Hearts’ whole season now effectively boils down to this Sunday’s League Cup final.
Lose to St Mirren and it will end up one of the grimmest campaigns in recent memory for the Tynecastle club, with the lingering sense of a botched opportunity merely accompanying the depression of seeing out the campaign in the bottom six against a backdrop of serious off-field uncertainty.
Win it, however, and Hearts will have had a magnificent season in the circumstances – even if they end up 11th in the SPL. Football folk routinely trot out the tiresome old line about the league being the “bread and butter”, but no Hibs fan dwells on the fact a side containing Steven Fletcher, Scott Brown, Guillaume Beuzelin, Merouane Zemmama, Dean Shiels and Steven Whittaker only finished sixth in the 2006/07 season. All that matters from that campaign is that they won the League Cup by thrashing Kilmarnock 5-1 on a snowy March day at Hampden.
Likewise, most Hearts fans couldn’t care a jot that arguably the strongest squad in the SPL outwith the Old Firm stuttered to a fifth-place finish last season. All they’re bothered about now is what happened on the very last day of the campaign – the 5-1 victory over Hibs in the Scottish Cup final. Had Hearts been knocked out by Celtic in the semi-final last April, last term would have gone down as one of their most underwhelming in recent years, notable mainly for the onset of financial gloom and a 5-0 humbling at the hands of Tottenham.
That’s the thing with collecting silverware, though: it trumps everything else in football and renders any troubles temporarily irrelevant. Cup wins are the landmark moments for everyone in the game; the days when ordinary players can become club legends. In 50 years’ time anyone looking back at the history books will note that Hearts or St Mirren won the Scottish League Cup in 2013. No-one will delve deep enough to discover – and frankly no-one will care – that the winner of one of Scotland’s most prominent trophies endured a wretched league campaign, beset by an inability to score goals away from home. The problem for anyone from a future generation reading a match report or scouring the Hearts team sheet from this Sunday, however, is that it won’t tell the whole story.
If the Gorgie side win the cup everyone on the pitch will deserve the plaudits that come their way. However, for Hearts, this final should be just as much about acknowledging the considerable efforts of others who have done their bit in getting them there but are unable to participate for one reason or another.
There can be few teams, after all, whose cup final line-up – and coaching team – bears such little resemblance to the one that kicked off the tournament. Only five players who took part in the opening game on their Road to Hampden – a 3-1 win over Livingston in September – are available to contest the final, while just seven remain available from the stirring penalty shootout win atDundee United on Halloween.
None of Hearts’ scorers from those first two games will feature at Hampden, with suspension and injury putting paid to the dreams of Danny Grainger, Marius Zaliukas and Callum Paterson. Meanwhile, envy is sure to be the chief emotion this weekend for the globe-trotting Ryan McGowan and Andrew Driver, two men who grew to love Hearts and who left with a heavy heart to help ease the financial noose around the club’s neck. What they’d give to be playing for Hearts on Sunday.
And then there’s John McGlynn, pictured. Only his most heartless critic won’t have sympathy for the ousted manager as he looks in from the outside on what should have been the proudest day of his working life. Say what you like about McGlynn’s reign – and plenty already have – but it is unlikely Hearts would have had this day out to look forward to had he not held his nerve and remained of an attacking mindset when his team went down to ten men in each of the two previous rounds.
If a patched-up Hearts side can somehow complete what would be a triumph of collective resilience, the efforts of those unable to be part of the occasion shouldn’t be forgotten.