A POTENTIALLY breathtaking end to the season awaits Andy Driver, one he doubted he’d take part in just five months ago.
After Sunday’s final SPL engagement at Celtic Park comes the mother of all Scottish Cup finals with Hibs at Hampden.
It doesn’t get much better if you’re a Hearts player, which Driver nearly wasn’t.
The Englishman’s career has undergone a fairly dramatic transformation since his pre-Christmas fallout with manager Paulo Sergio, when he announced his intention to leave. He is back in the side, playing regularly and will finish season 2011/12 with his name etched into Tynecastle folklore if he is part of a victorious cup final team. Not so long ago, Driver felt surplus to requirements as he toiled to impose himself upon Sergio’s first-team.
His immediate future looks positive as he greets the Evening News amidst a flurry of activity at Riccarton. Cup final preparations are well under way; however, Celtic in Glasgow offers Hearts the opportunity to secure a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds if they can remain fifth in the SPL. It is never a fixture for the faint of heart, but Driver harbours a penchant for big games. That’s why the next two are right up his street.
“Celtic is a massive game and then it’s the cup final. It’s a great end to the season because it’s exciting,” said the winger. “I’ve been here as a full-time player since I was 15 years old. This is the second time we’ve been to a final and it brings such a buzz to the whole city – especially this year with it being Hearts-Hibs.
“First we have to concentrate on the league game at Celtic. Nobody’s place in the team is secure, so we’ve got to make sure we’re giving 100 per cent.
“Obviously I had the well-known fall-out with the manager at the end of the year, but I’ve got over that, I’ve put my head down and everything is resolved.
“It was a hard time. I just had to work hard to forget about the whole thing and prove that I want to stay here. The hard work is starting to pay off at the moment. I’ve not been playing at my absolute best, but I feel I’m getting better every week and, hopefully, now starting to see the rewards of the hard work.”
Uniting everyone seems to have been the catalyst for Hearts’ progress in recent months, although their togetherness will be tested both this weekend and next. The prospective rewards for sticking with one another through well-documented wages delays and player departures would make it all worthwhile.
Beating Celtic followed by success in the first all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final for 116 years could bring a climax to rival any end to any season.
“We’d like to have been a little higher in the league, but, with what’s gone on around the club this year, you can’t be too greedy,” said Driver. “I think we did well to get into the top six.
“Our form has stumbled a little bit since we achieved that, but with the cup final coming up there’s a real buzz around here.
“Winning the cup could make our whole season. To be where we are now from where we were in December and January is unbelievable. The players and all the staff haven’t had as much credit as they probably deserve due to other things happening.
“Going down in history isn’t something we want to talk about – we just want to think about the two games. You know you’re going into a final and you want the feeling of what we had in the semi-final. But I think we just have to focus on winning first. To do that, we need to approach the Celtic game properly and look only at that. Then we can work on what we can do looking towards the final. There are no secure places in the team.
“We’ve had some different changing rooms in the time I’ve been here, but this year, I don’t know what it is, everything has really gelled together. The thing about being in the position we’re in is that, in recent years, we haven’t had leaders like Andy Webster and Rudi Skacel. These people are winners and that brushes off on the younger people in the team. You need that.
“You only need to look at the number of finals these guys have been in. Webby is now teaching the rest of the boys things and it is a massive thing to have that in a dressing room. Even guys like Danny Grainger and Craig Beattie have been to semi-finals and finals and they learned things through being there. We’ve got so many people this year who have experience at the top level.”
That experience will be most useful on Sunday as Celtic seek to finish their campaign with a victory before collecting the SPL trophy. Previous visits to Parkhead have seen Driver thrive, and he travels to Glasgow’s East End with a decent record there.
Eight appearances and two goals indicate the enjoyment he derives from high-profile occasions on Celtic’s wide open pitch. The ground is ideally suited to pacy wingers who like running in behind opposition defences and creating havoc.
Driver is guaranteed to engage in further duels with Celtic next season despite the mini revolution anticipated at Tynecastle this summer. While many out-of-contract players will leave the club – or have already done so – the 24-year-old’s deal does not expire until next June. The only way he can depart is if another club submits a transfer offer deemed acceptable by the Hearts board.
Driver knows that isn’t likely for the moment and he is in no hurry to leave. He requires the benefits of a full pre-season in order to reproduce the form which prompted a bid totalling £3.5 million from Burnley two years ago. Since then, injuries have severely hindered his progress, but he fully intends being back to his old self next year. In fact, he’s counting on it.
“Three years ago I was with England Under-21s and missed the start of pre-season. For the last two summers I’ve had operations and I’ve come into pre-season unfit. This year, touch wood, everything should go fine. It will be my first close-season break and my first pre-season without being behind. It has taken a while for me to get my fitness back.
“You don’t realise how far behind you are till you’re playing regularly. Only now is it starting to come. Now I’m feeling the best I’ve felt all season and the campaign is coming to an end.
“I want to keep working during the close season, then get a good pre-season behind me and show my true ability next year.”
By then, of course, he could be a bona fide Hearts legend. How things have changed for the better in Driver’s career.