This Cup win tops everything, says Hearts coach Locke

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When a 22-year-old Gary Locke, sporting that famous spice-boy centre-parting, hoisted the Scottish Cup aloft at Parkhead 14 years ago before embarking on a week-long bender in Magaluf with the rest of his history-making team-mates, you would have thought life couldn’t get any get better for the boyhood Hearts fan who had grown up to captain his club.

Afflicted by injury, Locke didn’t play against Rangers in the 1998 final, but, nonetheless, given the magnitude of the drought-ending triumph, it would stand as the best day of his playing career and looked a safe bet to go down as his greatest moment ever in football as he hung up his boots to become a coach. But then the past few days brought a 5-1 demolition of Hibs in a Scottish Cup final and the mother of all parties in the aftermath, and all of a sudden Locke and every other person of a Hearts persuasion found themselves simultaneously re-evaluating their “best moments as a Jambo” list.

Locke, like every other Hearts fan involved in the momentous events of the weekend, now has a new No. 1. And this time it looks sure never to be eclipsed. “Aside from the birth of my kids and the day I got married, Saturday was the best day of my life. It was certainly the best day of my football career,” the Hearts coach told the Evening News. “It tops everything.”

After the official celebrations on Sunday, Bonnyrigg boy Locke, the ultimate example of a local lad made good, was guest of honour as Dalkeith Hearts Supporters Club threw a party on Sunday night. Locke is very much a man of the Hearts people and, as someone who gives the impression that he’s on first-name terms with half the Jambos support, he is as well-placed as anyone to know just how much the victory meant to everyone connected with the club.

His presence on the stage to take questions about the weekend from compere and Tynecastle tannoy man Scott Wilson raised the roof at the bash in Woodburn Miners Club. Aware of how much support he’s received from those in the Midlothian area, he had no hesitation in attending and made sure cup final goal heroes such as Danny Grainger and Ryan McGowan also left the festivities in the city centre to head out and add to the occasion for supporters.

Locke is honoured to have represented Hearts as both a player and a coach, and is always quick to seek out his mates in the stands at the end of any victory. As the players celebrated their famous triumph by embarking on a lap of honour on Saturday, Locke unfurled a Bonnyrigg Hearts banner which had been tossed on to the field by his friends. “When we were going round at the end I saw a few of the boys I know and they threw the flag on, so it was nice to have it as part of the celebrations,” he said.

Reflecting further on his club’s third Scottish Cup triumph in 14 years – a fine feat bearing in mind Hearts had gone 42 years without winning the tournament prior to 1998 – the 36-year-old added: “It’s just really, really special. Being a Hearts man through and through, to go through to Hampden, the home of Scottish football, and beat your biggest rivals 5-1; it doesn’t get much better than that. We couldn’t have dreamt we’d win so convincingly. The performance was top class.”

With Hearts entering the final as red-hot favourites, having gone ten games unbeaten against their city rivals beforehand, the school of thought pushed by both the Hibs camp and neutral observers in the days leading up to the game was that the Tynecastle side might be overcome by the weight of expectancy in a game where losing simply wasn’t an option. As a man who was looking to make it an incredible 22 games in a row unbeaten in Edinburgh derbies as a player and a coach, Locke had plenty reason to be optimistic that his team would handle the occasion.

“There was never a fear from us,” he insists. “I think before the game the media were trying to spice the game up a bit but we were always quietly confident. Obviously the thought runs through your head ‘what are we going to do if our biggest rivals beat us?’ But all week, leading up to the final, I looked through our squad and I saw lots of big-time players; we’ve got guys in there who are full internationalists. I was always confident that on the day they would produce the goods.

“On the morning of the game, we just relaxed. We’d done all the preparations by the time we got to the ground so we just had a quiet wee word with them and told them to savour the occasion and enjoy it. Thankfully, they did and it’s credit to our players that every one of them turned up on the day. They thoroughly deserved their winner’s medals. We didn’t envisage winning 5-1 – I’d have taken 1-0 before the game to be honest.”

There was momentary concern when Hibs pulled a goal back just before half-time, and Locke admitted his team were helped on their way by the timely dismissal of Pa Kujabi straight after the restart. “It seemed like a great game for the neutral in the first half,” recalled Locke. “We got two up and then they came back into it and got their tails up when they got one before half-time but the sending off was the turning point. We scored the penalty and they lost a man and then after that the game was dead with about 20 minutes to go. We certainly didn’t expect it to work out like that.

It was just a fantastic day for the club. I’m delighted for everybody involved and the fans, who came through and got right behind the team. I told the boys before the game that if we were to win it, they should try and savour every minute because I got myself too drunk the last time in 1998. I’ve been really fortunate that I won the Cup as a player in ’98 and now as a coach because it might never happen again. You’ve just got to soak up as much of it as you can.”

The enjoyment of the occasion for Locke was heightened further – if that was possible – by the fact it finally provided manager Paulo Sergio, pictured right, whose future remains uncertain, with tangible reward for his selfless efforts towards the Hearts cause this season. Locke was always associated with Sergio’s predecessor Jim Jefferies, but he is eternally grateful for the way the Portuguese and his two sidekicks, Alberto Cabral and Sergio Cruz, made him feel welcome as part of their backroom team when Jefferies was ousted.

The Portuguese trio and Locke can now be considered a genuine managerial team; they are thick as thieves. “I was delighted for Paulo because he had all his family over from Portugal for the game,” acknowledged Locke. “They travelled thousands of miles to watch us so it was great that we were able to put on a show for them. It shows you what the players think of him when you see them hoisting him up in the air at the end of the game. I’m thrilled for the assistants as well, Sergio and Alberto. We all get on really well. It’s been a long hard season for us all but we’ve certainly ended it on a high.”

Locke had joked before the game that his holiday destination would be either Siberia or Turkey, depending on the outcome of the biggest game he’s ever been involved in. “Fortunately everything went to plan and I can just focus on enjoying my holidays now,” he said, safe in the knowledge that his proud Edinburgh derby record had been preserved for another season.