A TEAM full of kids. Two automatic starters suspended. Three more injured. A new striker trying to settle in. Reduced to ten men. All against possibly Britain’s most in-form team.
Hearts triumphed in the face of adversity to reach the Scottish Communities League Cup final on penalties. Their youth academy pupils became men against Inverness, showing guts, tenacity and gumption. Most of all, they showcased their quality.
John McGlynn started four teenagers in Saturday’s semi-final – Fraser Mullen, Jason Holt, Callum Tapping and Jamie Walker. Of his matchday squad of 16, half were aged 21 or under. He was rewarded with a stirring display of controlled passing, determined tackling and inventive attacking. This was one of Hearts’ finest performances of the season against an imposing Inverness team which had lost only one of their previous 21 games since mid-September. Fittingly, it took Hearts back to Hampden Park, where they will face St Mirren in their second cup final in as many years.
McGlynn was without the suspended Ryan Stevenson and Darren Barr plus the injured trio of Callum Paterson, Danny Grainger and Jamie Hamill. Yet the youngsters he placed his faith in took this semi-final to the opposition virtually from kick-off at Easter Road. They tackled and chased without the ball and passed and moved with it. Despite falling behind to Andrew Shinnie’s goal early in the second half, they recovered to win after a tense penalty shootout. Inverness, outstanding all season, were made to look rather ordinary.
Michael Ngoo scored the equaliser on his debut 24 hours after completing his loan from Liverpool and looked a powerful, pacy forward with an instinctive eye for goal.
Even when Scott Robinson was sent off 14 minutes from the end of normal time for a two-footed tackle on Owain Tudur Jones, Hearts refused to buckle. It left his colleagues to survive 30 minutes of extra-time with ten men but survive they did and the overriding theme was of boys doing men’s jobs. Most of those youngsters watched from the stand at Hampden last May as Hearts trounced Hibs 5-1 in the Scottish Cup final. Now they could take part in a national showpiece themselves. No-one could claim they haven’t earned it.
“Probably everyone, when they saw the team sheet, would have thought it was a young team,” said Holt, the 19-year-old who was outstanding in midfield alongside Callum Tapping – also 19 – and 20-year-old Robinson. “We’re all good players, every one of us. Because of the work the academy coaches are doing behind the scenes, we can play at first-team level. All the lads are delighted and I think we thoroughly deserved it. We’re all looking forward to another trip to Hampden.
“We dominated the first half but the sending off did them a wee favour. I felt we did well with ten men, and obviously the penalties are just luck sometimes. We’ll take that. I think it will be massive to play in the final. Saturday was a huge day for us. There was the prospect of reaching Hampden and we’ve done brilliant to get there. It will be massive for the club financially as well.”
That aspect shouldn’t be forgotten. Reaching another cup final will help Hearts survive until the summer, when high earners will depart to be replaced by more youth products to reduce the club’s unsustainable wage bill. That is no bad thing on Saturday’s evidence. Only four of Hearts’ starting XI from Hampden eight months ago started against Inverness – Jamie MacDonald, Andy Webster, Marius Zaliukas and Andy Driver. Most of the rest are now out to try and emulate those they watched lift silverware.
“I wasn’t in the squad for the Scottish Cup final, but I went through on the bus,” recalled Holt. “Being involved in the celebrations afterwards was a great experience. I was in the dressing-room and it was different class. You can’t beat it. Obviously, watching the final, you just wish you were out there. Then after the game we had the celebrations and the cup parade the next day. Hopefully we can repeat that day.”
Inverness arrived in Edinburgh with their own ambitions to make history and reach the League Cup final. They were the favourites, although the confidence shown by the Hearts youngsters did not hint at any inferiority complex. They controlled much of the first half but goalkeeper MacDonald produced a crucial save after just 15 minutes when one-against-one with forward Billy McKay. Hearts almost scored when Ngoo’s header from Danny Wilson’s cross bounced off a post.
The Highlanders moved ahead three minutes after the restart. Driver ceded possession 30 yards from his own goal and Aaron Doran’s pass eventually landed in Andrew Shinnie’s path. The midfielder composed himself with a touch before dispatching a precise angled finish low into MacDonald’s net. The Hearts equaliser arrived when Mullen’s deep free-kick was forced back across the face of the Inverness goal by Wilson for Ngoo to lash into the net with his left foot. In that instant, the towering Englishman became a new darling for the supporters who occupied three of Easter Road’s four stands.
Robinson’s dismissal was difficult to argue with, although it remains baffling that Richie Foran and Ross Draper committed a series of fouls and still stayed on the field. Referee Euan Norris booked ten players in total and issued Robinson a straight red card. The official didn’t enjoy the best afternoon and almost lost complete control at several points during the game. Walker in particular was subjected to some brutal fouling whenever he loomed as a threat to Inverness.
Substitute Arvydas Novikovas almost prodded a second goal for Hearts from fellow replacement Mehdi Taouil’s lofted through ball early in extra-time. Zaliukas then earned himself a second League Cup booking this season for fouling the Inverness substitute Philip Roberts. Consequently, the Lithuanian finds himself suspended for the final.
Largely, the additional period saw the Terry Butcher’s players push for a chance to secure their place at Hampden. It was handed on a plate to McKay seconds from the end of extra-time’s first period. Substitute Shane Sutherland rolled the ball past the advancing MacDonald into the striker’s path, but he opted to take a touch instead of finishing first-time into the empty net. The delay allowed Hearts players to block off the goal and McKay was forced to the ball off to Shinnie, whose blast was parried by MacDonald.
With many looking fatigued after 120 minutes of play, penalties arrived. Zaliukas scored Hearts’ first kick and Graeme Shinnie did likewise for Inverness. Ngoo stroked his kick low into the net before Andrew Shinnie confidently made it 2-2. Webster dispatched his penalty and McKay again levelled. Novikovas put the ball high into the top corner, however Tudur-Jones went low and scored to make the score 4-4. Taouil fired Hearts’ fifth penalty home before Roberts sent his over the crossbar to ensure a second cup final inside a year for Hearts.
“It will be a very proud day. I’ll be delighted because it will be a very special occasion,” said their manager, John McGlynn. “That’s why I came back to Hearts. They are a team who, over the past 100 years, have been fighting for third in the league and playing in semi-finals and finals. That’s part of why you follow Hearts and get involved in Hearts. I came back to Hearts to be part of that. I’m just delighted that we’re going back to Hampden.”
For Hearts, visits to the national stadium are developing into a welcome habit.