“Ricardo? It makes me smile when I think about him.”

For 29 games in what was a largely underwhelming 2001/02 season for Heart of Midlothian, supporters were left entranced and enchanted by an unknown Jamaican. Not only supporters but team-mates and manager as well. Mention the name of Ricardo Fuller to Craig Levein and, like all those fans who witnessed him paint chaotic but mesmerisingly beautiful art with the ball at his feet, it elicits a response which is brimming with positivity and joy.

That’s all it took for Fuller to become a cult hero. To leave an indelible mark. To still be remembered so fondly in EH11. Just 29 games and nine goals. There had never been a player like him before and there has never been one like him since.

The beginning

October 2001.

Levein, having taken over from Jim Jefferies ten months previous, was in search of “more presence in the attack”. It was at a time when he was tasked with reducing the club’s wage bill by 40 per cent while ensuring the Gorgie side remained competitive in the upper echelons of the Scottish top flight. Fiorentina’s Greek forward Georgios Vakouftsis was a key transfer target. But Levein’s eye was caught by someone else. Something else. Johnny Harvey had been alerted to Ricardo Fuller when he had spent time on trial at Charlton Athletic before returning to Tivoli Gardens in his homeland.

Levein explained to Hearts Standard: “When I was speaking to John, he said ‘look, there’s this guy, Ricardo Fuller. I’ve watched him play a couple of times and I think he’s worth a look at, he’s a wee bit different’. I thought ‘wow, this guy is different’.

“He had an elasticity about him which was almost unbelievable. He just had this really graceful way of moving. Unbelievably strong although his legs were really skinny. In a way, he kind of reminded me of [Faustino] Asprilla at Newcastle when I went to watch him. Maybe not as elegant a runner as Asprilla. You think he had lost the ball or that he didn’t know what was going on around about him but then he would manoeuvre his way out of a situation which made you think ‘how the hell did he manage that?’.

“I was really interested and to get the deal done we had to deal with the club over in Jamaica. They wanted to get him in the shop window to sell him. Their plan was to get him into Scotland, for him to do well, and they were fairly certain he would do well, and then to move him to England. Their plan worked out perfectly. At the same time he was a real asset to us.”

Hearts Standard:

The loan was for an initial three months. With a work permit granted late on, he was immediately thrown in, Andy Kirk having picked up an injury. Sporting a top knot, Fuller partnered Scottish Cup goal hero Stephane Adam at Easter Road. His talent was inconspicuous to the away following that afternoon as Levein’s men fell to a 2-1 defeat. Fuller would later note that he had a lot to learn, that he would “have to take things one step at a time. You creep before you walk”. While Hearts won just once in his first eight appearances, Fuller scoring a goal in the 2-0 win over Dundee, behind the scenes, he had already made a mark. Both in training and around the squad.

“It felt like he gave the team a new injection at the right time, so it was a good bit of business from Craig’s point of view to get him in,” Gary Wales, who partnered Fuller 15 times, told Hearts Standard. “He was so laid back he was horizontal. Any problems that other people would experience, he wouldn’t feel any problems. He was always playing with a smile on his face.

“The guys were like ‘what have we got here?’ but as soon as we were out on the pitch it was a case of just getting the ball to his feet. He would turn people because he had such strength and then he would get away from people as well.”

READ MORE: From Neilson to Naismith: How Hearts have changed under new management

He displayed that with his first goal in the aforementioned win over Dundee, latching onto a ball to get in front and hold off Walter del Río. Then, in his eighth appearance, he and the team performed well in a 3-1 defeat at Ibrox. In one moment he picked up a loose ball in the Rangers half, Scott Wilson attempted a strong challenge, but he resembled a car bonnet crumpling on impact with a wall as the Jamaican skipped away from him and Fernando Ricksen. Fuller then headed towards Russell Latapy, stabbing a right foot at the ball to direct it away from the Trinidad & Tobago midfield maestro. It was left to Arthur Numan to come charging in with a foul to stop him as he sped towards the box. 

In that one instance he provided a demonstration of his brain and braun, his physicality and finesse. 

Hearts Standard:

“I don’t think I have watched a player who had the physicality he had,” Levein said. “He had real suppleness, elastic and quick and amazingly strong upper body strength and full of tricks. The way he moved is just different from most football players. He would go into a situation where he is off balance and you think he would go down but then he would regain his balance. He was just different.

“Really simple [to manage]. He worked hard in training, very, very respectful to everybody. Likeable because of that. Even in training he was full of tricks, he would like to show off a little bit. That was part of it but he had the talent, so why not, eh?”

The Lift off

December 2001.

After 18 league games, Hearts sat ninth, 15 points behind third-place Livingston and six behind opponents Kilmarnock, as 10,027 fans turned up at Tynecastle Park to see a 2-0 victory for the home side. It was more than a victory. It was the moment Ricardo Fuller truly announced himself as a Hearts star and a fan favourite, complete with his trademark taped ears which only added to his allure.

It was his dazzling dribbling qualities and abrupt but adroit change of direction which won a penalty to allow Stephen Simmons to score from the spot. It was followed by Fuller leaving Killie defender Freddie Dindeleux looking like Wile E. Coyote after a trap had backfired when he sped onto a Gary Wales flick-on. Blink and you would have missed Fuller stretching to direct the ball into his path before slamming a shot past Gordon Marshall. “Every time he has put foot to ball he has caused trouble for this defence” was Archie MacPherson’s assessment in commentary.

On the stroke of half-time he was stretchered off. But he would reappear. He got knocked down and kicked plenty during his brief stay at Tynecastle Park. But always got back up for more.

“When it came to the competitive side of things he was a warrior,” Levein noted. “I don’t think anyone could have pushed him over in training, he had amazing core strength.”

READ MORE: Craig Gordon: Hearts legend on his journey to master the art of goalkeeping

That game was the first in a run of seven unbeaten, including six wins. Fuller and Wales shared 10 goals between them.

“He was so strong,” Wales said. “He was one of the few players I played with who was really physically strong but also had all the other attributes. I played up front with Mark De Vries, he had a physical presence but wasn’t overly skilful or overly quick. Ricardo definitely had everything. What I would say is he wasn’t overly keen on providing many assists. He was very much a selfish centre-forward. Me and Kirky would often say, ‘any chance of squaring the ball sometimes?’.”

Former Hearts physio Alan Rae said in his autobiography: “The trouble was that there needed to be two balls on the park, one for him and one for the other 21 players. When he was in the mood he was unstoppable, he had more tricks than a bag of ferrets.”

Hearts fans wanted him to get on the ball and never let it go…

Hearts Standard:

The moment

A week later.

Kilmarnock was a mere precursor. Back in Gorgie, Motherwell were in town. Hearts won 3-1 and Fuller scored twice. But the game is remembered for one thing. One moment. One goal. One piece of artistry.

Picking the ball up in the centre circle he barreled past a host of Motherwell defenders before rounding goalkeeper Stevie Woods and netting one of the all-time great individual Hearts goals. Describing it would never do it justice. The ball under a spell, as it so often was at the feet of Fuller. Even if it bobbled and bounced up to his knee or shin, he still managed to have it under complete control.

“It was one of those moments where you say, ‘wow’ but it doesn’t really surprise you," Levein said. “When you watched him in training every single day he did things which made you think, ‘how the hell did he manage that?’.

“It got to the stage where he very rarely lost the ball. If you didn’t know him you thought he had overhit it but he did this thing John Colquohon used to do. He was running with the ball and he would put the ball in an area where the defender thought he could get it. He would slow down, just a beat or two, the defender thinks ‘I’m going to win this’ then he would speed up again, get a wee toe on it and get a foul or be past the defender. It is amazing how many times he puts the ball in an area where he tempts people and when they start moving towards him he gets a touch, they either foul him or let him go.

“That goal against Motherwell is one where the ball is always under control but sometimes you think it is not. As a defender, I’ve been in that situation, what you are not expecting is for the striker to be slowing down, taking a heavy touch but actually knowing he is trying to suck you in and then is going to accelerate and knock the ball past you. He was brilliant at it. Absolutely brilliant at it.”

The end

There was a virtuoso performance at Tannadice in a 2-0 victory a few days on from that goal. He tormented the United defence and scored. There was a double against Ross County in the Scottish Cup and a rainbow flick over the head of an opponent on the touchline during away success at Motherwell. There was the penalty win after being upended by Gary Caldwell which allowed Steven Pressley to secure victory over Hibs at Easter Road and then, in his penultimate game, his final goal against Celtic.

Fuller’s initial three-month loan spell had been extended to the end of the season earlier in the campaign, while Levein had spoken of the player’s desire to reach the English Premier League. Despite his emergence as a fan favourite, a permanent deal forever seemed unlikely due to the finances involved, both in terms of transfer fee and wages as Hearts slashed their spending under Chris Robinson. 

"It is a shame, because Ricardo loves it at Hearts and would have loved to stay,” Phillip Graham, the player’s agent, said at the time: “He is very happy in Edinburgh, but it is very unlikely Hearts will be able to do a deal."

READ MORE: Hearts Standard: Who we are, why we think the club deserves more coverage and our aim

There was talk of a fee of £1million, while reports suggested Preston North End only needed to pay half of that figure to secure his signature.

“It was actually a huge disappointment to lose him,” Levein said. “I wanted the board to try to find the money. The salary would have been a problem as well. He was fairly young when we had him. We just couldn’t afford him. I would have loved to have signed him. It was just way out of our price range at the time. Also, I think he had his head screwed on properly and knew England was where the prize was financially.”

Preston was the first stop on what proved to be an 18-year spell in English football. 

“I actually ended up playing against him in the Championship when I was down at Gillingham,” Wales remembers. “I knew he was going to the Premier League with his ability but he just needed that stepping stone just to leverage him up to the next step. In terms of what you saw down there, there was no difference. We were seeing that at Hearts. We were lucky enough to see the start of his career.”

If he was a cult hero at Hearts, it was at Stoke City where he became a legend over six seasons, four of which were in the Premier League after helping Tony Pulis’ men win promotion from the Championship. When the former Stoke boss joined Levein on Sacked in the Morning, the BBC Scotland podcast and show, the pair spoke enthusiastically about Fuller on and off air, recounting some of the more memorable moments of the Jamiacan’s career.

Hearts Standard:

The legacy

Despite playing fewer than 30 games, Fuller’s name continues to be mentioned alongside great goal scorers, Scottish Cup winners and club icons when talk turns to the best striker to have pulled on the maroon-and-white across the past two decades.

“He was a modern-day player,” Wales said. “They want you to be an athlete these days and Ricky was all of it. If you mentioned him in 20 strikers from the last 15 years I think the Hearts fans would definitely have him right at the top. Right up there anyway. It was such a short time he was with the club so he didn’t have the opportunity to score in a cup final like Stephane Adam so he is probably less memorable in that way and he’s not hit the goal amounts that Shanks [Lawrence Shankland] has done. In terms of an all-round contribution and fans' favourite he would certainly be in the top five.

“I was just as much a fan as the Hearts fans were of him because he would just do something magical and you would be asking ‘how did that actually happen’. That was Ricky. Collectively, he had all the attributes. That’s what probably sticks in my head, the first time I had seen someone as well rounded at receiving the ball, tricks, strong, good in the air. He had it all and I’m lucky to say I played with him just before his career really took off.”

While Fuller headed  south, Levein had to unearth a replacement. An improbable task but one in which he succeeded, plucking Mark de Vries from Dordrecht '90. The Dutchman helped the club finish third in back-to-back seasons. 

“Ricardo was exciting,” Levein said. “Fans got off their seats. I’ve worked with some really good players. Some of the better ones have been a little bit lazy, thinking they don’t have to do so much work because they have got talent but his work rate was as good as anybody at all. He never stopped running, his willingness to go press, start the press.

“De Vries provided a different dynamic in the frontline. I’m a huge fan of Mark. It needed someone really good to follow Ricardo or the comparisons were going to be vast. Mark, in his own way, provided strength and was also a strong runner, hard working and really good feet. I remember losing Ricardo and thinking ‘how the hell are we going to replace him?’. I’m not saying Mark de Vries was at that same level but it certainly helped that he came in and scored four goals in his first derby match. That always helps. But, Ricardo, it makes me smile when I think about him.”

A feeling still shared by the Gorgie faithful.