go out’. You don’t come in screaming and shouting after it, you go out screaming and shouting. It’s easy doing it after the game but you’ve got to do that during and before it.”

Just as MacDonald focused on the coaching side of the game as he entered the latter stages of his playing career, so too did one member of his squad in particular: Sandy Jardine. The late Rangers great had swapped Ibrox for Tynecastle in 1982 to team up with his friend MacDonald at the club he had supported as a boy, helping out with training and offering tactical pointers when he could.

Four years passed before Aberdeen came calling with an offer to join the Pittodrie club: something that caught Jardine’s attention. He would ultimately opt to stay in the capital after the chairman offered him the position of co-manager – a subject that Jardine would then nervously broach with MacDonald – but the former Scotland internationalist needn’t have been worried.

Hearts Standard: Alex MacDonald played alongside Sandy Jardine (pictured) at Rangers and HeartsAlex MacDonald played alongside Sandy Jardine (pictured) at Rangers and Hearts (Image: SNS)

“I was over in Arran with my wee pal Billy Clark and I got a message saying Sandy was coming through to see me,” MacDonald recalled. “I didn’t know what was happening and I met him in Kilsyth in the house. I said, ‘what’s up, bud?’. He said, ‘Aberdeen want me’. So I went, ‘well, what’s happening?’. He went, ‘I said to Mr Mercer if I could become co-manager’. I said, ‘for fuck’s sake Sandy, you’ve been the co-manager all your days, what’s the fucking problem?’.

“There was no manager, assistant manager, co-manager… that’s just the way it was. We were two guys who were trying to do a job for Hearts. In my time we didn’t have coaching badges – we didn’t need them. We just got on with it.

“There are a lot of wee simple things that make a helluva difference to players. They have to take it in – they have to understand what you’re trying to do and to show them. I was lucky because as a player/manager you could tell them right there and then. I thoroughly enjoyed being the player/manager – a lot of people don’t like it but you were right in the middle of the action.”

The 1985/86 season would prove to be the high-water mark of MacDonald’s reign at Tynecastle. The team would finish second again in 1987/88, albeit 10 points behind the eventual champions Celtic, and third in 1989/90, before MacDonald was relieved of his duties in September 1990 and replaced by Joe Jordan.

The financial realities of the modern game mean that we are unlikely to ever see anyone disrupt the Old Firm’s dominance of the Scottish game but MacDonald, for one, isn’t giving up hope. The prospect of seeing a Hearts team going all the way and winning a top-flight title might well be remote – but MacDonald reckons he has found a way.

“I think that’s what we’re all looking forward to – seeing a good Hearts team that challenges right up to the last,” he added. “Every Hearts supporter wants that but so does every other team. Everybody wants to be up there but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way – not unless you get a Saudi prince in! If you get a Saudi prince in and he’s only 14, play him. You’ll get his dad’s money!”