All relevant evidence suggests this Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle is going to be far from straightforward for Hearts.
The Tynecastle side will go to Hampden as clear favourites by virtue of the fact they are a division above their Championship opponents and are deemed to have the better players. However, each of Hearts’ previous three showdowns with lower-league opponents in the last four or the final of the Scottish Cup have proven extremely hazardous. In 2006, they required penalties to defeat third-tier Gretna in the final after a nerve-shredding 1-1 draw. In 1998, they needed two goals in the dying minutes, from Stephane Adam and Neil McCann, to secure a 3-1 win over a Kevin McAllister-inspired Falkirk, then of the first Division, in an uncomfortable semi-final at Ibrox. And in 1995, they lost 1-0 to second-tier Airdrieonians in a Hampden semi, just three years after being defeated on penalties by the same opponents (who were then a top-flight side) at the same stage of the competition.
Paul Ritchie played for Jim Jefferies’ team in that 1998 semi against Falkirk and the former Hearts defender warned his old team of the importance of ensuring they don’t allow themselves to view victory on Saturday as any kind of formality.
“Falkirk gave as good as they got in 98 and made it a really good game for the neutral,” Ritchie said. “We got the result in the end but it was a difficult 90 minutes. I remember seeing Hearts lose to Airdrie in semi-finals in the 1990s. Those type of results can happen sometimes so Hearts have got to be on their guard. They’ve got to go out there with the right attitude and earn the right to play. We’ve seen Hearts lose to supposed lesser-quality teams in big games in the past – in football these days, if a team’s prepared and organised, anybody can beat anybody on their day. I’m sure Craig Levein and the coaching staff will be ramming it home to the players that this can’t be taken for granted. It’s going to be a tough battle and they’re going to have to win the battle before they get the opportunity play.”
Ritchie is adamant that Hearts, who have been in poor form recently, must apply themselves correctly from the first whistle if they are to combat Inverness’s fearless approach under Tynecastle legend John Robertson. “It’s a great opportunity for Hearts to get to another cup final, but it’s sure to have its nervy moments,” he said. “Craig and the rest of the coaching staff will have the boys aware of the potential banana-skin. Wee Robbo will have Inverness set up difficult to beat. They are a very capable team and they deserve to be in this semi-final.
“Hearts will have a far bigger support and on paper it should be a Hearts win but we all know these games are very difficult to play in. It’s a one-off game at a neutral venue. The results over the last few weeks have been very disappointing and if they don’t go in with the right attitude it could be difficult for them. Ultimately all that matters is the result. Performances haven’t been to the standard Hearts supporters would like, but I think they’d happily sacrifice a performance this weekend if they can get through to another final.”
Ritchie played in the same Hearts team as both Robertson and Levein in the mid-1990s and is looking forward to seeing these two former team-mates and titans of the club’s history go head to head in such a high-profile match. “It’s got the makings of a great semi-final,” said Ritchie, a Hearts supporter. “Inverness have nothing to lose. They’ll enjoy the day out but I know what Robbo’s like – he’ll be going there to win. He’ll have something to prove and he’ll have his team fired up. He’ll have had Hearts watched over the past three or four weeks. He knows Hearts inside out and he knows Craig well so I’m sure he’ll have one or two things up his sleeve.
“He’s a Hearts supporter and a Hearts legend, but first and foremost his job is to get a result for Inverness and he’ll be doing whatever he can to put one over his old team. Both Robbo and Craig have had their ups and downs as a manager but they’re two real Hearts legends. Back in the day they were fantastic players and the club was basically built round the two of them. It’ll be an emotional day for Robbo, I’d imagine, but he’ll only have one thing in his mind and that will be getting Inverness to the final.”
Hearts’ underwhelming league form over the past five and a half months has caused them to slide from first place to sixth in the Scottish Premiership. This situation, exacerbated by a home defeat by Hibs last weekend, has cranked up the heat on Levein ahead of Saturday’s semi. “Hearts supporters are demanding, and rightly so,” said Ritchie. “What’s been happening at the club over the past four years has been great but the demands are high because the supporters feel that success should be close now. For one reason or another, it’s not happened yet. They obviously got into a great position at the start of the season but some key injuries have affected things.
“We’ve got a quality squad but at this moment in time we’re not firing on all cylinders, so Craig is under pressure. He’ll read papers and he’ll hear the animosity and the grumbling from the crowd in response to recent results. The game’s changing and supporters want a certain style of football, but it can be difficult to find that balance between style and results. In an ideal world, we’ll see a really good Hearts win on Saturday but I think everybody will be happy with any kind of win to get to the final.
“If Craig can get to the final, it will ease the pressure in the short term. But that will only last another few weeks because the cup final’s only about another month away. These Hearts supporters are demanding. They love their club, they pay a lot of money to go and watch their team and they want success. Compared to where Hearts potentially could be, they’re letting themselves down a little bit at the moment. This club needs to be winning regularly and needs be in the top three or four at least, so this is a big few weeks coming up for Craig.”