In a season top-heavy on grisly days for Hearts, yesterday threw up the most harrowing yet.
The Tynecastle side and their supporters should have spent today waiting to find out which Glasgow venue would be hosting their mouthwatering League Cup final against Aberdeen next month.
Instead, Gary Locke’s shellshocked players awoke this morning riddled with regret over the golden opportunity that slipped through their fingers in a truly surreal semi-final at Easter Road.
With little to get the juices flowing in what remains of this grim campaign as they continue a seemingly-doomed battle for Premiership survival, all Hearts-minded people will be scratching their heads as they try to comprehend how they contrived to squander a 2-1 lead against nine men before losing on penalties. The sense of “what should have been” won’t get any easier to deal with on Sunday, March 16, when they see John Hughes leading his Inverness players out for their final against the Dons.
As a result of back-to-back wins over Ross County and St Mirren, in which they had played some eye-catching, pressure-free football, there was an element of expectation on the shoulders of the Hearts players. This was heightened further by the fact their supporters accounted for five sixths of what was a relatively disappointing crowd of 12,762, with many Inverness fans put off making the long trek to the Capital by the restrictively-early kick-off time.
There were few complaints among the Hearts support as Locke chose to keep faith with a winning team, which meant key man Ryan Stevenson and new striker Paul McCallum started on the bench. However, the young Jambos – six players aged 20 or under were sent into battle – found themselves having to contend with a fired-up and physical Inverness side with something of an axe to grind.
With seven players in their starting XI who began last year’s semi-final against Hearts at the same venue, they looked hungry for revenge from the outset. Hearts, incidentally, started with only three players – Jamie MacDonald, Danny Wilson and Scott Robinson – who began that match a year ago, underlining the extent of upheaval at the club.
Sadly for Hearts, yesterday’s clash would be distinctly different from that memorable occasion 12 months previously, apart from the fact a side who played a large chunk of the match with a numerical disadvantage ended up with an unlikely penalties win.
Last season, when John McGlynn’s side ground out victory after Robinson was sent off early in the second-half, the Hearts fans roared their side on superbly in adversity. Perhaps it was due to the early kick-off on a Sunday, but the atmosphere among the 10,000 Hearts fans on this occasion was notably low-key for a match of such magnitude.
Locke’s fresh-faced side did little in an uninspiring first 45 minutes to rouse their fans as they spent much of the first half on the back foot. Despite Inverness enjoying large periods of pressure, though, clear sights of goal were kept to a minimum for both sides until the 40th minute when Billy McKay nicked in behind the Hearts defence, only to be denied by a brilliant Jamie MacDonald save.
Having toiled to impose themselves, Hearts were relieved to go in level at the interval, and it was little surprise when Stevenson was introduced for the second half, replacing the injured David Smith on the right flank. The change did little to alter the course of the match, with Inverness taking the lead eight minutes after the break when Greg Tansey arrived to thump a 20-yard thunderbolt beyond the helpless MacDonald. As the 2000 hardy Caley Thistle fans went ballistic in the lower tier of Hibs’ Famous Five Stand, MacDonald picked up a caution for racing out of his area to claim that Aaron Doran had handled the ball in the build-up.
Hearts found themselves facing yet another huge test of character, and it was one that they looked all set to pass. They signalled their intent in 61 minutes when Callum Paterson got in behind the Inverness defence and forced a brilliant save from Dean Brill before seeing his header from the rebound nodded off the line by David Raven.
It was to be the teenager’s last meaningful involvement as a forward, with the introduction of on-loan West Ham striker McCallum in place of Dylan McGowan resulting in Paterson being moved to right-back.
Almost instantly, the game swung in Hearts’ favour. As Sam Nicholson burst into the box in the 64th minute, he was felled by Inverness defender Gary Warren, who was sent off for a second bookable offence. The Jambos took full advantage of the resulting free-kick, with Jamie Hamill lashing home a low deflected shot after Stevenson cleverly teed him up just inside the box.
All of a sudden the Hearts fans were roused. This was more like it. And things got even better in 69 minutes when Hamill curled a magnificent free-kick into Brill’s top left-hand corner. The unlikeliest of final berths was in sight.
Hearts suffered a setback with seven minutes left when young Nicholson had to be carried off after a taking a whack to the ribs. He was replaced with Callum Tapping, the last of the Hearts subs, who took over in left midfield. It should have been to help see Hearts over the line. Especially when Inverness were reduced to nine men as Josh Meekings was shown a straight red card for a cynical trip on Robinson in the 92nd minute.
But, incredibly, Inverness weren’t finished. After Hearts squandered possession cheaply from their own corner, the Highlanders made one last dash for salvation which ended with Nick Ross, who had come on only a few minutes earlier, forcing the ball over the line with virtually the last touch of the game, almost five minutes into stoppage time. The stunned Hearts fans booed loudly as their shattered players sank to their knees.
Hearts may have kicked off extra time two men to the good, but it was hard to escape the feeling, from that moment on, that this was destined to be Inverness’s day. The travelling fans gave their valiant nine men unwavering support throughout the additional 30 minutes, and the more they repelled Hearts’ attacks, the more audible the frustration from the Gorgie hordes became.
Instead of being underdogs, as they had started the game, Hearts were toiling badly in the role of red-hot favourites. With Smith and Nicholson having gone off, they had no creative players left on the pitch with the guile to break down this eight-man wall of blue defiance in front of Brill’s goal. Tiredness was also taking its toll on their young legs, resulting in poor distribution and deliveries.
Hamill, constantly cajoling his team-mates, demanding the ball and probing for openings, looked one of the few Hearts players able to deal with the pressure, but his admirable efforts ultimately came to no avail. When McCallum headed the former Kilmarnock midfielder’s pinpoint cross over the bar with three minutes left, penalties beckoned.
The opening kicks saw keepers on top, with MacDonald and Brill saving from Graeme Shinnie and McCallum respectively. McKay, Ross and Tansey all netted for Caley Thistle, while Carrick and Robinson were the only two to score for Hearts, as Hamill missed what proved to be the decisive kick.
The in-form midfielder, who missed Hearts’ last two finals through serious injury, didn’t deserve to go down as his side’s fall-guy, but the real damage was done to Hearts’ dreams in that wretched period between Inverness’ second red card and the end of extra time when they failed to make their significant numerical advantage count.
Hearts will take some rousing after this demoralising defeat. As if to compound their despair, they face a trip to Inverness for their next league match.