Twenty years ago today, Hearts travelled through the snow to Celtic Park intent on ending a 34-year wait for major silverware.
As well as carrying the burden of a lengthy trophy drought into the 1996 Coca-Cola Cup final, Jim Jefferies’ emerging side also had to contend with the knowledge that they were facing a rampant Rangers team who, just six months previously, had spanked them 5-1 in a one-sided Scottish Cup final at Hampden.
“After the 5-1 defeat, it was a case of ‘can we get a bit closer?’” said Neil Pointon, the Englishman who played left-back for Hearts in both finals.
Indeed they could. In one of the most dramatic cup finals Scottish football has witnessed in the modern era, Hearts threatened to overcome a Rangers side who were in the midst of their famous march to nine league titles in a row and close to invincible on the domestic scene. Ultimately, it finished 4-3 to Rangers, but, unlike in their previous final, the Hearts players could head home from Glasgow knowing that they had done themselves justice. “The 5-1 game was no contest,” recalled Gilles Rousset, Hearts’ French goalkeeper. “Rangers were far better than us that day. But in the Coca-Cola Cup final, we played really well and should have won it.”
Memories of a spirited Hearts display and a man-of-the-match performance from Neil McCann linger long among the Jambos support, but at the half-hour mark, they were staring down the barrel of another cup final humiliation after Ally McCoist’s double had Walter Smith’s team 2-0 up. “At that point, I was standing thinking ‘oh my goodness, please, not again, it’s going to be a long afternoon’,” said Rousset. “But the team responded really well and fought really hard.”
Steve Fulton pulled one back for Hearts just before half-time, sending Jefferies’ team in at the break with their tails up. “I remember going down the tunnel at half-time and Coisty was having a go at Gazza, saying he wasn’t bothered,” recalls Pointon. “We went into the dressing-room thinking ‘yep, they’re arguing among themselves, we’ve got to make sure we come out and have a real go at them in the second half’.”
And that’s exactly what they did. Inspired by the sensational McCann, Hearts, who had been piling on the pressure, equalised just before the hour mark when John Robertson converted from the winger’s cross. Hearts sensed the silverware was there for the taking. “When Robbo equalised I thought ‘here we are, we’re going to win this one,’” said Rousset. “We had played so well to come back from 2-0 down to 2-2 and Rangers looked in real trouble.”
It was the signal for one of the greatest British footballers of the modern era to step up and prove his worth. “Unfortunately for us, Gazza came out and decided to play for 15 minutes and showed what a quality player he was,” said Pointon.
Paul Gascoigne, the fabled England internationalist, left Hearts’ dreams in tatters when, just five minutes after the Edinburgh side had drawn level, he conjured two sublime goals within the space of a few minutes to reassert Rangers’ authority. “He was having a quiet game and then out of nowhere he came up with two fantastic goals, and that was it,” said Rousset. “He was the difference.”
Hearts kept fighting to the end and pulled one back through Davie Weir but ultimately it was to be more cup final heartache. “We knew that to win against Rangers in a cup final, we had to play the perfect game, which is what we eventually did when we won the Scottish Cup in 1998,” said Rousset. “Unfortunately in the Coca-Cola Cup final, we had a bad first half hour, which made it really difficult for us. Even then, I still feel we should have won. I thought we deserved it, but Rangers were such a strong team at that time. Even when they were struggling in that game, you always knew they had real quality players like Gazza, Coisty, [Brian] Laudrup and half a dozen more. They were really good in every position. When they played at their level, they were pretty much unbeatable for a team like us.”
The fact Hearts almost pulled off an upset owed much to the performance of McCann, then 22, who was rewarded for his man-of-the-match display with a mountain bike from sponsors Coca-Cola. “Neil was wonderful – by far the man of the match,” said Rousset. “It shows how good he was that he got the man of the match even though he was on the losing team and Gazza scored two. He was just unstoppable that day. He was so pacy and skilful and caused real trouble for the Rangers right-back [Joachim Bjorklund]. He was absolutely tremendous.”
With the benefit of hindsight, the 1996 Coca-Cola Cup final can now be viewed in a positive light by the Hearts players involved as it represented a vital stepping stone on their way to eventually getting their hands on silverware when they won the Scottish Cup by defeating the Ibrox side at the third attempt in the 1998 final 18 months later. “It certainly gave the Hearts fans hope that we were gaining on them,” said Pointon.
Rousset, himself scarred mentally by his infamous blunder that gifted Laudrup a goal in the 1996 Scottish Cup final, was buoyed by the knowledge that he had come through a second final without being at fault for his team’s defeat. In total, six of the players who started on November 24, 1996 remained in the starting line-up for the 1998 Scottish Cup final. Rousset was one of three – Fulton and Paul Ritchie were the others – who played for Hearts in all three finals in that two-year period.
“The first Scottish Cup final was not good for me or the team but it’s important when you’re a professional footballer to learn from your mistakes,” said the Frenchman. “I was not scared about what had happened before – I was just concentrating on making sure it didn’t happen again because it was a terrible feeling and I didn’t want to feel it again. It was absolutely horrendous. The main thing was that we played and fought as hard as we could, and we certainly ran them close. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
“I have mixed emotions from that day because we played a very, very good game but unfortunately we lost. It is a good memory to look back on now but only because we went on to win the Scottish Cup. If we hadn’t won a cup with that team, I wouldn’t think of it in such a positive way. But that game was part of the learning process for us because we were still a growing team with some foreigners mixed with some young Scottish players. We had to grow together, and what happened that day helped us go on to win the Scottish Cup.”