This was a cup semi-final that had always been a mouth-watering prospect and it delivered on that promise.
Scorers: Inverness CT - Shinnie 49 ; Hearts - Ngoo 66
It had everything. There was drama, talking points, near misses, new heroes, old villains and a result balanced on a knife-edge, too close to call.
Right up until Philip Roberts ballooned that final penalty of the shoot-out over the bar to leave Inverness Caledonian Thistle devastated, there was no predicting this one. It was utterly compelling. It is also one which will haunt Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who lacked the clinical edge which has been the
trademark to a season which has already exceeded expectations.
But this is a Hearts team which once again showed a dogged defiance to beat the odds, which, despite the bright first-half showing and early dominance, swung in favour of the Highlanders when Scott Robinson was shown a red card in the second half for going in over the ball. It infuriated the Gorgie fans and gave them their villain of the piece but just as they had at Tannadice in the previous round, their team held their nerve and dug deep into their reserves to win through on penalty kicks.
Inverness, though, will rue chances missed. Top scorers Billy McKay and Andrew Shinnie will have nightmares about the efforts they passed up. Few in the stadium will have expected the country’s top scorer, McKay, to have come off second best when through on goal but in the first half he was denied by the outstretched arm of Jamie MacDonald and later in the game, he and Andrew Shinnie combined but when the latter squared for the former, the ball got caught up under his feet long enough for the defence to get back and when the Caley player tried to
follow up he couldn’t convert.
It was a let-off for the capital side but one their efforts probably merited. They had been bold and brave in their team selection and their play and their effort was unrelenting even after Robinson went off.
If they wanted to make it to a national cup final for the second successive time, Hearts had always known they were going to do have to do it courtesy of a team of kids. With resources stretched by injuries and suspensions, Andy Webster, Marius Zaliukas and Andy Driver were the only outfield players contributing any kind of experience to the cause.
But while Hearts manager John McGlynn was reshuffling the pack, his counterpart was blessed with what should have been the comforting option of selecting a settled side and a group of players who are flying high in league competition.
Both sides had their pressures to deal with. For Hearts, a side struggling in the SPL and already out of the Scottish Cup, the worth of their season was precariously perched on the outcome of this match. The Highland team had already made history by getting this far in this competition, but the promise of something even better seemed to weigh
heavily on them in the first half as they struggled to get to grips with a young and enthusiastic Hearts team, who looked buoyed rather than bowed by the responsibility handed to them.
At the head was loan signing Michael Ngoo, who offered more of a threat than the squad as a whole have mustered for most of this campaign. Having had just one training session with his team-mates, the 6ft 4in Liverpool striker quickly won over the Hearts fans who filled three of the Easter Road stands as they tried to will their team to victory, and it was the newcomer who squared the scoreline. A free-kick was played in deep and Robinson knocked it into the middle of the box and Ngoo showed the desire to get his boot to it first, hooking it home.
It was a moment of relief for the Hearts fans, who were desperate for some joy to pierce the season’s gloom. Not only did it get the team back into the game, it gave them hope for the remainder of the season.
Butcher’s men had spent the majority of the match as second best but they had been boosted by claiming the match opener and the advantage just four minutes after the interval. It was Andrew Shinnie who delivered. Driver lost possession and the Scotland striker got past Webster before drilling the shot low across the face of MacDonald’s goal and into the net.
Hearts, though, were playing nice stuff and continuing to press and Ngoo hit the post and later on Webster’s header was cleared off the line. But given the way the teams have matched up in head-to-heads already this term and given the desire to prevail, this was a match that seemed destined for extra time and penalties.
Inverness CT: Reguero, Raven, Shinnie, Warren, Meekings, Doran, Draper, Jones, Foran, Shinnie, McKay. Subs: Devine, Roberts, Sutherland, Ross, Esson.
Hearts: MacDonald, Mullen, Webster, Zaliukas, Wilson, Tapping, Holt, Robinson, Walker, Ngoo, Driver. Subs: Ridgers, Taouil, Novikovas, Sutton, McGowan.