Scottish Cup final: Hearts' Craig Halkett already knows how to beat a Premiership team in Glasgow with Championship underdogs

Craig Halkett’s current career pinnacle is beating a Premiership club in Glasgow with a team of Championship underdogs. The experience might come in rather useful this weekend.

By Barry Anderson
Thursday, 17th December 2020, 7:00 am
Craig Halkett hopes to upset the odds with Hearts and win the Scottish Cup.
Craig Halkett hopes to upset the odds with Hearts and win the Scottish Cup.

You don’t need to delve far into the Hearts centre-back’s memory bank for recollections of Livingston’s promotion success in 2018. Winning at Firhill to steal Partick Thistle’s top-flight status remains his biggest day in football.

Under David Hopkin, Livingston overcame all the odds to beat Thistle home and away in the two-legged Premiership play-off final. It was a stunning triumph by a club promoted from League One just 12 months previously.

Halkett is now aiming for a similar upset at Hearts under Robbie Neilson. Sunday’s Scottish Cup final is again in Glasgow, pitting Halkett and the Championship underdogs against highly-fancied Premiership champions Celtic.

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Another surprise result would probably eclipse that day in Maryhill given the magnitude of the occasion. It is Halkett’s first professional cup final, yet he is entitled to feel an advantage of sorts over other Hearts players given past experience.

“Those two play-off games with Livi were massive,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “We were in the Championship, we’d only just been promoted. Everybody tipped us to go back down but we defied the odds and got to the play-offs.

“We were heavy underdogs for those two games with Thistle and we came through it. It’s going to be a similar situation on Sunday.

“There’s no denying Celtic are the big favourites so we will need the same as what I had in that Livingston team. The biggest thing was belief, all the boys were together and that’s something the manager has created here since he came in over the summer.

“All the boys believe we are a good team and can play good football. If we all go into Sunday believing we can win, it’s a great start.”

The celebrations at Firhill and back in West Lothian that night are etched in Halkett’s mind. It was the culmination of two years of hard work under Hopkin, whose motivational skills underpinned back-to-back promotions.

Neilson is trying to foster the same kind of drive and camaraderie at Riccarton. “The environment he [Hopkin] created at the training ground and within the squad was so important,” said Halkett.

“I’m not just using an old cliché here, we were all mates off the park. It was a great bunch and it is starting to feel similar here.

“We all have a good laugh in training every day and we are all focused on our jobs. It creates a good feeling when you’re going on to the park trying to win for your mates.

“We always had that at Livingston it showed. We weren’t always the best team in the Championship that season in terms of quality and technique.

“Because we all had that belief, it gave us a massive advantage over other teams. It worked wonders for us and got us promotion to the Premiership that day.

“We had our Player of the Year awards that night so everybody went back to the stadium and had a good drink. You celebrate at the time but you end up talking about it for weeks on end.

“I was actually going on holiday the next day so I ended up having Facetime chats with all the boys. It was something we spoke about for ages. You can’t explain the celebrations.

“Those are the things you look forward to. It will be different if we do it on Sunday, obviously, but we will find a way to enjoy ourselves.”

Halkett’s journey to this point has been considerably arduous. He was released by Rangers and ended up in the third tier of Scottish football with Livingston before that rapid rise to the Premiership.

He joined Hearts in 2019 on a pre-contract agreement and watched as that year’s Scottish Cup final, also against Celtic, ended in defeat. Injury precluded him from the Betfred Cup semi-final five months later so he is entitled to relish this opportunity at Hampden Park.

“It’s been quite a big journey – down the leagues with Livingston, helping them get back up, getting a move to Hearts, then what happened in the league last year. We still performed in the big Scottish Cup games to get us here.

“It’s one of those journeys you end up on. One of the things you want to do growing up playing football is play in a Scottish Cup final with the chance to win a medal and a trophy.

“You are used to Scottish Cup final days being a nice summer’s day so this is a bit strange. It’s been a heck of a year but this game has always been in the back of our heads, even when we started pre-season.

“The main target was always the league but the Scottish Cup was also a big one. Now it’s here. The reason I joined Hearts was to get to semi-finals and finals and try to win some medals.

“Last year didn’t go the way anybody expected but for us to still reach the cup final is pretty major. It’s not the circumstances we want but we are really looking forward to it.

“It’s hard to say you will treat it as a normal game because it’s not. It’s a Scottish Cup final. It’s my first experience of a final so you have to just take it all in and enjoy it.

“You never know how your career will go. Obviously you hope it’s not your last final but you have to take it in while staying focused on the game. You make sure you’re in top condition.”

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