Hangover fully subsided, sleep caught up on, body detoxed and clarity of thought restored. Having spent most of the week as an empty vessel of a man, I now feel more capable of reflecting on last weekend’s Scottish Cup Final: I only dread to think how long it would have taken if we’d actually won the thing.
I have to admit to being overtly cynical whenever someone asked me for my thoughts or predictions in the initial weeks leading up to this game; after all, we’d just witnessed months of abject dross with little to suggest we’d put up a fight. Complete annihilation was very much on the cards.
By Friday, that feeling of dread had dissipated completely and was replaced with nervous excitement, broken sleep and anxious dreams of lost tickets and missed trains. Thankfully, neither of those came true and, as I reached my seat at 2.59pm, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the maroon monsoon of optimism that was gathering around me, the disappointing league campaign banished to the back of our minds for the next 90 minutes.
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That positive mentality seemed to be very much shared by Craig Levein, who appeared to draw inspiration from Rangers’ recent 2-0 win over Celtic by setting up in a similarly-narrow formation to Steven Gerrard’s side, with Jake Mulraney and Sean Clare tucking in to starve Celtic’s central midfield of the ball and both Arnaud Djoum and Ryan Edwards applying pressure when the ball inevitably shifted out to the full-backs. It was a game-plan that the players executed to near-perfection throughout the first half, allowing only the tiniest morsels to fall to Celtic from the few crosses that happened to evade Hearts’ diligent back four.
Despite how untroubled Hearts looked in that time, even the most maroon-tinted spectacle wearers would have questioned whether hallucinogenics had been slipped into their pre-match pints when Edwards latched onto a Clare back-heel to bury the opener through Scott Bain’s legs and spark an explosion of limbs in the maroon half of the stadium.
Until a few weeks ago, Edwards’ most significant achievement since arriving in Gorgie was recorded during his loan spell with St Mirren, when he congratulated teammate Adam Hammill on scoring against his parent club, thereby upsetting a section of the Hearts Twitterverse without misplacing a pass. The prospect of Hearts’ forgotten man starting a cup final in maroon, let alone scoring, would have seemed utterly ridiculous back then; sadly, the prospect of that goal being the winner lasted only ten minutes.
In keeping with a couple of recurring themes from this season, defensive brain-farts and lapses in concentration ultimately cost us, which was disappointing considering we had matched Celtic for 94 of the 95 minutes. At the same time, the disappointment didn’t linger like I expected it to.
In some respects, my post-match feelings were similar to the League Cup defeat to St Mirren back in 2013, when my gut feeling was that, over the course of the season, the squad hadn’t proven itself worthy of being considered cup-winning legends. In a strange way, this provided me with a measure of solace in defeat.
Similarly, after the way this season petered out, I couldn’t visualise the current squad in the same pantheon as the Classes of 1998, 2006 and 2012. However, unlike 2013, when we were staring into the abyss, I believe – despite recent performances and reservations about the manager’s own ability – that the current squad has the potential to get there.
Hearts supporters haven’t been shy about vocalising their displeasure with half-hearted performances, as the players will have discovered this season. However, the scenes at full-time on Saturday offered a reminder to the players that commitment, tenacity and passion will always guarantee a positive reception, even in defeat.
This wasn’t one of those “we lost the game but won the singing” moral victories that small-timers try to claim after they’ve just witnessed their team being humiliated. This was an acknowledgement of players who, having had their character and desire rightly questioned at various points this year, dug deep and put in the kind of performance the supporters had been crying out for in the weeks and months before.
It was an acknowledgement of where the club has come in a relatively short space of time. Granted, as the business side has strengthened, the past few seasons have seen us stutter and stall on the field, and the time for dissecting the specifics of those will come. Nevertheless, if you had told me on the day we left administration, as we embarked on a season in the second tier, that we’d mark the end of a “five year plan” by going toe-to-toe with Celtic in a Scottish Cup final, I may have questioned your sanity.
It was an acknowledgement that in panning the otherwise murky waters of our season, a handful of golden nuggets have been unearthed. When I saw the line-up, the thought of 16-year old Aaron Hickey being thrown into a game of that magnitude and tasked with marking the country’s Player of the Year in only his third professional appearance made me feel queasy.
Of course, that was me adopting the perspective of my own 16-year old self, whose arse would (and still does) collapse under the pressure of having to kick a stray ball back to a group in the Meadows. Hickey, by contrast, seemed utterly unfazed by the spectacle and ensured James Forrest’s impact on the game was minimal.
It was another highly promising performance from one of a handful of academy graduates who have emerged in the past couple of seasons, which not only points to a bright future but also vindicates the work being done at age-group level.
Of the many criticisms that can be levelled at Craig Levein in regard to his Hearts tenure, the state of our youth academy is certainly not one of them and may prove to be the cornerstone of his Hearts legacy long after he’s departed.
Meanwhile, as our rookie left back demonstrated a maturity beyond his years, Celtic captain Scott Brown, a man more than twice Hickey’s age, continued to exhibit his trademark classlessness by making a beeline for Uche as soon as the final whistle sounded.
People who defend Brown tend to go down the well-trodden route of “yeah, but you’d love to have him in your team though, wouldn’t you?” If Brown wasn’t such a limited player, then I could maybe get on board with that school of thought. The fact that he has forged a successful and decorated career by shit-housing his way through matches to compensate for his technical shortcomings isn’t actually an issue for me. I love a bit of shit-housing – Steven Naismith is an absolute master of it – and if an opponent is naïve enough to fall for it to his (and his team’s) disadvantage, then bigger fool him.
However, when the final whistle has gone and the game is won, you have to question the measure of a man whose first reaction – having just captained the largest club in the country to an historic third treble in a row – is not to savour this career-defining moment with his own team-mates and supporters, but to seek out an opponent to goad him.
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The gulf in resources may be seen as an easy excuse at times, but given the way Hearts matched Celtic for the vast majority of the game, you’d have thought Brown would at least have had the self-awareness and decorum to acknowledge how closely he and his colleagues (as overwhelming pre-match favourites) had been run and congratulate his counterparts on a hard-fought contest. Instead, his actions were akin to me buying my first house and rather than pop a cork with my wife, marking the occasion by running down the street to laugh in the face of a homeless person.
If that’s the kind of man you’d want in your team, let alone captaining it, then you and I are unlikely to see eye-to-eye on many other issues and this blog probably isn’t for you. Scott Brown has achieved, and may still achieve, significant milestones with Celtic that would usually seal legendary status within the wider Scottish game, let alone his own club. His antics on Saturday show why, in years to come, I don’t believe he’ll ever be spoken of as a great professional or leader by many beyond the perimeter of Parkhead.
In the meantime, the Hearts players will head into the summer break with both the disappointment of a cup final defeat and the ovation they received in the aftermath fresh in their minds. Supporters will hope they can carry those feelings into next season and not only use them as an incentive to get back to Hampden, but channel them into a more successful league campaign.