Having failed to score a goal in the Scottish Cup since beating Hibs 5-1 in the 2012 final, Hearts are entitled to feel warmed by the arrival of 2016.
As they prepare to kick-off their latest campaign with a fourth-round tie against Aberdeen at Tynecastle this Saturday teatime, they will be hoping to maintain a quirky trend which has seen them fare particularly well whenever the tournament has climaxed in a year ending in the number six.
Since the Scottish Cup began more than 140 years ago, there have been 14 finals held in years ending in six. Hearts have contested half of them. Remarkably, the Tynecastle side have featured in each of the last four in such years and five of the last six – 1966 was the only year to disrupt a sequence stretching from 1956 to 2006, although they did still reach the quarter-finals 50 years ago. Seven of Hearts’ 14 Scottish Cup final appearances have come in years ending in six, while four of their eight triumphs have come at such junctures.
“It always rates a wee mention in the pubs and supporters’ clubs that six is a good year for us to get to the later stages of the competition, and it is something that’s well worth remembering as we go into the current campaign,” said David Speed, the club’s historian.
“We’ve certainly had some good memories from those years. It’s a nice quirk but I don’t look too deeply into why we do so well when the year ends in six. It’s probably down to luck of the draw.”
John Robertson was at the finals in 1976, 1986, 1996 and 2006 in his various guises as a fan, a Hearts player and a radio pundit. “It’s great how these little quirks come up in football,” said the Tynecastle club’s record goal-scorer and ambassadorial figure. “I was there in ‘76 with my dad, who was a big Hearts fan. My brother Chris, who was at Rangers at the time, got us tickets in the Rangers end. I played in ‘86 against Aberdeen and ‘96 against Rangers, and I was at the 2006 one against Gretna working for the media. I’ve been at them all and if it takes an omen like the year ending in six to get us past Aberdeen and all the way to the final this time, we’ll take it.”
In 1986 and 2006, Hearts’ cause was aided by having a group of players who proved themselves good enough to finish second in Scotland’s top flight those years. The fact they are currently one of the top three teams in the country would appear to augur well for their prospects of a prolonged run in the 2016 renewal. “It obviously helps you get to the final if you’ve got a good team, but, by the same token, I wouldn’t say the team we had in the 70s was the greatest we’ve ever had. Cup football is just about making sure you get through each round.”
Hearts, more than most, could do with making progress to the business end of the Scottish Cup this time round after failing to make any impact in its last three stagings. Ever since Rudi Skacel drilled in his second and Hearts’ fifth of the historic 2012 final, they have been unable to find the net in the competition. Defeats to bitter rivals Hibs and Celtic (twice) have ended any hopes of further glory at the first hurdle in each of the last three campaigns.
“The fact we’ve not scored a goal since 2012 is an unwanted record but it’s not totally surprising for me,” added Speed. “We’ve never been very good at defending the cup. There’s no obvious reason for it, but, for as long as I can remember, we don’t tend to do well immediately after winning it. We need to improve in that regard.
“I can’t remember us having it as bad as this, though. This is one of the poorest records we’ve had. We haven’t had great draws since 2012 and it doesn’t get any easier this time either because, no matter what anyone says, I think we’d have preferred a couple of rounds to build up before facing one of the top sides like Aberdeen.”
Although Aberdeen are currently the second-best team in the country, the fact Hearts have been paired with them in a year ending in six can be viewed as a positive omen. In both 1996 and 2006, the Jambos beat the Dons on their way to the final, while they also faced them in the 1986 final, albeit Alex MacDonald’s side were defeated 3-0 a week after their well-documented league title agony in Dundee.
“We were still confident we could win it even after losing the league, but we lost goals at the start of each half that knocked the stuffing out of us,” recalled Robertson. “The first half was pretty even. We had a couple of great chances. I lobbed one just over the bar and Gary Mackay rattled one just past the post. Had we won the league, with the momentum we’d built up, we probably would have gone on to win the cup, but it just wasn’t to be.
“We played Aberdeen again in the semi-final ten years later and that was a pretty poor game until it all kicked off in the last ten minutes. I scrambled one in, then when we were within touching distance, Duncan Shearer equalised with a terrific back-post header with about a minute ago. At that point I was thinking ‘here we go again’. But we went up the park and I whipped in a great cross that Allan Johnston threw himself at and scored from. Suddenly after ten years, we were back in the final. Unfortunately that one [against Rangers] was memorable for three main things. We had the tragic injury to Gary Locke early in the game. It was a big blow to us losing our captain. Then big Gilles Rousset had a moment to forget when Brian Laudrup’s cross went through his legs. Then Gordon Durie went on to punish us with a terrific late hat-trick. Those finals certainly didn’t go our way, but thankfully we’ve won it three times since then, which is terrific. In the last few years, though, we haven’t done well, so hopefully we can get back on the horse this time.”