A season which, particularly for Hearts fans, has been the strangest of campaigns, had one last twist of fate up its sleeve, and at last a positive one for the beleaguered Jambos. The newly second-tier side dispatched first division neighbours Hibernian to set up a return to Hampden Park for their second straight Scottish Cup Final clash with Celtic.
Not even the boldest Jambo would have claimed Hearts were having a normal season in 2019/20, but in March it seemed there was at last a spark of life appearing in what had been a truly dire campaign, after they beat Rangers to book their place in the semi-finals before following it up with a convincing league win at Easter Road.
That was of course, in the halcyon pre-lockdown time and amounted to far too little, far too late. Once that semi-final fixture took place 245 days later, in an empty Hampden, seven members of the team that beat Rangers, not to mention manager Daniel Stendel, had departed, and Hearts were a Championship side once more.
On the other side of the capital, Hibernian went into the semi-final unbeaten in six games and had plenty of reasons to be confident as they lined up against a Hearts team with only two league games under their belt. Yet they largely failed to act on their early supremacy until Kevin Nisbet’s point-blank header forced a fine reflex save from Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon in the 38th minute, the former Scotland no. 1 showing exactly why he was brought in from Celtic this summer.
To their credit, Hibs began the second half even stronger, causing Hearts’ new manager Robbie Nielsen to bring on Steven Naismith and Peter Haring whom he had previously sought not to risk. The effect was almost instant. Within minutes Haring won the ball in midfield, feeding Naismith to start a move which culminated in Olly Lee’s floated cross being met by fellow substitute Craig Wighton, for only the second goal of his Hearts career.
The Gorgie Boys’ lead proved short-lived, with Christan Doidge nudging home Joe Newell’s excellent free kick delivery to equalise just seven minutes later. Hearts really should have finished things in the 73rd minute, when Naismith’s ferocious pressing won a loose ball which he played through to Liam Boyce, only for the Hearts marksman to dither and produce a toothless finish.
That miss did however allow for one of the wildest 15-minute periods this storied fixture has seen. It took just 38 seconds of the second period of extra time for Hibs to be awarded a contentious penalty, after Newell went down following seemingly minimal contact from Mihai Popescu. Nisbet smashed the ball against the crossbar, and Hearts bombed down the pitch only for Boyce to be denied the chance to be a hero again by the woodwork.
With the game finally feeling like two great rivals fighting for a place in a final, Aidy White was tripped on the edge of the penalty area after yet another Hearts surge and Willie Collum awarded the second penalty in just four minutes. Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano guessed correctly but was unable to stop Boyce from finally becoming the man of the hour, continuing his rotten luck when facing spot kicks in semifinals having stopped none of Scotland’s five penalties in the Nations League play-off shoot out with Israel.
The response was almost poetry in motion. McGinn, having conceded the penalty, whipped in a ball for a spectacular scissor kick effort from Doidge, only to be denied redemption by Gordon once more. The full-time whistle finally blew on a game which ultimately reached the breathless intensity expected from Edinburgh derbies.
Hearts are only the tenth second-tier team to reach the Scottish Cup final in the last century. Of those, only East Fife and Hibernian have gone on to win, meaning Hearts now hope to emulate their neighbours’ 2016 triumph over Old Firm opposition.
Illustration: Eve Miller