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The fall before the pride

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As a general rule, whenever Hearts lose, I prefer to reflect for a period before putting any thoughts on the match into writing.

Football, by its very nature, is an emotional sport and often that emotion – particularly in times of adversity – can be so raw in the immediate aftermath that it clouds all rationality. 

Last year, for example, I took the best part of a week before writing anything about our Scottish Cup final defeat to Celtic. However, on this occasion – in this most chaotic, emotionally draining of years – I wanted that rawness to dictate what appears on the page.

So here I am firing up my laptop on Monday morning to make a start on this, with no plan or pre-conceived structure for what I’m about to type, just the vague hope that whatever comes out provides some catharsis after one of the most gut-wrenching defeats I’ve witnessed as a Hearts supporter.

I’ve always been an overly cautious football supporter, never allowing myself to become too confident about a particular result, even when we’re enjoying the most ludicrous advantages. In the 2012 final, for example, my nerves didn’t fully settle until the fifth goal went in. Similarly, when we ended Celtic’s “Invincibles” run, it wasn’t until we were 4-0 up that I finally started to relax. 

Yet, when Craig Gordon saved Ryan Christie’s penalty on Sunday, I fully believed we were going to win, a belief that only intensified when I saw Stephen Kingsley – man of the match on the day and one of the best strikers of a ball in this Hearts team – stepping up for the fourth penalty to consolidate our lead in the shootout. 

Having come back from 2-0 down in normal time and again from 3-2 down in extra-time, it was all gearing up to be a perfect comeback story, rounded off by the heroic ex-Celtic goalkeeper ending his former teammates’ quadruple treble hopes to win the cup for his boyhood club and its supporters, in a year when so much had already gone against us.

That it didn’t pan out as such was, at least from our perspective, an outcome befitting 2020 – an outcome befitting the weekend even, when you consider it wasn’t the first time in the preceding 24 hours that we had all seen the prospect of a morale-boosting event dangled in front of us and then cruelly snatched away at the last possible moment. I’ve never cried after a defeat for fear of being immortalised as a meme, but Christ I came close on Sunday in the privacy of my own home. 

Just as I had accepted long before “Christmas bubble” plans were pitched that I wouldn’t be spending time over the festive season with relatives I’ve only seen on screens since the summer, it was at a similarly early stage in the match when I resigned myself to the fact that a cup win just wasn’t to be.

Even before kick-off, the starting line-up hadn’t filled me with the greatest of confidence, not so much because of who was in it, but because of who wasn’t, most notably Peter Haring and Josh Ginnelly. Those concerns only increased as the first half unfolded and we struggled to find a way into the final third, let alone create chances to score, with a tame Christophe Berra shot from Andy Irving’s free-kick the closest we got to asking any questions of Conor Hazard and the ropey defence in front of him.

As Celtic took control, Haring’s omission became even more noticeable, with Andy Halliday in particular letting the occasion (and his opponents) get the better of him. Given Halliday’s well-documented affiliation with the blue half of the Glasgow divide, including him in such a fixture was always going to be a risk versus reward situation. The hope, of course, was that he would channel his desire to beat Celtic into a positive performance; instead, he lost the head after being penalised for a foul on Scott Brown – the kind of reaction that makes an opponent putty in the Celtic captain’s hands – and was ineffective for much of the first half.

Another player whose place in the starting line-up had been the subject of pre-match debate was Christophe Berra, with many of the centre back’s detractors (memories of the winning goal in last year’s final still fresh in their minds) harbouring concerns over how he would handle Odsonne Edouard. Any apprehension about Berra’s inclusion would not have been helped, therefore, when he inexplicably threw his arms up in the air to gift Celtic a completely avoidable penalty and the Frenchman an opportunity to double their first half lead.

At the halfway stage on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline, if you had dangled the prospect of extra time in front of me, I would have performed unspeakable acts to make it happen. At the time, my only expectation for the remainder of the game was damage limitation, having seen nothing in the first half to suggest we were capable of any form of fightback. How wrong that turned out to be. 

Despite initial misgivings about how he set us up at the start, the changes made by Robbie Neilson in the second half set the first half game plan in context and suggested why certain individuals started the afternoon on the bench – in short, to sit in and frustrate Celtic in the hope of unleashing Ginnelly’s pace on a tiring, error-prone defence. But for a Ryan Christie wonder-strike from outside the area and Berra’s aforementioned moment of madness, it might have worked. Despite enjoying the lion’s share of the ball while playing in what looked like second gear, Celtic created little else of note in the opening period.

The fact that the second half changes worked so well made those freak first-half moments all the more regrettable. Even before Ginnelly was brought on just short of the hour-mark, the increased pressure on Celtic’s back line had already paid off a matter of minutes into the second half, with Halliday and Aidy White offering more than they had in the entire first half as both combined to set Liam Boyce for our first goal.

However, the introduction of the Preston loanee was the very definition of a game-changing substitution, not just because he set up Kingsley’s equaliser and levelled the score himself in extra-time, but because his energy, pace and directness ramped the pressure up to 11, pinning Celtic’s defenders back and allowing them far less time on the ball – qualities Hearts have been badly lacking in his absence and why many hope a pre-contract deal will be top of incoming Sporting Director Joe Savage’s to-do list when he arrives from Deepdale himself in January.

It seems remiss to focus solely on Ginnelly’s efforts when his was a level of performance replicated throughout the whole team in the second half onwards. However, there are only so many ways I can praise each player’s desire and commitment; qualities that have been conspicuous by their absence in recent seasons.

After the 2019 final defeat, I comforted myself with the view that, despite their valiant efforts on the day, many of the players in that side simply hadn’t shown those qualities consistently enough throughout the season to earn the same cup-winning legend label given to the classes of 1998, 2006 and 2012. 

While we all hoped it would inspire an improvement, the following season’s shambles only exposed it as another false dawn and further exacerbated the disconnect between the players and fans. From our relatively fortuitous path to the final to Ryan Edwards’ goal on the day itself, everything about last year’s cup run seems rather flash-in-the-pan when you look back. A brief period of happiness in an otherwise unhappy marriage.

This year feels different. Having since cut ties with many of those involved in the 2019 final, it feels like we’re back in the early stages of an exciting new relationship with a squad that has reminded us what it’s like to love. We can’t say for certain now they are “the ones” but it certainly feels like there is cup-winning potential in this squad. Something to build a future on.

In a video recap of the game posted by Hearts on Twitter, it abruptly cuts to black in Sopranos-esque fashion as soon as Ajer’s penalty hits the net. Of course, this isn’t exactly designed to leave you guessing as to what happened – we all know how it ended – but it does create a feeling of open-endedness as far as this particular Hearts squad is concerned, in terms of where it’s heading and the unfinished business this leaves them with.

When Hearts went down fighting in the 1996 Coca-Cola Cup final against Rangers, the 4-3 defeat was later regarded as a seminal moment in that squad’s journey to Scottish Cup glory in 1998. In the past few days, many have compared that performance 24 years ago to Sunday’s and it feels like a fitting comparison in the circumstances.

In hindsight, the embarrassment of an absolute hammering would probably have been less painful and far easier to process on the day.  But there would also have been no lasting feeling of pride in that whatsoever. There have been many things wrong with Hearts in the past few years but arguably the most damning of them has been the players’ continual failure to earn respect from the stands. It is unfortunate, therefore, that none of us were in attendance on Sunday to show how far their efforts have gone to mending that.

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