Sean Clare is nothing if not single-minded. This is a 22-year-old rescued by the Nike Academy after quitting football, so he understands why giving up never inspires success. For that reason, his belief that Hearts can win the Scottish Cup against the odds remains steadfast.
Form is a concern. Friday’s night’s 2-1 defeat at Pittodrie means Hearts have no victories from their last six league matches. There is a lack of momentum heading to Hampden Park, even if they win Sunday’s cup final dress rehearsal away to overwhelming favourites Celtic. Clare is unperturbed, however.
He is likely to start at Hampden Park to offer a goal threat from midfield. Regardless of his team’s fortunes in the build-up – and the fact Celtic will be chasing a Treble Treble in their home city – he is adamant that the one-off nature of a cup final means Hearts have every chance to spring a surprise. For Clare, there is no cause for alarm in recent results.
“No I don’t think so,” he said. “The cup final is a one-off game and anything else doesn’t really matter coming into it. The main thing is we all work for each other through the next game and the cup final, and we have been doing that in our previous games.
“We have really showed a workrate and togetherness that will stand us in good stead when we get to the final. Celtic are a good side but they are not unbeatable and we always have to believe we can beat them. So that unity will be massive. We have to stick together when teams are on top and we have to stick together when we are on top, so it’s definitely going to be important.”
The Englishman added that he does not feel low on confidence and nor should any of his team-mates as they prepare for the season-ending showpiece. Sunday’s league trip to Parkhead comes first but both clubs are likely to play significantly weakened sides knowing what is at stake in the final.
“I don’t think confidence is a problem,” added Clare. “You go through difficult runs in football, the main thing is sticking together. We really have a good bond here, from the young lads through to the senior pros, and that will give us the best chance we have got in the final.”
Hearts are keen to protect and preserve their main protagonists for Hampden. Uche Ikpeazu, Peter Haring, John Souttar, Zdenek Zlamal, Arnaud Djoum, Michael Smith and Jake Mulraney did not feature at Aberdeen. All of them are expected to be in the starting line-up for the final. Everyone at Riccarton is aware there is really only one game to focus on now.
“We have not got the results we maybe would have if Hampden had not been our focus,” explained Clare. “We have tried different things and been working on different ways of potentially giving our best in the final while resting and looking after players, which is important. I think any team in our position would do exactly the same.”
Clare is also insistent that Sunday’s league encounter with Celtic will not affect the final in any way. The respective managers, Craig Levein and Neil Lennon, will not show their hand in any way in terms of team selection or tactics.
“I don’t think that will have any bearing, if I am honest,” said Clare. “I would rather go there and get a bad result and then go and win the final. We’re just taking it game by game. If we go there and do well, or go there and not do well, it’s just about focusing on what we need to do and getting what we can out of the league game – then transferring everything we have learned this season into the final and putting on the best performance we can.
“It could be a game of chess with neither side looking to give too much away. Some players will need to play and some players will need a game before the final, so I am not sure what the gaffer is thinking. I know we will all be available and ready to play if called upon.”
Like the trip to Aberdeen, this weekend’s game offers some fringe players the chance to stake their claim for involvement in Hearts’ biggest fixture of the campaign.
“There’s a few who didn’t play at Aberdeen because they were either injured or rested. I think everyone out there showed themselves in a good light,” said Clare. “We really worked hard and put in a good shift and hopefully gave the manager something to think about.
“A few younger lads came on and it was a great experience for them. Going to a place like Pittodrie is never easy for any player. So, if they take what they can from the experience, it will help them a lot in the future.
“In the first half, both sides were just battling and there wasn’t much football played. In the second half I thought there was a lot more football played. They got their goal but we fought our way back into it and I felt when they scored their second we were actually on top. We looked like we were the ones who were going to score so it’s frustrating, but the boys put in a great shift and really took them to the end. That’s all we can do right now.”
Steven MacLean’s late penalty claim was in vain after he touched the ball past the Aberdeen goalkeeper Joe Lewis and was fouled just outside the box. “At the time it looked like a penalty but I think it was outside the box. I would have claimed the same if it was me but I think it was the right decision,” admitted Clare.
As his first season in Scotland nears its conclusion, the former Sheffield Wednesday player feels in top condition having taken time to recover from ankle surgery last summer. He now wants to hit a peak at Hampden.
“I’m feeling good, feeling fit. Hopefully I have given the manager something to think about, that’s my plan. If I am not involved in the final or on the bench or whatever, I’ll be ready. I think that’s the same with everyone. We’re all trying to get a place in the starting eleven, but we’re all there supporting each other if we’re not.”