The humbled Hearts players stood motionless in their technical area, forced to look on as St Mirren walked up the Hampden steps to be presented with the League Cup.
To add to their obvious despair, the trophy which could – and arguably should – have been theirs was being hoisted into the south Glasgow air with Levels, the Avicii song which has become Hearts’ unofficial anthem over the past year or so, blaring out over the sound system.
For Scottish Cup winners like Darren Barr, Andy Webster and Jamie MacDonald, who had been making merry at this same venue a mere ten months previously, the boot was well and truly on the other foot. The St Mirren players were barely back down on the pitch and the Hearts players were up the tunnel like a shot, understandably eager to flee the scene and get back to Edinburgh. It was truly harrowing stuff for the new manager, Gary Locke, and his team.
To their credit, most of the Hearts players fronted up to the media afterwards; this certainly isn’t always the case with beaten finalists. But then lack of character was never really an issue for Hearts yesterday, it was an absence of ruthlessness and genuine quality when it mattered that ultimately cost them a first League Cup triumph in over 50 years.
As the first half drew to a close with Hearts only a goal to the good despite having been streets ahead of their bedraggled opponents, a feeling was growing that the Edinburgh side might live to rue their inability to hammer home their obvious superiority early on. And so it was to prove, with goals either side of the interval swinging the pendulum firmly in the Paisley side’s favour. The Jambos were shell-shocked and never recovered until it was pretty much too late; namely in the last ten minutes when they staged a rousing rally which almost salvaged extra-time from 3-1 down.
The man leading the charge for Hearts was Ryan Stevenson. This should have been the crowning moment of the midfielder’s hitherto underwhelming second spell at Tynecastle. Instead, all the former Ayr United player had to show for his magnificent efforts were two goals which ultimately meant nothing. For a man whose brief spell away from Hearts last season coincided with them winning the Scottish Cup last May, this missed opportunity cut deep.
“Usually scoring two goals in a final is something you look back on for the rest of your career but it’s ended up probably the lowest point of my career,” said Stevenson, the first player to score a double and end up on the losing side in a cup final in Scotland since Aberdeen’s Davie Dodds netted twice in a 3-2 loss to Rangers in the 1988 League Cup.
“I think we probably did enough to at least take it to extra time. If we’d taken any of our chances in the first half it would have been a different game but it probably sums up our season. We had gilt-edged chances in the first half and it’s come back to bite us.
“It’ll take a few days for what’s happened to really sink in. It’s not often you get to a final and you’re not playing one of the big teams, so it’s a chance we might never get again.
By 3.30pm yesterday, Hearts had been so dominant that they looked capable of doing to St Mirren what they had done to Hibs in last May’s Scottish Cup final. Their players had clearly responded to a rousing pre-match teamtalk from Locke, who was taking charge of the team for the first time since being confirmed as manager on a permanent basis on Saturday. While St Mirren looked nervous, ragged and – at times – downright shambolic, Hearts were focused, assured and dangerous.
Club owner Vladimir Romanov, who was greeted by a banner reading ‘Vlad, thanks for the memories’ as he showed up at Hampden for what was widely considered to be a farewell visit, would have been impressed by the start his team made. As would John McGlynn, the recently-axed manager who was a guest of the club having led them through each of the previous three rounds.
His successor, Locke, usually a tracksuit coach, looked the part in his black cup final suit and prowled his technical area with an air of authority as his side controlled the early exchanges. After Stevenson’s opener, everyone of a maroon persuasion sensed blood. Their fans may have been housed in the opposite end of the national stadium – the east end – to that from which they have enjoyed most of their recent successes in these parts, but, such was Hearts’ dominance, this could have been May 19, 2012 all over again. It was all going far too smoothly. Too good to be true, if you like.
St Mirren eventually emerged from their slumber in the run-up to half-time, and what damage they wreaked. For that vital, game-changing mid-section of the match, Paul McGowan, Esmael Goncalves, Gary Teale and Steven Thompson were everything the Hearts attackers weren’t: ruthless, incisive and dynamic.
All of a sudden, from coasting along nicely, Hearts were somehow staring at the possibility of being on the receiving end of a rout. It was galling stuff for Locke, who hadn’t envisaged things panning out like this. He looked at his subs bench for a source of much-needed inspiration and all he could see was an erratic winger and a few unproven kids. No-one he could hang his hat on to come on and give the team a lift. Arvydas Novikovas, Jason Holt and Dale Carrick were introduced but it was always asking a lot to expect them to haul Hearts back from the dead.
To their credit, egged on by the deafening din of the 26,000 Hearts supporters, Locke’s men made an almighty scrap of it in the last ten minutes or so, but it was too little, too late. As the full-time whistle went, sparking scenes of unbridled joy at the St Mirren end of the ground, the Hearts players slumped to their knees, wracked with a sense of what could have been. Locke, already cutting his managerial teeth in the most difficult of circumstances, now has the arduous task of hauling his charges off the canvas as they prepare to see out the last seven games of a season to forget in the doldrums of the bottom six.
“For the players, it’s now about trying to repay the faith Gary’s shown in us,” said Stevenson. “He’s been a breath of fresh air since he came in. I think the club did the right thing naming him as manager before the game – it gave everyone a boost. He’s Hearts through and through, he’s a good coach and he was a good footballer who knows what he’s talking about. It would have been some story for him to get the job and then win the cup a day later, so all the boys are bitterly disappointed for him.”
For a team who had defied adversity to get to Hampden yesterday, the chance to make history proved a bridge too far. There was no sense of disgrace about yesterday’s defeat, though – just despondency.