BY KEVIN O’NEILL
It was during a recent run-of-the-mill conversation with a mate that our minds revisited one of the most glorious days in the 142-year history of Scottish club, Heart of Midlothian, which, consequently, was also among the most bitter and painful occasions for their Edinburgh rivals, Hibernian.
We were, of course, recalling the 2012 Scottish Cup final when the Jambos put the Hibees to the sword in the Hampden Park sun, to record a heavy 5-1 win.
Now, given that neither my friend nor I have an affiliation to either Edinburgh team, it was a somewhat peculiar topic to enter our rambling.
But it did so on the back of one man’s name; Andrew Driver.
“You know,” my friend asked, “the little blonde fellow flying down the wing, tearing Hibs apart”?
Immediately, my thoughts turned to Driver, who had always impressed me when watching Hearts. I wondered where exactly he had gone, for I hadn’t heard tell of him and his darting left wing play since he joined the Major League Soccer outfit, Houston Dynamo, in 2013.
Of course, these days a quick Google search will rapidly tell you his exact career path.
But knowing that Driver had since pitched-up in Holland, for an ultimately failed attempt to keep De Graafschap in the Dutch top-flight (Eredivisie), would not be enough to quell a desire to find out what had motivated a very talented young (ish) British player to break from the more conventional career path, for British players, and to try pastures new.
Indeed, something stirred inside to find out more, and to ask Driver why playing for a very ordinary Dutch side, located in a thriving farming community in the country’s east, might seem more attractive than some of the other more tried and tested career moves for British players.
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For example, I wanted to know if it would have made more sense for Driver – aged 25 when leaving Hearts – to head down south to England?
He had been linked to a plethora of English sides during his best days at Tynecastle, including the mega-rich Chelsea.
And even had playing in the Premier League been a step too far, then maybe carving out a respectable career in England’s second or third tiers might have made more sense than travelling halfway across the world to gamble on his future?
But once I had managed to establish contact with Driver, he told me that taking the easy option has never even been an option – and that his curiosity to discover different environs and cultures, while playing the game he loves, had driven him to expand his horizons.
“I always wanted to play abroad – even as a child,” Andrew said.
“In fact, I always dreamed about playing for AC Milan! Anyway, having the chance to play football and see new parts of the world always seemed pretty attractive to me. To be honest, I was looking for something different after ten years with Hearts and a couple in Houston, and I jumped at the chance to go to Holland, where I was delighted to sign an initial one-year contract after a two-week trial,” he added.
Driver, who had excelled in his ten years with Hearts, making over 150 appearances despite several mid to long-term injuries, had just completed a somewhat frustrating short stay with Aberdeen, where he never quite found the necessary match sharpness to make an impression.
So, the opportunity to try something completely new and challenging, in Holland, was something that he felt compelled to do, he said.
“The Aberdeen thing was a frustrating time. You see, I went there not 100 per cent fit because of the timing of the move from Houston. In the States, the season runs from March to October, so there was a few months between the end of MLS and signing for Aberdeen in March, 2015. I was already behind the rest of the players, fitness-wise, but I have to say the Aberdeen boys and the coaches were brilliant, and I still learned a lot there, even if i don’t have many great memories having only played one game before my short-term contract expired at the end of the season,” said Driver.
But having failed to make his mark at Pittodrie, the former Hutchison Vale youth was so determined to sample life in Holland that he paid his own plane fare to attend the trial with De Graafschap, with whom, he admitted, he had been vaguely familiar through the popular computer game, Football Manager.
Once there, he admitted, the language barrier would be a bit of a problem, particularly when trying to understand coaching instructions in training.
To that end, Driver would be delighted when De Graafschap signed the former Kilmarnock and St Mirren defender Jeroen Tesselaar, whose excellent grasp of the English language allowed him to take Driver under his wing and to help with translating.
But despite, as he said, finding an idyllic place in which to live a laid-back lifestyle (he lives in Arnhem, about 25 minutes from the De Graafschap stadium), Driver’s old injury problems – of which he suffered many in his decade of service to Hearts – returned to hinder his involvement in the first three games of the 2015/16 league season, from which De Graafschap failed to register a single point while conceding ten goals.
Driver, who admitted that De Graafschap’s only aim for the campaign had been to avoid relegation, after surprisingly earning promotion the previous season, would finally debut in the fourth game of a long and difficult season for the so-called Super Farmers, as De Graafschap lost away against Excelsior, 3-0.
In late October, he scored his first goal for the club, in a 6-3 defeat against eventual champions, PSV Eindhoven, and registered again three weeks later in a defeat to Groningen. Ominously though, that defeat had left De Graafschap with only two points to show from 13 league games.
As all the pre-season pundits had predicted, De Graafschap seemed to have relegation fodder written all over them but a week after the Groningen defeat, the elusive first win of the season finally arrived, away to Cambuur.
Despite getting off the mark, a limited De Graafschap side would manage only four further victories to finish the campaign second from bottom.
They did, however, manage to play a major part in the destination of the league title when surprisingly holding Ajax Amsterdam to a draw on the final day, thus paving the way for PSV Eindhoven to leapfrog their great rivals at the top of the table in a dramatic finale to the season.
And despite finishing second last in the table, De Graafschap’s fate had not yet been sealed, as only the bottom placed team in the Eredivisie gets automatically relegated.
The teams that finish second and third last are required to enter a convoluted relegation play-off procedure against teams from the second tier.
And when De Graafschap disposed of MVV in their first play-off encounter, it looked like Driver and his team-mates might just avoid the drop, but they then capitulated in their final play-off tie, losing 5-2 over two legs against Go Ahead Eagles, to condemn them to a return to second tier fare for the 2016/17 season.
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The Oldham-born winger, however, would not turn his back on De Graafschap after relegation, instead penning a new two-year contract to remain at Stadion De Vijverberg (The Pond Hill).
“Along with going to America, playing and living in Holland has been an amazing experience, although the two experiences were complete opposites,” Driver said.
“The life in Gelderland (the province where De Graafschap play) is very relaxed and Holland, in general, is a great country to live in.
“I see my near future at De Graafschap and look forward to the challenges ahead. After that, we will see what happens but I want to keep playing for as long as possible. Having been injured when I was a younger player, I feel there’s a few more years left in the legs. I’m going to do my coaching badges in Holland, as well, and I’m open-minded about my future in the game,” he continued.
The future for Driver might be unpredictable, but what about the past and the time when Driver was a key force in the Hearts team that won the 2012 Scottish Cup in such emphatic style?
For Driver, the memory of that dayÂ at Hampden Park is unlikely to fade any time soon.
“The big Cup win was definitely the best moment in my career,” he said.
“My family moved to Edinburgh when I was quite young and as it turned out, it would be the best decision our family ever made. For me, as a kid who wanted to play football, it gave me a chance to sign for a really good youth club (Hutchison Vale) who developed so many good players, like John Collins, Leigh Griffiths, Kenny Miller and Gary Naysmith, to name just a few. From there, I always felt very lucky to get the opportunity to play for Hearts, who had won the Scottish Cup a few months before I broke in the first-team. I always enjoyed my football with Hearts and the supporters were very good. People always wonder why I never went down to England but I never even thought about it, as a player.
“I was just enjoying my football when all the speculation was going on. Look, as a player you can’t believe everything that you read or what an agent says. I’m pretty sure that at least half the speculation about my future, while a Hearts player, was nothing more than nonsense. I was always grateful to represent Hearts and believe I was lucky not to have ever moved – otherwise I would’ve missed the 2012 final, the greatest experience I ever had in the game,” he added.
Hearts had already beaten Celtic in the semi-finals thanks to a late and controversial penalty, converted by former Bhoy Craig Beattie. And in the final, not many Hearts players fell below par and they really put Hibs to bed when their neighbours went down to ten men in the second half after the dismissal of Gambian left-back Pa Kujabi.
After the 5-1 triumph, said Driver, the level of euphoria about the manner of Hearts’ win ensured that celebrations in and around Edinburgh’s west end went on for at least a couple of weeks.
Indeed, Driver said that while playing in the States, for Houston, he noticed fans of his former club in the crowd on a couple of occasions who would catch Driver’s attention by wearing the Hearts colours and waving five fingers his way, in clear reference to the number of goals scored in the Cup final.
But when the mammoth celebrations finally died down after the final, Driver would be on his way out of Tynecastle.
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Many people figured his exit had been down to a fractured relationship between the player and the Hearts’ manager, the Portuguese Paolo Sergio. But despite admitting that he had arguments with Sergio, Driver claimed his departure had nothing to do with their previous difficulties.
“It’s no secret that myself and Paolo Sergio had an argument but I was young back then and acted stupidly in the argument,” Driver said.
“I soon made an apology about my behaviour and like all the top coaches he forgave my actions and continued to pick me in his team. In the end, we actually got along very well. The reality of the situation at Hearts was that the club, at the time, was heading into financial difficulty and I felt, after the extreme high of winning the Cup, that it might be a good time to move on. I didn’t think it was possible to top the achievement of winning the Cup in such style and the last thing I wanted was to spoil all the good memories of my time with Hearts,” he added.
Once Driver had decided to take the plunge in MLS, he would make a brilliant start to life in Houston by scoring three times in his first nine appearances to help Houston into the last four stage in the MLS Cup, a trophy the club had won in its first two seasons in existence (2006 and 2007).
The following campaign (2014) did not go so well for the team – by then managed by Owen Coyle – as they could only finish seventh (of ten teams) in the Eastern Conference (the top five from each of the two Conferences progress to the end of season play-offs to determine the outright MLS Cup champions).
With that, Driver’s experience in the States had ended, but it would be an unforgettable couple of years in his life.
“Playing in the US was an amazing experience and I feel lucky to have seen almost the whole country while playing football,” he recalled.
“The lifestyle was brilliant, as well as the people, and it was where I met my wife! The MLS is a harder league than people give it credit for, and all the travelling, the change in temperatures/timezones and surfaces can really take it out of you. I would recommend playing in the States to anyone but would also let them know that it isn’t an easy gig,” he added.
From there, Driver undertook the challenge of returning to Scotland with Aberdeen before ending up, somewhat unexpectedly, in a relegation dogfight in Holland.
At the time of writing, Driver and De Graafschap’s bid for an immediate return to the Eredivisie had begun with a win and a defeat. Only time will tell whether the former Hearts hero can help them return to the top-flight by the season’s end.
But regardless, it seems clear that no matter what direction De Graafschap’s season might take, that Driver’s desire to keep exploring the football world is unlikely to hit the curb any time soon.