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Looking back on an extraordinary Scottish Cup Final

After a seemingly interminable wait, the long-awaited Scottish Cup final proved to be the most dramatic for nearly three decades. Celtic hoped this final foray into the bizarre 2019/20 season would grant an escape from the grim realities of 2020/21; Hearts chased the reverse, something to show for an otherwise truly miserable campaign. Celtic must surely be credited for completing a historic Quadruple-Treble, but it should never have been so uncertain. Posterity will mainly remember that they did it, but in the immediate aftermath what stands out is how fabulously, tortuously, enthrallingly close it was. Hearts were valiant, if scrappy, and certainly did not give the impression of a lower-league side, but nor did Celtic exhibit much in the way of top-flight superiority.

In retrospect, Celtic’s first half ruthlessness is the most perplexing part of the story. There may be no accounting for goals of the quality of Ryan Christie’s 19th minute opener, but Hearts gave away a wholly unnecessary penalty, dispatched by Odsonne Edouard with an outrageous Panenka, and by the break looked so soundly beaten that Billy Dodds even questioned whether they would dare attempt to pull one back in the second half.

Yet Robbie Nielson’s men did not roll over and indeed ran roughshod over the champions for long periods of the second half. Within three minutes of the restart Liam Boyce had nodded home a free header from former Rangers midfielder Andy Halliday’s cross. Following on from this statement of intent that Edinburgh’s cup final representatives would not meekly accept defeat, another moment of calamitous Celtic defending allowed substitute Josh Ginnelly to race through on goal, only to provide a tame finish.

Ginnelly would quickly redeem himself with the assist for Hearts’ equaliser, when Celtic’s young goalkeeper Conor Hazard flapped at Ginnelly’s teasing corner, which instead fell to Stephen Kingsley, who was able to belatedly celebrate after the referee received confirmation that Kingsley’s header had indeed crossed the line by a few centimetres. Celtic’s position of total dominance had been completely thrown away; Hearts should be credited for their defiant response, but their chances should not have come anywhere near as easily as they did.

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That this extraordinary game continued into extra time felt like a treat, with Leigh Griffiths teeing up a fairytale ending for Celtic; what better respite from troubles off the pitch could there be for the boyhood Hibs fan than snatching the winner against Hearts? Craig Gordon parried Scott Brown’s initial header but could do nothing about Griffith’s rocket into the roof of the net on the rebound. Once again however the lead was not to last, and this time it was Ginnelly who found the net after Hazard’s Adrian-esque walkabout attempting to meet Olly Lee’s cross.

It still feels lamentable that such a game would be decided by the brutality of a penalty shootout, but so it was that Craig Gordon exploited his knowledge of his former teammates’ spot kick habits, guessing correctly to save Christie’s effort and put Hearts on the verge of a first major trophy since 2012. Yet in a final twist, Hazard redeemed himself by keeping out a feeble attempt from Steven Kingsley before his save from Craig Wighton clinched the trophy for Celtic.

Whether Hazard’s shootout heroics atone for the fact that it never should have reached that point is debatable, but those who are all too eager to pile into a 22-year-old should remember that it was Celtic’s questionable transfer policy that left them to throw an unproven keeper into a cup final – the club hierarchy must now surely regret allowing Fraser Forster to return to bench warming duties at Southampton in the summer.

With that, history was made. Will Celtic care that it was so close? As the first and likely only ever Scottish team to win four consecutive domestic trebles (and a record 40th Scottish Cup), they have every right to enjoy the culmination of so much sustained effort. Nevertheless, it must surely play on minds at Parkhead that they seemingly had this game wrapped up on multiple occasions, only for the same mistakes to take them to the brink on three separate occasions.

As for Hearts, their valiant efforts will provide only scant comfort amid the regret of having had a lacklustre Celtic on the ropes in consecutive cup finals and failing to deliver the killing blow on either occasion. Their first half performance was one to forget, but the tenacity of their fightback was commendable, and if that second half performance can be maintained, promotion is a mere formality.

Image: M. Le Roy via Wikimedia Commons