Scottish Cup's £3m European bounty creating pound signs in the eyes of Hearts, Hibs and other SPFL clubs

Pound signs bulge from the eyes of Scotland’s football club chairmen as this season’s Scottish Cup approaches its latter stages.

Friday, 11th February 2022, 8:00 am
Updated Friday, 11th February 2022, 2:44 pm

Never before has the trophy carried so much prestige. This year’s winners are poised for a place in the Europa League play-off round. Even defeat at that stage comes with a parachute into the Europa Conference League groups.

So whoever lifts the Scottish Cup at Hampden Park on May 21 would effectively hoist aloft a pass guaranteeing European group-stage football. The status, honour and intrigue will entice fans to snap up tickets whilst clubs themselves salivate at the cash on offer.

Next season's Europa League will pay out more than £3million per team just for taking part. Europa Conference League groups are predicted to be worth around £2.7m. That’s before cash per point and gate revenue.

Hearts last won the Scottish Cup in 2012.

Now, UEFA don’t confirm access lists until after the season ends but as things stand this is the scenario. Should the Scottish Cup winners also qualify for the Champions League through finishing first or second in the Premiership, then the cup’s European spot goes to third in the league.

The reward for finishing third alone looks like being a place in the third qualifying round of the Europa Conference League. Fourth in the Premiership enters one round earlier at the second qualifying round.

This is where Hearts come in, and why they privately place such strong emphasis on finishing third and winning the cup. If one doesn’t bring Continental football to Tynecastle this summer, then the other will.

Either one means you’ve exceeded expectations as a newly-promoted Premiership side. Do both and it’s an overachievement to live long in the memory.

Hearts host Livingston tomorrow in a Scottish Cup fifth-round tie which is far from straightforward. Every other team playing in the competition this weekend, from Aberdeen to Annan Athletic, also know the value of the final prize.

The league offers Hearts something of a safety net with ten points separating them in third and Dundee United in fourth. United, Motherwell, St Mirren, Hibs and perhaps even Aberdeen have aspirations of catching them, or at least finishing fourth to enter Europe via that route.

The cup assumes priority for the next few days as intensity builds around the country. Understandably, players are eager to sample the European football they watch on BT Sport every midweek. “We want to secure third place and win the Scottish Cup,” says the Hearts defender Toby Sibbick, a recent signing from Barnsley.

“This will be my first game in the Scottish Cup. I’ve watched some ties and I would always tune in to watch the finals. I know what to expect. It’s a very tense cup and all the clubs want to win it. We want our name on the trophy.

“Hearts are a big club and they should be challenging for these trophies anyway. If we win it, we will be guaranteed European football. As a player, that’s where you want to be – in European competition against the best players.”

No-one is hearing the aeroplane engines whirring on the tarmac just yet. There are too many potential pitfalls to navigate between now and May. Hearts’ form has stuttered slightly with three wins, three defeats and a draw from seven matches since the Premiership’s winter break ended.

Wednesday’s night’s 2-1 loss to Dundee, bottom of the league at kick-off, left some supporters criticising Tynecastle players and staff at full-time.

“We know the expectations at Hearts. You are expected to win no matter who you play against,” says Sibbick. “It's not a nice feeling to hear that [from fans] but we have to accept it. It’s not good enough and they deserve better. We will work every day in training to give them better.

“I think complacency kicked into our game. I don’t know what was going on out there. Sometimes we were just too lackadaisical on the ball, no real purpose. As players, we need to look at each other and move on. We could have been 13 points clear so we knew what was at stake.

“When Dundee equalised the game changed. We turned a bit weak as a team and let them back into the game. It was a sloppy second goal as well. We need to stop conceding these sloppy goals. We need to get it out of our system swiftly and beat Livingston on Saturday.”

Fellow defender Stephen Kingsley admits fans are entitled to be angry after Wednesday. “Absolutely. We hold ourselves accountable,” he says. “We have standards of our own and we know what the standards of the club are, what the fans expect from us and as I said it’s an embarrassing result for us.

“We need to get to grips with what’s happened, move on and put it right on Saturday because that’s a big chance to do well in the cup. We need to get ourselves sorted and get going again for that.”

Finishing third as back-up is an essential part of Hearts’ seasonal gameplan and it’s an issue far from settled. “No, that’s the mentality that we’re trying to make sure we don’t have,” adds Kingsley.

“We’re ten points clear, but we can’t afford to take our foot off the gas. You could say that, looking at results, we’ve given teams below us the chance to catch up but luckily the results have gone our way.

“It’s absolutely not good enough to be picking up results like Wednesday night. We’re bitterly disappointed with the result and scoreline against Rangers and Wednesday was a chance to give a reaction and show the fans a reaction.”

It didn’t materialise and now league matters are parked for the weekend. Hearts last won the Scottish Cup ten years ago. This year’s final is two days after the anniversary of that 5-1 victory over Hibs at Hampden. Everyone at Tynecastle will hope that is a good omen for their European ambitions.

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