BECOMING a good cup team requires character, fight and a smattering of luck. Hearts utilised all those traits in last season’s Scottish Cup and eventually lifted the trophy at Hampden after the biggest ever Edinburgh derby in the final.
They are now in the latter stages of Scotland’s other cup tournament, having won every domestic cup tie this year. The annals of Tynecastle will, in years to come, denote 2012 as the year Hearts were cup specialists.
Last night on Tayside, they were reduced to ten men, endured extra-time and missed their first two penalties of a shootout to decide their Scottish Communities League Cup quarter-final against Dundee United. It could so easily have been a horror Hallowe’en. Yet still they prevailed to secure a place in next Thursday’s draw for the semi-finals, which could provide a return to Hampden Park with memories of that 5-1 trouncing of Hibs still so fresh in the mind.
Even the sight of the talismanic Rudi Skacel – a key figure in May’s Scottish Cup win – climbing off the United substitutes’ bench did not distract the visitors from their task last night. Callum Paterson’s opening goal was equalised quickly by Johnny Russell in the first half. Darren Barr was dismissed for a second caution 12 minutes from the end of normal time. The numerical disadvantage, however, was masked by the visitors’ work rate and resilience.
Luck came in the shoot-out. Danny Grainger and John Sutton failed to convert Hearts’ first two penalties, but Gary Mackay-Steven, John Rankin and finally Sean Dillon missed for United to send the Edinburgh side through 5-4. Goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, after saving Rankin’s spot-kick, admitted he is gladly becoming addicted to the exhilaration brought by winning cup ties.
“It’s another trip to Hampden and another semi-final after last year. It’s just great to be going back there so quickly in a competition we haven’t won for 50 years,” he said. “Winning this competition is quite high up the priority list for the club. We had the belief and still went for it even when we were down to ten men. We showed good discipline in extra-time but I think penalties was one of the better options for us.”
MacDonald was seen spinning the ball into the air as United players arrived to take their kicks. He said planning and gamesmanship can be key to succeeding in such a high-pressure situation. “At the end of normal time, myself, Comber (Hearts’ goalkeeping coach Alan Combe) and Encks (Peter Enckelman) had a wee discussion. We went through the United players one by one, going over where they like to put penalties and how they like to hit the ball.
“It’s partly guessing, but it’s educated guessing, I suppose. I think I got close to pretty much all of the penalties and managed to save on [he actually saved two]. Throwing the ball up is just a little bit of gamesmanship, trying to stop them focusing on the penalty and make them focus on me instead. It’s just to give them something else to think about. You see it all the time in football and it seemed to work last night.
“It would be great now to go on and win this cup. Last year was fantastic, winning the Scottish Cup, so winning the League Cup would be great for everyone at the club. It would be nice to rectify the fact we haven’t won it for 50 years and add another piece of silverware to the club’s collection.”
The major surprise was that Skacel did not take any of United’s kicks. “I just said to him, ‘unlucky, you won’t be scoring past me tonight’, laughed MacDonald. The Czech was prevented from taking a penalty by the Dundee United manager Peter Houston.
“He wasn’t upset. We spoke about it before so he knew I wasn’t going to let him take a penalty,” explained Houston. “I took Rudi out of it. I thought it would be best to go with the guys who I know taking penalties, and trust. I trust the players who were left on the park. I don’t think it would’ve been fair on Rudi to put him in that situation. I felt there would be less pressure on the players that have been here for a while.”
At a sparsely-populated and cold Tannadice, it was Hearts who seized the early initiative. Manager John McGlynn opted for two strikers in a 4-4-2 formation in the hope of converting chances. His team pressed forward during the opening stages and scored on 21 minutes when Ryan Stevenson’s low cross was prodded into the United net by one of said forwards, Paterson. It was the teenager’s third senior goal, the other two having come at the same venue last month.
Danny Grainger stung the palms of Radoslaw Cierzniak, the United goalkeeper, as the half-hour approached. Mehdi Taouil then shot high into the home support after collecting a wayward pass from Willo Flood. Just as Hearts looked likely to score again, they conceded a scrappy equaliser when Michael Gardyne’s deflected shot fell kindly for Russell to slot beyond MacDonald.
The home team finished the opening 45 minutes strongly, but Hearts regained their composure to an extent after the interval. Paterson was extremely unlucky to strike a post with an acrobatic volley from Sutton’s headed knockdown on the hour mark and Barr headed Danny Grainger’s left-sided cross wide on 74 minutes. United attempted to rally and were helped when Barr was ordered off 12 minutes from the end of normal time. Having been booked for pulling Flood down, he received a second caution for fouling Russell following a short pass from Ryan McGowan.
Extra-time arrived and it wasn’t long before Skacel made his long-awaited appearance. He received a warm ovation from both sets of supporters when replacing Richie Ryan. It wasn’t until the second period of extra-time that a notable incident arose, when MacDonald saved Rankin’s 20-yard drive low to his left. Skacel darted for the rebound but was flagged offside. MacDonald blocked that attempt in any case.
The Czech was presented a glorious chance to take United through five minutes from the end, yet he lashed Mackay-Steven’s low cutback high and wide with a first-time attempt. Then Rankin tried again, this time from around 35 yards. His shot careered off the outside of MacDonald’s right post. With that, the drama of penalties was upon us.
Grainger and Sutton missed Hearts’ first two, whilst Russell scored in between. Mackay- Steven’s effort was pushed on to the underside of the crossbar by MacDonald and bounced out, while Andy Webster scored. MacDonald saved Rankin’s effort, but the next four efforts were converted to leave the score at 3-3 entering sudden death. Scott Robinson scored, as did Stuart Armstrong, and after Marius Zaliukas converted, Dillon put United’s final penalty wide of target.
“I’m delighted to get through,” said McGlynn. “In the first half we started exceptionally well and were a wee bit disappointed to go in level at half-time. In the second half it was quite an even game, not too many chances and we went down to ten men.
“I thought the lads showed good character and spirit and good organisation. Dundee United had very few chances. When it goes to penalties it’s a bit of a lottery. We missed our first two and thought it was slipping away. Before you know it you’re back in with a shout and you’re actually ahead. We’re just delighted to get through.”