FLYING 10,000 miles from the other side of the world, John Sutton had a burning ambition to fulfil: playing for Hearts in a cup final. It was May 20 last year, 24 hours after his Tynecastle colleagues had romped the biggest Edinburgh derby in history with a 5-1 destruction of Hibs at Hampden Park.
As 100,000 Jambos lined the sun-kissed streets of Edinburgh to celebrate winning the Scottish Cup, Sutton was heading home from a loan spell in Australia. He had watched the final the previous day before returning to Scotland high on adrenalin and desperate to sample such success. Missing out on such an iconic event has multiplied Sutton’s motivation ahead of this weekend’s Scottish Communities’ League Cup semi-final. Beating Inverness at Easter Road would take Hearts back to Hampden and Sutton one step closer to lifting his first ever national trophy.
He’s heard the tales of camaraderie from last year, of the euphoria brought by thumping Hibs, of the after-match party and of the celebrations in the Capital the next day. Jetting over the Indian Ocean with his wife and one-year-old twins last May, the striker knew he had to establish himself at Hearts. Being deemed surplus to requirements by Paulo Sergio forced him out to Central Coast Mariners on loan and, ultimately, caused him to miss the greatest day in Hearts’ history. John McGlynn’s arrival in place of the Portuguese granted Sutton a reprieve and he is certain to lead the Hearts forward line this weekend. In fact, he is probably their best goalscoring prospect.
His only trophy success remains the Bell’s Challenge Cup with St Mirren in 2005 – a final in which he scored the winning goal. That void of major silverware is now beginning to irk Sutton at the age of 29. Hence his desire to dispense with Inverness. “This semi-final is a big deal for everyone,” said Sutton, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I’m desperate to get to the final.
“I would love to play in a cup final for Hearts. I haven’t got that to my name yet and I’m desperate to do it. I can’t say I’m any more determined than anyone else. The boys who played in last year’s cup final will go down in the history of this club and they want to do that again. It’s certainly not just myself.
“It’s a really big game for us and it could help define our season if we won the League Cup and started pushing up the league. Everyone could then look back and say we’d had a really good year. To play for a club like Hearts at Hampden would be very special. I managed to score the winner in the Challenge Cup final and that was a fantastic day. I remember the manager (Gus MacPherson) saying to us that day that there aren’t many professional footballers who actually get the opportunity to win something. So to lift that trophy was special. Winning the League Cup would definitely be a step up. I’ve played in a final but I just want to go that extra step and lift the trophy.”
Sergio is not the only one to have questioned Sutton’s contribution since he joined Hearts 18 months ago. The player himself mounts a rigorous defence of his worth and says he doesn’t feel obliged to win a trophy to justify himself.
“It’s not the first thing in my head. I think I’ve been doing fairly well when I’ve played,” he said. “It would be nice to score a few more goals but my performances have generally been decent. The trouble has been getting on the pitch. It doesn’t matter if you score 40 goals a season, if you aren’t successful as a team then it doesn’t really matter.
“A good example is Stephen Elliot last year. He didn’t have a massive goal tally but he contributed to the team finishing in the top six in the SPL. His performances and his work rate helped Hearts go on and record one of the biggest results in their history. The team always comes first and to be part of that team would be very special.”
Although some iconic figures have left the Riccarton dressing-room, there are still plenty around who revelled in last year’s Scottish Cup win. Their reports and recollections have, in a positive way, got under Sutton’s skin. “I know the boys had a good night afterwards,” said the Englishman. “The boys talk about having a great time that night, but they talk more about actually playing in the final and how special it was. Just being on the pitch and taking part in a good result means so much to them.
“They got to play at Hampden and I’ve had the pleasure of doing that before with Motherwell (lost the 2011 Scottish Cup final 3-0 against Celtic). We won a semi-final and lost a final there and the boys here have gone one step further.
“I know how good it is to win a semi-final at Hampden, I know what a big occasion it is to play in a cup final there, but I’ve never gone on to actually win a trophy. I actually watched last year’s semi-final against Celtic in South Korea because I was playing in the Asian Champions League at the time with CC Mariners.
“I couldn’t really understand what was going on with the commentary right enough, but I could tell it was a fantastic day. The end of the game was a real cliffhanger.
“I was on the internet trying to get a stream to watch the final. It was a strange experience. I did enjoy it and it was great seeing the boys win but it was a bit anti-climactic. My adrenalin was going and I remember seeing Hearts go 1-0 up. Hibs got a sniff of getting back into it but with 30 minutes to go it was all over and we won it quite comfortably. Obviously I was really pleased for all my team-mates and the fans of the club. You’d rather be a part of it but you’d much rather the club won, especially against their biggest rivals.
“Myself and my wife were flying back home to Scotland the next day so it left us in good spirits for boarding a 24-hour flight with our two kids.”
He arrived back to a new beginning as the McGlynn era got underway in earnest. “I’ve felt a bit more part of things this season because I’ve always been involved in the squad, even coming off the bench.
“You want to be playing whenever you can so it’s good to get back in the team. We changed the formation a little a few weeks ago and played two up front, which seemed to work quite well. Then we went back to one up front and I thought we were a little bit lucky against Hibs before the break. I’ve taken a fair bit of confidence from the run of games I’ve had.”
If that confidence contributes to a win over Inverness, Sutton will edge that bit closer to a career ambition he seems hell bent on experiencing. Cup final success is a vivid memory for most at Hearts but one of the strikers can’t help feeling like the odd man out. It’s time to put that right.