Gorgie vibrated with rejoicing Hearts fans on Saturday evening after a fine Scottish Cup victory against Aberdeen. Eliminating one of the favourites for the trophy was just cause for celebrating. It was also a win achieved with Hearts’ best overall display so far this season.
They are in tonight’s fifth round draw thanks to Callum Paterson’s third-minute header, not to mention an exhausting, energetic performance and some rigorous defending. Their fans almost galloped out of Tynecastle in delight at full-time having watched their team win a Scottish Cup tie for the first time since May 2012.
What happened back then is the stuff of folklore, but Hearts have been made to suffer in the intervening years. Three successive cup exits – once to Hibs and twice to Celtic – without even scoring a goal left supporters craving progress in this season’s tournament. Head coach Robbie Neilson stated it represents their most realistic chance of silverware.
Sam Nicholson’s corner, Alim Ozturk’s header and Paterson’s glance into the net took them over the first hurdle. They ran Aberdeen ragged in the first half but couldn’t capitalise to increase their lead. The visitors regrouped after the interval and tried manfully for an equaliser. When Jonny Hayes’ low drive across goal was lashed high and wide by Andrew Considine from six yards on 67 minutes, it summed up what was very much an off day for those from the north east.
Hearts are now allowing themselves to dream slightly knowing Aberdeen’s exit gives them a far better chance of going all the way. Midfielder Arnaud Djoum, as industrious as anyone on Saturday evening in front of the BBC cameras, admitted Scottish Cup success is high on the agenda.
“It would be a dream to win the cup,” he said. “It would be great if we have the possibility to win this trophy. In my career, I have never won a cup. I won the championship in Poland. This is a very important trophy for us and if we play like we did on Saturday we can do well in the competition.
“I’m very happy with how we played. It was important to us after losing against Aberdeen twice [in the league] that we won this game at home. We played very well in the first half and we should have scored more goals but I’m very happy with the result. When we lost 1-0 [at Pittodrie] I could feel that both teams were fighting for second place. I’m happy we showed we are in good form and we beat them. I believe in this team, we have a lot of quality, we just have to believe and we can have a good season.”
Neilson was satisfied that the winning goal came via a set-piece after devoting extra time to them in training. “We did a lot of work on set-plays during the week and to get a goal from something we worked on was great,” he said. “Then, you always have to defend well against Aberdeen at set-plays because they bring up Taylor, Considine, Reynolds and they’ve got Rooney in there. They have really good delivery so we had to defend well. We rode our luck a little bit at the end as well.
“I’m pleased to be through against one of the top teams in Scotland. Aberdeen are still the team we’re aiming for. We’re through in the cup so now we’ll aim to get nearer them in the league. I have good players here and we can manage games. Once we scored, we had a 15 or 20-minute period when we probably should have scored again. Aberdeen were on the rocks but we couldn’t get the second goal. Aberdeen recovered and caused us problems in the second half.”
Hearts’ tenacious start reversed fortunes on Aberdeen following their first-half demolition job in the league at Tynecastle back in September. The visitors were 3-0 ahead by half-time in that encounter but lost this battle because they were overwhelmed from kick-off. Derek McInnes, the Aberdeen manager, conceded as much.
“Hearts got the goal and they were far more aggressive out of the blocks than us,” he stated. “We’re aware of their set-play threat and the size of them. When you lose two headers in your own box you cause yourself trouble. We were poor in the first half and were fortunate to be only 1-0 down.
“We were far better in the second half but we came here with high expectations. When you play for and manage Aberdeen you need to deal with that. We are open to criticism for the first-half performance, especially when you see the second half. Hearts had something to hold on to. I thought they outfought us rather than outplayed us. I think they deserved to go through.”
It was a nervy ending nonetheless. Hearts finished with five players strung across the back line in an attempt to see the game out and did so having blunted Aberdeen’s potent forward line. To sum up a passionate and frenzied match, controversy arrived in stoppage-time when Aberdeen refused to return the ball to the home team. Goalkeeper Neil Alexander had sent it out after Ozturk went down with cramp, but Hayes used the throw-in to keep possession - angering Hearts players and fans.
“I was really frustrated. You can hate each other but there should be fair play,” said Djoum. “When you give the ball away they should give it back and they didn’t do it. But it’s okay, it’s football. I said to the Aberdeen manager [at the end] that their team should give the ball back. He said our goalkeeper took too much time, or something like that. There were a lot of kids here to see football and that was a bad example.”
Aberdeen’s Mark Reynolds had his own view. “I don’t think it was anything to do with time-wasting,” he said. “The guy [Ozturk] goes down with cramp. That’s not an injury, that’s just lack of fitness. We’re not going to give them the ball back because he’s not fit enough to play the game.”
McInnes confirmed it was he who issued instructions to Hayes not to return the ball to Hearts. He explained. “It wasn’t Jonny Hayes, it was me. If you see the play, there’s nothing wrong with Ozturk. [Jordan] McGhee gets the foul, Ozturk is fine. All of a sudden he’s gone from front post to the edge of the box and goes down. It’s something consistent with what Hearts do when they’re trying to see a game out, something we made the players aware of.
“Alexander couldn’t wait to get the ball out of the park. If their player chooses to go down with cramp or whatever and doesn’t require physio, we’ve got every right to keep possession of the ball. At the end, Juanma of all people is giving me the moral high ground about how we should give the ball back. I felt we were quite within our rights to keep the ball and we’re guilty of nothing there.”
Neilson was typically pragmatic. He noticed substitute Juanma exchanging views with McInnes at full-time and was ultimately grateful that the incident didn’t spiral out of control. “That’s up to Aberdeen. It’s not against the rules. If they want to do it, they can do it. Nothing came of it. It shows how desperate they were to win the game. Juanma likes to get involved. It’s just people saying things. It didn’t bother me.
“It’s two big teams in a very high-stakes game. For both teams, realistically, the Scottish Cup is the only chance of winning anything this year. Will Aberdeen catch Celtic in the league? It’s going to be difficult. We’re both out of the League Cup so this was a massive game for both clubs.”