THE thinking before this game, if Inverness Caley Thistle were going to win it, was that they would require the luck of Falkirk in the other semi-final, making the absolute most of a single opportunity while the opposition scorned 20 of them.
Or that they would require Celtic to have woken up for this early kick-off thinking it was 2000 all over again, replicating the madness of the John Barnes era when Mark Viduka had a boot-hurling hissy-fit, which wasn’t a surprise, and Lubo Moravcik put through his own goal, which was.
But what chance of a repeat of “Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious” when Ronny Deila has even the most determined donut-scoffers in his team singing from the same menu-sheet and surging ever onwards towards a treble?
Well, Inverness started nice and bright. Ryan Christie, their young playmaker, began the way most 21-year-olds on the wide, open prairie of Hampden would, with a gasping run for the ball, only to be easily dispossessed. But he quickly got the pace of the game to despatch cute balls from the edge of the box as John Hughes’ men showed no signs of nerves, to the delight of their small army of fans, treated horribly by the timing of this match and required to make the trek from the Highlands by road.
Christie had featured in the best story in the lead-up, with his dad and Caley Thistle legend Charlie revealing he hadn’t yet opened his man-of-the-match champagne from 2000 and was keeping it until the lad won a Scotland cap. Could ICT give him another cause to uncork the bubbly by reaching their first-ever Scottish Cup final? Just as we were admiring their early endeavours, Celtic woke up. First Nir Biton skelped the junction of bar and post from 20 yards and then Ryan Esson had to dive full length to save from Leigh Griffiths, pictured. Both these efforts would have made for spectacular goals, but the one from which Virgil van Dijk gave Celtic the lead wasn’t bad either. Gary Warren was booked for a foul on James Forrest, ruling him out of the final were Inverness to get there, and the big Dutchman showed why Griffiths and Kris Commons must stand and watch whenever a threatening free kick is awarded.
Esson, who wasn’t expecting to be playing until Dean Brill’s horrible injury the previous weekend, had no chance with Van Dijk’s strike, but he kept ICT in the game with another fine stop from Stefan Johansen. The Highlanders tried to respond and opportunities fell to Edward Ofere. They weren’t easy ones but both times – from a penalty-box stramash and a Graeme Shinnie cross – decisive contact proved beyond him.
Inverness were still very much in it but in the last minute of the first half they almost weren’t. Josh Meekings clearly handled a goal-bound Griffiths header. His immediate reaction wasn’t meek, rather: “How the hell did I get away with that?” Deila and his players were raging and so were the Celtic hordes. “You’re just a h*n with a whistle,” they sang, although in truth referee Steven McLean was unsighted and should have been helped out by the other officials.
Caley Thistle’s next best chance, shortly after the break, again involved Ofere – a long run which took him into the Celtic box, only for him to cross ineffectually instead of shoot. But Marley Watkins made an identical surge in the 54th minute, resulting in the game’s other big moment. There was no quibble about Craig Gordon’s red card for bringing down the striker after he had dinked the ball past the goalkeeper. Greg Tansey, after a long wait to take the spot-kick, held his nerve to equalise.
Could Inverness keep theirs and make history, inspiring newspaper sub-editors to even greater headline heights? They had to be big at this moment, not fear a Celtic resurgence over injustices real or perceived. They had to really want to be in the final. Shinnie certainly looked like he did, a buccaneering full-back who was owning the left flank. Young Christie seemed to want to be back at Hampden, playing with exuberance, almost putting Tansey through again. And Ofere, possibly relieved his misses no longer looked like they might form part of a hard-luck story for his team, was playing like he believed, too.
Celtic weren’t atrocious, but even accounting for the numerical disadvantage, they had fallen out of the game to an alarming degree. Inverness passed quickly and cleverly, making them chase the ball, and then hounded Scott Brown when he was in possession. Deila, standing at the very edge of his area, was agitated. Meanwhile Yogi sat on a wall, waiting for destiny.
Christie had the first sight of goal in extra time with a rasping left-footer and then Ofere threatened to become the hero by putting Inverness ahead. The Highland contingent were in raptures. Even though their team were in complete control, this was the stuff of dreams. Chants inviting their opponents to shove their treble seemed premature and so it proved, a free kick by John Guidetti caught out Esson and threatened to ruin the goalie’s fine performance and his day. But David Raven won it for Inverness after the move of the match. They needed a bit of fortune, and for Celtic to be slightly off their game, but make no mistake, ICT were super. Headline writers, over to you.