Hearts will play their biggest game of the season with around half of their starting XI trying to avoid falling foul of the “worst rule in the world”.
Having been booked earlier in their Scottish Cup run, Hearts have nine players who know that one false move in Sunday’s semi-final against Celtic would leave them in the heartbreaking position of missing the final if the Tynecastle side were to make it.
Of that tightrope-treading ninesome, five – Rudi Skacel, Andrew Driver, Darren Barr, Danny Grainger and Marius Zaliukas – are certain to start. To exacerbate the situation, three candidates to replace the injured Jamie Hamill on the right of midfield – Scott Robinson, Suso Santana and David Templeton – are also carrying a Scottish Cup booking. The ninth is youngster Jordan Morton, who is unlikely to be involved.
Perhaps the only saving grace regarding Hearts’ disciplinary situation heading into the game is that the in-form Ian Black has already served his ban after picking up two bookings earlier in the tournament, so his record is clear.
By contrast, Celtic enter the match with no players fretting over the prospect of a second yellow card in the competition. It’s a far-from-ideal situation, as the players wouldn’t be human if the fear that they could miss the biggest game of their lives didn’t enter their heads at some point in the build-up to Sunday’s game.
Jim Hamilton was part of the Dunfermline dressing-room which had to rally round Gary Mason when the midfielder was ruled out of the 2007 Scottish Cup final against Celtic after picking up a second booking in a semi- final win over Hibs. The veteran striker, who won the Scottish Cup with Hearts 14 years ago, believes it’s a scandal that players can go into one of the season’s showpiece fixtures with such a worrying thought clouding their preparation.
“It’s the worst rule in the world that a second booking in the tournament puts a player out of the final,” said Hamilton. “I don’t agree with it one bit. It’s part of the rules so you’ve just got to accept it, but it’s not a nice rule. It just seems ridiculous that a player who might have picked up an innocuous booking against Auchinleck Talbot could get another booking on Sunday and then miss the biggest game of his life.
“If a player gets sent off in a semi-final, then it’s fair enough if he misses the final. But you would think that once you get to the semi-final they could scrap the second booking rule. A lot of players never get to cup finals but you could have a player potentially missing out on his only cup final because he picked up a silly booking in the last few minutes of the semi-final.
“I feel so sorry for boys who have to miss finals. It’s especially bad in the build-up to the final, because everybody’s focused on the game and you’ve got a player like Gary Mason who’s trained all week knowing he won’t be involved. They might have played in every round but then they get a booking in the semi-final and miss potentially the only final of their career.”
Although it is an issue that those individuals concerned will be well aware of, Hamilton doesn’t believe the fact Hearts have so many players on bookings will put them at a major disadvantage.
“In the build-up to the game it will definitely be at the back of their minds that if they make a rash tackle they could be out the final,” he acknowledges. “But during the game you’re so focused that you just do what you need to do to help get the team into the final. If you get a second booking, it’s only after the game you’ll really think ‘oh no, I’m missing a cup final’.
“On Sunday it will be all about the team rather than individuals. I’m surprised Celtic haven’t had any bookings in the tournament, but it doesn’t surprise me that Hearts have had so many because they can be a physical team. But it’s an unfortunate situation that any Celtic player can pick up a silly booking and still play in the final, whereas so many Hearts players won’t have that leeway.”
Aberdeen are in a similar boat to Hearts, with five players – Clark Robertson, Youl Mawene, Andrew Considine, Kari Arnason and Mark Reynolds – a booking away from potentially missing the final. Hibs, their semi-final opponents, have only David Wotherspoon walking the tightrope. All these players will be praying they can avoid the fate which has befallen the likes of Arnau Riera of Falkirk (2009), Mason (2007), Jim McIntyre of Dundee United (2005) and Lee Wilkie of Dundee (2003) in missing out on a Scottish Cup final due to the second-booking rule.
Jim Duffy, who was manager of Dundee when Wilkie learned he would miss the final against Rangers after picking up a second booking in the semi-final against Inverness, is all too aware of the anguish this harsh ruling can cause. “It was really heartbreaking for Lee,” recalls Duffy. “He was at the top of his game, in the Scotland squad and was a really important player for us. When the players were getting measured for cup final suits and stuff like that, we included Lee in all of that and he was part of all the pre-match stuff at the hotel, but, although he tried to keep his spirits up, you could see the disappointment in his face.”
Like Hamilton, Duffy also feels something needs to be done about the “two strikes and you’re out” rule, especially considering how easy it is to collect a caution in this hyper-sensitive day and age. “I remember Lee’s second booking well – it was a relatively innocuous block on the half-way line,” says Duffy. “It wasn’t a last-man foul or anything like that. Someone knocked the ball past him and, understandably given that he’s 6ft 4ins, there was a bit of a coming together. It was really harsh that he missed the final because of it.
“There can be no blame attached to the referee. You can’t ask him to look around and check who’s on yellow cards before deciding whether he should give a player the benefit of the doubt. But surely the SFA should be looking to make it three bookings before you miss a final. I think anyone who’s been involved in football would say it’s a harsh rule. If someone does a cynical foul like chopping down an opponent when he is clean through, then the punishment does fit the crime, but in modern-day football when bookings are generally very easy to come by, it’s harsh that two bookings can rule you out of a final. The game is much softer now in terms of how easy it is to pick up bookings, but the punishment is still very harsh in the sense that two innocuous bookings can put you out of a final. The final is the glamour game of the season – we want the best players available.”
Despite his reservations about the ruling, Duffy, a former director of football at Hearts, doesn’t believe it will have too much of an impact on the Tynecastle side’s hopes of reaching the final for the first time in six years. “Perhaps late in the game, it might be in the players’ minds if they are winning, but for the vast majority of the game I think they’ll be fully focused. You’ve enough on your plate trying to deal with Celtic to be worrying about picking up a booking and missing the final.
“If you’re winning the match with five minutes to go, though, that’s when players might start to think ‘hang on a minute, we’re going to the final and I’m only a booking away from missing it’. They could then start walking on egg-shells, which could be the difference between seeing the game out or losing a late goal.
“First and foremost, they’ve got to get to the final, and to have any chance of beating Celtic they will have to be competitive, so I don’t think they can allow themselves to worry about what might happen. You can only hope the Hearts players can focus on the match but, having said that, it will be highly unlikely that all of them will get through the match without picking up a yellow card.”
The fact such a depressing prospect is even up for discussion in the build-up to one of the biggest weekends of the season is proof surely that this dire ‘two bookings and you’re banned’ rule needs to be altered.