Recalling the nerve-shredding tension of Hearts' Scottish Cup final triumph over Gretna
May 13, 2006. Hampden Park, Glasgow. Scottish Cup final
Hearts fans had been put through the wringer in season 2005/06. While it remains the most celebrated individual campaign of the century, emotions often bubbled over the surface, be it due to the bizarre hiring and firing of managers, an influx of new and exciting foreign talents, team-selection meddling from upstairs, boardroom bust-ups, a credible league title bid withering on the vine or reaching the Champions League qualifiers for the first time, those of a maroon persuasion were mentally spent.
Just as well then that the final day of the campaign would see their favourites take on Division Two Gretna for the chance to lift the Scottish Cup. After everything they’d been through they could finally relax, savour a day out at Hampden and see their team win Scotland’s premier knockout tournament for the second time in eight years with a comfortable victory.
Of course, that’s not how it played out. It should’ve been obvious. No way were they going to do it the easy way. Not that Hearts side. Ten days after having their nerves shredded by the 1-0 win over Aberdeen to clinch second place, the support were once again strapped into the emotional rollercoaster. Only this time it lasted for 120 minutes and the agony of penalty kicks.
Things started promising enough. Paul Hartley – the hero from the semi-final thrashing of Hibs – was inches away from picking out Roman Bednar for what would’ve been a clear strike inside 90 seconds. After Deividas Cesnaukis hit the post from the edge of the area, Hartley had an opportunity of his own. Such a talismanic figure for Hearts not only that season but in the previous two campaigns, he raced in behind the defence and onto a header from Rudi Skacel. His heavy touch to knock the ball harmlessly into the waiting hands of Alan Main would ultimately sum up a surprising off-day by his high standards.
Though Valdas Ivanauskas’ side were in control of the match, they weren’t blowing away their opponents in the manner many had expected. Gretna may have been a third-tier side, but they had finished the campaign as champions and would repeat the feat the following summer without too many further additions to the squad. Bankrolled by millionaire owner Brooks Mileson, there was a lot of talent in their squad who should’ve been playing a level above.
The first sign of their threat came when Craig Gordon was forced into a fingertip stop by Gavin Skelton as murmurings of discontent grew from the stands that this wasn’t exactly going to plan.
Such tension appeared to have been washed away six minutes before half-time when Hearts finally discovered their touch in front of goal. A long throw from Robbie Neilson was inadvertently helped on by Gretna centre-back Chris Innes and Skacel was there to fire the bouncing ball into the far corner. A free-scoring force of nature earlier in the campaign, Skacel hadn’t found the back of the net in 14 attempts prior to this final and had even been named among the substitutes for a crucial league match against rivals Hibs a few weeks before. But as he would later show in his second spell, the Czech wizard had a thing for performing at the national stadium.
So, half-time, 1-0 up, nerves settled; time for Hearts to dominate and romp to victory, right? Well...
Steve Tosh fired wide after being left alone from 16 yards, ‘Dr Goals’ Kenny Deuchar headed wide from close range and David Graham was stopped from scoring a certain goal by a phenomenal last-ditch tackle by Neilson. Oddly, this would later produce the ‘Mandela effect’ among a sizeable number of fans, who incorrectly remembered the current manager’s intervention as occurring at 1-1.
Somehow, Hearts didn’t heed any of those warnings and the game was levelled on 76 minutes. Cesnauskis gave away a penalty with a lazy challenge on ex-Hibs favourite John O’Neil, allowing Ryan McGuffie to score from the penalty spot at the second attempt. Gordon saved the initial effort, though a re-take would have been ordered with the linesman raising his flag for the Scottish international leaving his goal-line too early.
Skacel almost immediately restored the advantage before Hartley missed another great chance, skying over when found free on the penalty spot by a Takis Fyssas cross.
The real ‘oh-my-god-we-nearly-lost-this’ moment came near the end of the 90 as Innes fluffed a huge chance to win Gretna the cup. In an almost identical position to Skacel’s opener, the centre-back got his effort all wrong as he sliced it out of play.
Extra-time started with Edgaras Jankauskas missing a sitter and Skacel striking the base of the post, then controversy arrived. Skacel should have won a penalty after being tripped as he rounded Main with just the goalkeeper to beat. His honesty for trying to stay on his feet was not rewarded by referee Dougie McDonald, who then sent off Hartley for two bookings in quick succession.
Without their regular penalty taker and facing the lottery of spot-kicks, many would have been forgiven for expecting the unthinkable to happen: that this season, of all seasons, was going to end in embarrassment and one of the greatest Scottish Cup shocks of all time.
Thankfully, such fatalism didn’t spread to the players. Captain Steven Pressley stepped up first and cooly slotted home, as did Neilson and Skacel. Townsley, another former Hibs player, then had a weak attempt saved by Gordon. After Michal Pospisil followed the lead of his team-mates by sending Main the wrong way, Skelton had to score to keep Gretna in the final. He opted for power and crashed his effort off the top of the crossbar. The thwack of the ball hitting the woodwork was immediately followed by a deafening roar as all that nervous energy exploded into a sea of delirium, ecstasy and, above all, relief.