The clock on the Hampden scoreboard clicked on to 55 minutes. Hearts one, Celtic nil. It was one of those pinch-yourself moments. This was not in the script.
Hearts, much maligned for a grotty 2019 in which they’d lost to Dundee on their own patch, lost to Hibs at home for the first time in six years and generally churned out some insomnia-curing displays, were a goal to the good against all-conquering Celtic.
At that moment, Hearts were flirting dangerous with the old trophy. They had played a disciplined, sturdy game and took the one veritable chance that came their way. Celtic were flummoxed, flat and frustrated. A betting man would not have backed Celtic at that moment to come back and win the Scottish Cup.
Fair play to them, they did. Their £9million striker Odsonne Edouard sprung into life, capitalised on the two mistakes that crept into Hearts’ game. The Frenchman’s class was telling.
For Hearts, it was a dull one. They played ever, ever so well - better than they’ve done for most of the past four months. Ultimately they fell short, but there was so much to be proud of.
Manager Craig Levein spoke of his pride in his post-match interview. He was as close to tears as I’ve seen Levein in his time as Hearts boss. He knew that his team had given him everything and that they had come pretty close to grabbing silverware.
The season, in some ways, has come full circle. The beginning, when Hearts strode six points clear at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership, was superb. The middle, as injuries, poor performances and insipid football took over, was concerning, but the end can bring hope, hope that Hearts can kick on and improve on the 2018/19 campaign.
Levein will be in charge next season. For some, that will stick in the craw. Sixth place is not where Hearts want to finish in the league, but a cup final and another semi-final, within the backdrop of crippling injuries, mean this season goes down as a success.
Saturday’s performance should imbue Hearts fans with a bit more optimism. They were competitive, played some good football at times and the display of 16-year-old left-back Aaron Hickey shows that there is a steady stream of youngsters coming through. Harry Cochrane and Connor Smith will feature more next season too, and Aidan Keena will be back from injury.
As, of course, will others. Uche Ikpeazu and Peter Haring now have a summer to get over their own ailments. Talisman Steven Naismith is expected to sign permanently. Impressive defender Craig Halkett joins from Livingston. The cup runs will have generated more money to enhance the team. Levein knows he needs more creativity in the middle of the pitch and he will improve that particular part of the team.
It’s hard sometimes to remember that Hearts nearly died five years ago. The club was drowning in debt. It was mismanaged, to the brink of oblivion. The fans, as much as anyone else, saved it. Being in a cup final for the first time since administration was a huge staging post on the journey back. The support at Hampden was tremendous and a stark reminder of just how strong a position the club is in now.
The summer will bring more personnel changes at Tynecastle, but Levein will be at the helm. Come the Betfred Cup matches in July, new players will be in the door and many key men will be fit again. There will be little room for error for Levein - owner Ann Budge said this week that he is not bombproof - but the performance that Hearts put on at Hampden gives him, and all associated with Hearts, something to build upon.
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