AGGRESSION. Control. Aggression. Control. Steven Pressley repeats these words countless times throughout our conversation about tomorrow’s Scottish Cup final. He knows what is required to beat Hibs, and what it takes to lift the cup: A strong combination of both the above attributes.
In Pressley’s mind, there is one man epitomising the drive and leadership which propelled Hearts to this final. Andy Webster wasn’t voted the club’s Player of the Year for nothing. His imperious defensive displays earned him a recall to Craig Levein’s Scotland squad earlier this week, and his guidance will have a major bearing on how Hearts fare at Hampden Park.
Some consider Webster the de facto captain at Tynecastle, even though it is defensive colleague Marius Zaliukas who wears the armband. Whenever Zaliukas has erred, or scored an own goal, or been sent off, Webster has held the defence together with calm assurance and a necessary bit of bite.
Pressley knows how vital those qualities are. He taught Webster everything he knows during their central defensive partnership with both Hearts and Scotland between 2000 and 2006.
“I stay in touch with Andy, we touch base now and again and exchange texts. I’m delighted for him because he’s come through a very difficult period of his career,” Pressley told the Evening News.
“He was a player that I thought would go on to amount an enormous number of international caps. He was playing alongside me in his early 20s and he’d already amassed 15-20 caps for Scotland. I thought, ‘he’s going to be a player’. He lost his way for a period, but this season he’s looked more like the Andy Webster I knew.”
While Pressley was lifting the Scottish Cup as Hearts captain in 2006, Webster was a notable absentee, having been frozen out of the first-team by the club’s majority shareholder, Vladimir Romanov.
“I’d be delighted for Andy if Hearts won tomorrow because he missed out on the 2006 final due to circumstances. His contribution throughout the season merited him playing in that game. For him, there is unfinished business there.
“Webster is the type of player who has got to lead and be the calming influence on the day. There has to be aggression, but it needs to be controlled. The top players can play with real aggression, but they’re always in control. That’s something Hearts will certainly be looking for from Andy.
“I don’t think too much needs to be said to the players before a game like this, but perhaps a reminder that they need to have self-control is important. Each player prepares for a game in his own manner. Some are extremely vocal in the dressing room, others are relatively quiet.
“You should let a player prepare as normal and don’t affect his preparation. Don’t treat the game any differently.
“However, in the run-up to the game, I think the coach and the senior players have to remind the group that they must play with that control. On paper, and on results this season, there is no doubt Hearts are favourites. For me, one of the biggest tests will be who can handle the pressure and tension spilling over from the stand. This is when your experienced players, your big players, can be the difference. You look to the guys who have been through it and who you know can handle the occasion.
“You need players who can play with the aggression but the calmness as well. It’s almost like flicking a switch where they can play with the aggression but they have control over the game.
“It’s hugely important. You often see aggression spilling over in these games and you get bookings and red cards. The ones who can handle that are the ones you need. Also, you need people who can handle pressure on the ball and who look to take the ball.
“The players’ temperaments will be tested. They know what awaits the winners and what awaits the losers. Those that can handle the game will prevail.”
Aggression. Control. That probably summed Pressley up as a player. Ultimately it drove him to success with Hearts six years ago in a final with Gretna which proved to be unexpectedly nervy.
“There was a little bit of relief as well as satisfaction at the end,” recalled Pressley.
“It was a game against a lower division side that we were expected to win. There’s no doubt the pressure lay with us that day. There was a degree of pride, but there was emotional relief as well because they took us to penalties. It was a great memory for me. I’d been there eight years and waited a long time for the opportunity to lift silverware.
“There will be huge relief tomorrow for whoever wins because there is an enormous amount of pressure on both sides. To lose to your greatest rivals in a cup final brings a real amount of pressure. On the day, that’s going to play a pivotal role in the outcome of the game. It will be about which team can handle the occasion and the expectation levels of the support. It’s a crucial factor.”