Why victory over Hibs at Hampden shows this is a special group of Hearts players who deserve to be cherished
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Always a good piece of advice for our brittle existence on this planet but one which is often left unheeded. It feels like that is especially true of football fans. We tend to get carried away with the good times and subconsciously believe they’ll last forever. Nothing ever does and, unless you’re a big fat glory hunter, for the most part the experience of following a club is a seemingly never-ending cycle of fluctuations. For instance, one year you can find your club relegated despite plenty of investment. Then two years later you can finish in third place, qualify for eight games in European football and book a place in the Scottish Cup final for the third time in four years.
Were Hearts good against Hibs in Saturday’s semi-final? No, not really. They started very well but a combination of a poorly-conceded goal right after making it 2-0 and subsequent injuries contributed to a performance that was largely about holding on to the advantage they had and seeing it over the line. For anyone of a maroon persuasion, the last 70 minutes (and the second half especially, including eight minutes of injury time) took about ten years off their life. But as nervy as it was and considering so few players didn’t get anywhere near their usual standard, there was still a degree of expectation that things were going to turn out all right.
Of course, the history of the fixture played a significant part in that. As Shaughan McGuigan said on Friday’s A View From The Terrace (shameless plug, alert) “Hearts always beat Hibs”. It’s especially true of the bigger games and definitely the ones at Hampden.
But it also kinda felt a bit inconceivable that they would let down the fans in a similar way as the team did in 2016 when Hibs came back from two goals down at Tynecastle on their march to Scottish Cup glory. Not these guys. Not Gordon. Not Kingsley. Not Barrie McKay. Not Cammy Devlin.
The Australian typifies a lot about what the Hearts support love about this squad. He’s industrious almost to a fault but is an excellent player. His enthusiasm for being a Hearts player is a real joy. He was only fit enough to make a cameo at Hampden but still had an impact on the game and helped his side see it out. He was there at the end leading the celebrations when the full-time whistle mercifully arrived.
He’s far from the only player who supporters have really taken to their hearts. Gordon is enjoying a season which is, to put it bluntly, utterly ridiculous. He must’ve made about 15 saves, at least, that you can describe as a “world class” variety over the course of the campaign and it was no surprise to see him do so again in the second half to tip Ryan Porteous’ header on to the post. What the goalkeeper is doing is truly special. He’s 39 years old and he’s never played this well in his career before. That is quite something considering he’s in Scotland’s all-time top 10 for appearances, was once sold for £9 million and starred for Celtic’s invincible treble winners. It’s a good career.
Peter Haring had another outstanding game in the centre of the park where he’s pretty much holding everything together at this point. Andy Halliday being forced off a week after his two-goal heroics in the league win over Hibs at Tynecastle meant the Austrian was left as the only one of Hearts’ usual centre-midfield rotation still fully fit. He illustrated it by consistently picking up second balls, passing it well and being a road block for Hibs to try and navigate around.
And finally, we cannot reach the conclusion of this retrospective ramble without mentioning Stephen Kingsley. His goal was a worthy match-winner in the end. It was a stunning strike from a set-piece situation and his seventh of the campaign. He has been a Rolls Royce of a player this term and shone again at the national stadium.
Leading scorer Liam Boyce didn’t play particularly well. Neither did chief creator Barrie McKay, save for a couple of excellent passes which are just to become expected at this point. But though these guys weren’t able to carry the team in the manner they sometimes do, others picked up the slack. Robbie Neilson was forced into making three separate changes during the contest as Kingsley and Craig Halkett joined Halliday in being substituted. It disrupted the flow a bit, but it just became a case of next man up with a back four of Nathaniel Atkinson, Toby Sibbick, Taylor Moore and Alex Cochrane seeing out the final stages of the game.
This is a group of players that demands to be cherished and savoured because they won’t be around forever and Hearts’ progression over the last couple of years will come to a halt at some point sooner rather than later. It’s just the nature of football in Scotland if you’re not Celtic or Rangers. You bang your head on the glass ceiling and then regression kicks in. Whether it’s next season or five seasons down the line, it will happen.
John Souttar will be away this summer, Haring might join him in heading out the exit door, Gordon will surely have to slow down at some point, goalscorer Ellis Simms is unlikely to be back and there may be a bit of interest in Halkett and/or Kingsley (because there definitely should be). The good news is that this group have the chance to make themselves heroes forever with a win over Rangers next month, but regardless of whether they can pull off an upset or not, this is a special group of players.
Jambos, if you can, stop and take some time to smell the roses.