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Going to Hampden Again

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It feels strange to be sitting down in the week after a derby win without the usual overwhelming urge to pen a gloating brag-piece. After all, we’ve just vanquished our rivals to book our place in a second consecutive Scottish Cup final, despite our lower league status making us the pre-match underdogs. Such a post-derby reflection should really write itself, but for a few days I found myself debating how to start it, if at all.

Though Covid restrictions had already created a sense of physical remoteness from Saturday’s on-pitch proceedings, the news of Marius Zaliukas’ tragic passing left me feeling just as distant mentally as I sat watching the game at home. It felt silly to be getting het up about misplaced passes and dodgy refereeing decisions while contemplating the gut-wrenching injustice of someone so young being taken from their family by such a cruel illness. The result of a football match seemed frankly immaterial.

And yet, for Hearts fans, our memories of football players are set almost exclusively against the rich tapestry of our club, its achievements and its history. Marius Zaliukas is a prominent symbol of one of the most momentous days in that history, the biggest Edinburgh Derby victory, which unfolded inside the same stadium in the same competition. 

Though of course bittersweet, Saturday’s win was therefore a fitting tribute in the circumstances and to not wholeheartedly celebrate that would be a disservice to a player of his standing. A man who, following that result back in 2012, was one of the first to remind Hibs fans what the score was when they met for the first time the following season. If there is an afterlife, I’d like to think that as soon as the full-time whistle went, he was riding around on a mechanical toy car with a mischievous grin across his face as he flashed the “5-1” to every Hibs fan in sight. “Getting it right up them” is exactly what Marius would have done and what he would want us all to do in his absence.

That two of the key influencers on the weekend’s win, Robbie Neilson and Craig Gordon, were former teammates of Zaliukas only added to the significance. 

For Neilson in particular, his derby record had become somewhat of an albatross around his neck towards the end of his first spell in charge of the club, with question marks over his approach to the fixture and a vocal minority of fans who simply couldn’t forgive the Scottish Cup exit to Hibs in 2016, a defeat exacerbated a hundredfold (or 114-fold to be exact) when the trophy eventually wound up in Leith for the first time since 1902. 

If there were any fears that Neilson would continue to downplay the fixture upon his return to the club, they were swiftly dispelled as it became increasingly clear that an 11-week pre-season schedule had been designed with Saturday’s semi-final at the forefront of his mind. When giving his thoughts last week in the build-up to the match, Neilson confirmed as much when he said:

“I’m more than confident. It was the reason we came back so early. I came in the middle of June and we knew this game was coming. We weren’t sure exactly when it would be but we knew it would be towards the start of the season, hence the reason I spoke to Ann about coming in a lot earlier. Yes, it was to get off to a good start in the league but – to be honest – it was really to make sure we were ready for this game.”

Since returning to the club, Neilson has exuded a bullishness and swagger we saw very little of during his first stint in charge, much of which will have been stoked by the unjust circumstances the club found itself in over the summer. 

Talk is notoriously cheap in this game, however, and translating that siege mentality into the players’ performances was always going to be the mark of Neilson’s management this season. The wins against Raith Rovers and Dundee last month offered signs of how that might look, but (with the greatest of disrespect to both teams) neither carried the same magnitude or threw up as capable an opponent as Saturday’s derby.

To come out on top after 120 gruelling minutes against a side with more competitive miles on the clock this season was as convincing a demonstration of this team’s fighting spirit as we have seen so far. Neilson’s hand in that – both in the lead up to and during the game – cannot be understated and went some way to exorcising the memory of money-spinners past.

Often lamented in the past for what many perceived to be negative tactics in the “bigger” fixtures, his substitutions (particularly the introduction of Haring and Naismith) and subsequent change of shape turned the game in Hearts’ favour at a point when it looked as though Hibs were starting to generate some momentum. 

Not that we had it all our own way, of course, and though the game felt pretty even throughout, the fact that our goalkeeper picked up the man of the match award tells you how close we came on a few occasions to a different outcome entirely. For the nth time already this season, we find ourselves worshipping the ground on which Craig Gordon walks, having witnessed him pull off yet another world-class save – this time from Kevin Nisbet’s first-half header – to keep us in a game.

It is also at this point that I feel it is necessary to salute Nisbet himself, who it later transpired had taken to the field despite dealing with the tragic loss of his father earlier that week. Such was the level at which Nisbet performed throughout the match that on another day, against a different goalkeeper, we would surely have been talking about him as the match-winner. 

That his missed penalty in extra-time proved such a key turning point in the context of the game will have only compounded his suffering, which no individual with the slightest modicum of compassion could take any joy from. 

Some things are more important than the outcome of a football match though, and while I’m sure he would have loved to dedicate a winning goal to his father’s memory, stepping onto the field in the first place and performing as admirably as he did was something he should be incredibly proud of. 

As Jack Ross conceded afterwards, games like this often come down to the fine margins and on this occasion it was the width of a crossbar. A lucky let-off? Written in the stars? Either way, it feels like a just reward for everything we endured over the summer and means that, five days before Christmas, we’ll be (as a wise man himself once proclaimed)…

Thanks for reading. Click here to visit the JustGiving page that was set up to raise money for MND Scotland in Marius Zaliukas’ memory. Please give what you can. At the time of writing, the page has already raised over £4,000.00, which is incredible.

Rest easy, Zal.

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