CUP final talk is banned at Riccarton as Paulo Sergio, the Hearts manager, tries to ensure players focus solely on forthcoming league fixtures. Anyone who mentions May 19, Hampden, Hibs, 1896 or even the pathetic “salt ’n’ sauce final” phrase will be dealt with accordingly.
Such is Sergio’s professionalism that even potential cup-winning bonus payments haven’t been discussed. The manager’s attention to detail means nothing is more important than the next game, which for Hearts is today against Rangers. Only after the five remaining league matches have been negotiated will talk of the all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final be allowed to resume.
It is a sensible approach by Sergio with all around him infatuated with such a unique occasion. He can’t afford to become distracted, neither can his players. Hearts’ cup final prospects could well suffer if they stumble through their final five league games and arrive at Hampden lacking momentum and confidence.
But more than that, Hearts want to qualify for European football through their league position to avoid the added pressure of having to win the cup to reach the Europa League qualifying phase.
“Everything’s been banned, we aren’t allowed to talk about anything to do with the final,” explained defender Danny Grainger. “Everything is geared towards the league now, that’s all we’re bothered about. It’s hard to get away from the cup final but we’ve got to concentrate on the league, otherwise we’ll finish poorly.
“The manager said we’ve done fantastically to get there, but now let’s concentrate on the league and finish as high as we can. It won’t do us any favours to think about the final every day. We know it’s going to be in the press a lot because it’s one of the bigger games. But we want to get into the European places in the league.
“We want to go into the final with as much momentum as we can. We’ve got things to play for. If we didn’t, it would be quite easy just to focus on the cup final. But we have five big games which can determine if we get to Europe and which round we would start in.”
Despite the extensive publicity surrounding Celtic’s reaction at full-time last Sunday, Hearts are content with their achievement in simply winning the semi-final. Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, angrily remonstrated with referee Euan Norris over penalty claims and refused to attend the post-match media conference. None of his players were made available for interview, either. Grainger is adamant that the fall-out did not detract from Hearts’ satisfaction. “We know what we’ve achieved as a team here,” he continued. “The players all enjoyed the banter in the dressing-room last week and the bus journey back. We had a few drinks together at night, so nothing about it has taken anything away from us. It’s nice to have a bit of publicity in the paper about how well we’ve done but we’re looking forward to the last five games now.”
That sense of achievement stems partly from the difficulties endured by Grainger and his colleagues this season. In particular, wage delays throughout the winter months tested their resolve severely.
“Massive credit should go to the boys in the dressing-room and our coaches. In my eyes, not many teams in the SPL could go through what we’ve gone through this season and shown the character we’ve shown. We’re in a cup final, we’re still going for European places, and that’s down to people in the dressing-room.
“We got around each other and helped each other. Our performances at the start of the problems showed we didn’t really handle it all well. Once we learned to handle it we could get on with our jobs and there was a bit more communication between the club and the players. That helped us.
“There are a lot of characters in the dressing-room and we all enjoy the banter with each other. Sticking together and trying to have a laugh in training pushed us through. No-one every had any doubt we were going to get paid. We always knew we would get paid, we just wanted to know when more than anything. That was the uncertainty. But it could be worse, we could be in Rangers’ situation.”