Conor Shaughnessy makes his last Hearts appearance in his first cup final tomorrow. Returning to parent club Leeds United with a shiny Scottish Cup winner’s medal would significantly strengthen his case for first-team football at Elland Road next season.
However, Shaughnessy has other reasons for trying to upset the odds against Celtic at Hampden Park. His five-month loan in Edinburgh has converted him into a Hearts supporter, a player engrossed in the fierce passion of the maroon half of Edinburgh. He feels indebted to them.
“It will be my last game and I’ve really enjoyed it up here,” the defender told the Evening News. “I want to thank all the staff, the players and especially the fans for the reception and the welcome I’ve had here. You can see how big the club is and how passionate everyone is about it. I think it’s definitely going places.
“You saw last weekend at Celtic Park that we have some really good young players coming through. They are a really talented bunch. If they are looked after, with a couple of new signings added, Hearts can really push on and do great things.
“I think I’ll be a Hearts fan from now on. I will keeping an eye on their results and I hope to see them being really successful. Coming in from down south, you see the city and the support and how passionate they are about the club. It really stands out.
“Leeds kind of has the same feel of a big club with the potential to go and do bigger and better things as well. Hopefully that comes to fruition for Hearts as well over the next few years. They are heading in the right direction.”
Before any of that, they are heading to Glasgow as underdogs to play a cup final in front of a national television audience. For a 22-year-old Irishman with burning aspirations to thrive in England, it is a priceless opportunity to showcase his talent.
“These five months have been massive for me. It’s brilliant to get a run of games because I wanted as much game time as possible,” he said. “Every time I’m on the pitch, it helps my development as a player. I’m learning different little things in every match. The cup final is another step in my development. It doesn’t come around very often so I will make the most of it.
“Hopefully I can finish off my loan here with a winner’s medal and a trophy. To win any silverware in your career would be great, so for me to go back to Leeds after a five-month loan with a Scottish Cup winner’s medal would be an amazing achievement. It would stand me in good stead going into next season.”
Shaughnessy’s family have also pledged allegiance to the Edinburgh club. “I’ve got family and a couple of friends coming across from back home. I know Celtic have a big Irish following but my family are 100 per cent behind Hearts on Saturday,” he explained.
Relatives will remember his early years in Galway, honing his footballing technique in the street. The memories are vivid for Shaughnessy himself. He can’t quite believe his kickabouts with pals have led him to the final of the world’s oldest cup tournament.
“I’ll have a think about growing up as I walk out of the tunnel. It doesn’t seem that long ago I was kicking a ball about in front of my house. Now I’m playing in a Scottish Cup final, against all these players in a massive stadium. I’ve been dreaming of it. That will push me on and I think it will push all of us on.
“You think about all the hard work and effort, not just this season but in everyone’s careers to get to this stage. Hopefully we come out on top.
Did he win those games in the street back home? “Of course. Every time. I have a 100 per cent record.”
The centre-back joined Hearts in January seeking a springboard which could propel him towards Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds first team. He played in Reading’s youth academy before moving to Leeds three years ago and, naturally, thought his first cup final would be in England.
“I would have expected it to be in England but I can’t wait for this experience,” said Shaughnessy. “I’m looking forward to playing at Hampden in what should be a great game. The more games you play, you kind of get used to playing in front of big crowds.
“You just need to play the game and not let the occasion become too much for you. Then you hope there’s a massive celebration at the end of it all. We need to put the last few league results out of our minds. Our main focus is this cup final. It’s the biggest game a lot of us have played in our careers. It’s going to be massive for us so it’s nice to see a few of the lads back from injury.”
The small details will be vital to Hearts’ chances of stopping Celtic’s Treble Treble bid. Shaughnessy’s routine won’t change. He feels he and his colleagues can draw inspiration from an encouraging Premiership display last weekend despite a 2-1 defeat against tomorrow’s opponents.
“I keep the same routine – eat the same and do the same things before each game. None of that will change. I don’t think much of the organisation from the staff will change. We all just need to keep our heads level and treat it like any other match. We know we will give 100 per cent and be ready to go once the whistle sounds.
“We played Celtic last weekend and I think we can take a lot of confidence from it, even though both clubs had different teams out. I think we played some good football on a big pitch similar to Hampden.
“We know Celtic are favourites but it’s a one-off game. How many times before have you seen the underdog come through and surprise you? We have as much right to win this trophy as they do.”