Why Hearts fans have got to believe they can beat Celtic and win the Scottish Cup
Hearts go into Saturday's Scottish Cup final as underdogs with few believing they can win. Joel Sked explains why fans should believe.
The wait has been long. Too long.
Two thousand, five hundred and sixty two days - to be precise - will have passed when Hearts players run out of the Hampden Park tunnel just before 3pm on Saturday. Two thousand, five hundred and sixty two days since Hearts were last in the Scottish Cup final. That day in May, 2012.
Back then a single on a Lothian Bus would have set you back £1.40. The Edinburgh trams were a year away from opening and the HMV Picturehouse was still a music venue.
Excitement at Hearts' return to Hampden in search of their ninth Scottish Cup should be at fever pitch.
It should be at the point where it has taken over and gripped fans' lives. Counting down the days, hours and minutes until Saturday. Sorting out logistics for the day. Checking the club's Twitter and fans' forums for any news, information and updates.
Sitting at work or on the bus, the mind should be wandering. Dreaming of success. Of bouncing out into Mount Florida then later along Gorgie Road, swept up by a maroon tide. Of the open-top bus parade on a sun-drenched afternoon in Edinburgh.
Yet, in the main, it's conspicuous by its absence. Many fans seem to have been struck by agoraphobia, unable to escape from the thought of Saturday, the Scottish Cup final and Celtic. When asked if they are attending the answer is punctuated by a reluctant eye roll, a resigned sigh, rather than a smile and rub of the hands.
It's a complicated and confusing situation at the end of a complicated and confusing season. Top of the league at the start of November, from then the club have picked up 25 points in 27 games. Only relegated Dundee earned fewer points.
From that initial elation, the tentative talk of a title challenge, the team have tripped, stumbled and simply fallen. Seven league games without a win, an over-reliance on Steven Naismith, devoid of creativity and confidence.
Fans have voiced their displeasure online and during games at Craig Levein and even towards Ann Budge, who is seen to facilitate the manager with the power bestowed on him.
In addition, there has been the pernicious conflict between fans and Budge, which finally came to a head with the closure of lower Section G. It followed fans in certain sections being warned and told off like truculent school children after a number of incidents throughout the season.
In the second half of the season Tynecastle was an increasingly unpleasant venue to attend. The unimaginative and uninteresting fare on the field coupled with the angst, anger and apathy off it.
The end result is this. A game many fans could do with out, an urge for the season to finish, an acceptance of defeat.
Despite all that has gone on, the hope, the euphoria, the comedown and ultimately the disappointment, it shouldn't be like this. It's a Scottish Cup final. A chance to win silverware, a chance to end Celtic's dominance and get one over Neil Lennon.
Think back to 16 May, 1998, prior to kick off against Rangers in the Scottish Cup final. Ask parents or grandparents. At that point generations of fans had not witnessed Hearts win a trophy, with the wait extending to 36 years.
Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch: “Few of us have chosen our clubs, they have simply been presented to us; and so as they slip from Second Division to the Third, or sell their best players, or buy players who you know can't play, or bash the ball the seven hundredth time towards a nine foot centre-forward, we simply curse, go home, worry for a fortnight and then come back to suffer all over again.”
What is the point in all that suffering if you do not make the most of days like Saturday?
It is an occasion, no matter the form or opponent, where every Hearts fan, no matter how devoted, should be scrambling for tickets. Those who have should be inundated with requests from friends and family.
It is an occasion where it makes up for all those early starts, traipsing your way to Waverley for the 6.30am train to Dingwall. Or those midweek games where you have told yourself you aren't going but find yourself walking past the Gorgie Fish Bar, around past the Tynecastle Arms and up to the turnstiles as if on auto-pilot, sharing the look of 'what are we doing here' to the person next to you.
The images of the 1998 cup parade Hearts have shared on social media recently should evoke nostalgia and a desire to have it replicated. The images shared by Hibs of their trophy parade three years ago should provoke jealousy and an even deeper yearning for success.
The fatalistic approach is one of second nature to football fans and is a way of preempting those feelings of disappointment when things naturally go wrong. But what if they don't?
Celtic can be beaten. Without getting into the nitty gritty of analysis and tactics they have not been great at all under Neil Lennon. All it takes is one performance, one bit of luck, one outrageous goal.
How many fans had a similar feeling of pessimism heading to Tynecastle a couple of years ago when Brendan Rodgers brought his Celtic side to Gorgie, unbeaten in 69 games? Or a trip to Celtic Park in the League Cup in 2007 when Anatoly Korobochka was in charge?
For the first time since 1998 Hearts go into a final as underdogs. No one expects the team to win, few even expect a competitive game. But no matter what has gone on this season, nothing can take away the belief among the support that they can win.
It's the Scottish Cup final. These are the moments fans should live for, to allow themselves to dream and to imagine. After all, they don't come along all that often.